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Minnesota’s new teacher-evaluation law among 17 given high marks

New teacher-evaluation laws in Minnesota and 16 other states have earned high marks from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

New teacher-evaluation laws in Minnesota and 16 other states have earned high marks from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Meanwhile, four states whose plans for identifying the best and worst teachers earned millions in federal stimulus dollars came in for criticism.

“Across the states, there is unprecedented momentum towards developing and implementing teacher evaluation systems that factor student achievement into teacher ratings,” the council reported [PDF].

In broad strokes, Minnesota’s law meets most of the goals advocated by the NCTQ, which advocates for reforms to teacher training, evaluation and compensation.

While it also enjoys the support of such disparate entities as the state’s largest teachers union, the Chamber of Commerce and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as a general framework, the new law has yet to translate to policy. And the details, its supporters agree, could be devilish.

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Details to come later
Exactly how the system will work for most teachers will be determined by a task force that has yet to be convened by the state Department of Education. Earlier this month, the agency appointed a panel that’s charged with working out how principals will be evaluated.

Until this year, the standardized tests administered in Minnesota schools did not measure individual pupil performance from one year to another, making it impossible to know whether a student got a year or more of learning during a particular grade.

That has changed, but there is still no way of tying an educator’s effectiveness to the outcome obtained by any particular student. Nor do most educators and policymakers believe the tests measure the right things.

They don’t necessarily tell administrators which highly effective teachers’ practices are ripe for replication, nor do they yield other data that would help improve teaching on the whole.

Nationwide, according to the NCTQ report, states are still struggling with how to evaluate performance in grades and subjects where standardized tests aren’t administered, to give all teachers useful feedback on their evaluations and to communicate the changes in a way that doesn’t make teachers nervous.

By the time Minnesota’s evaluations are phased in, the state should also have begun using more useful “growth-model” tests and be moving toward new standards for student proficiency.

‘Changing landscape’ applauded
Concluding that it’s all right if evaluation systems are works in progress, the NCTQ applauded the “changing landscape.”

Two years ago, only 15 states required annual teacher performance reviews, and in some states that did mandate evaluations five years could elapse between reviews. Today, 24 states and the District of Colombia require annual reviews; 14 require the use of student achievement as “the preponderant criterion.” 

“The move to rethink how to evaluate teachers and explicitly tie assessments of teacher performance to student achievement marks an important shift in thinking about teacher quality,” the report continued. “The change is significant because policymaking around improving teacher quality to date has focused almost exclusively on teachers’ qualifications rather than on their effectiveness in the classroom and the results they get with students.”

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Having a teacher evaluation system that incorporated data on student achievement and other measures was worth the most points in last year’s Race to the Top competition. Yet policies in RTTT winners Georgia, North Carolina and Massachusetts are too vague or too limited in scope, in the council’s view. Hawaii has yet to deliver a redesign that helped win its grant “in any significant way.”  

Coming a year too late to help win any stimulus dollars, the Minnesota law passed during this year’s legislative session gives “student achievement a significant, objective, meaningful and measurable role in how teacher performance is assessed,” according to the council.

A choice for districts
Districts may work with teachers union locals to come up with their own methods for evaluation, provided they meet certain requirements, or they can adopt procedures to be designed by the state task force.

The idea is to allow districts that have effective methods or promising pilot programs to continue to do what works while providing a fallback for localities that will struggle pressed to come up with ways to tie student academic achievement to the performance of a school nurse or band teacher.

And Minnesota has some districts that do an outstanding job using the evaluation process as an opportunity to nudge every instructor further down the path to excellence; task force members would do well to pay a visit to St. Francis, for example. 

Under the new law, 35 percent of a Minnesota teacher’s evaluation will be based on data regarding student achievement, engagement and commitment. In addition, teachers may present portfolios of student work that they feel shows evidence of growth.

Teachers who score poorly will be given support and a timeline toward becoming more effective. Minnesota does not yet mandate the firing of ineffective teachers.

Finally, hot on the heels of the NCTQ report, another study found that teachers who perform well in terms of student outcomes also are likely to score well when observed by evaluators. The finding should boost teacher confidence in a system of evaluations that incorporates multiple measures.