U.S. teacher evaluations fail to measure teacher effectiveness

By Ron Wilson, NAEN Executive Director

A new report from The New Teacher Project concludes that "A teacher's effectiveness-the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement-is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way (pg. 3)." The report released in June 2009, "The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness" by Daniel Weisburg, Susan Sexton, Jennifer Mulhern and David Keeling analyzed teacher evaluation processes in 12 districts across four states.

The report surveyed 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators. The specific districts surveyed are below:

  • Arkansas
    • El Dorado Public Schools
    • Jonesboro Public Schools
    • Little Rock School District
    • Springdale Public Schools
    • Colorado
      • Denver Public Schools
      • Pueblo City Schools
      • Illinois
        • Chicago Public Schools
        • District U-46 (Elgin)
        • Rockford Public Schools
        • Ohio
          • Akron Public Schools
          • Cincinnati Public Schools
          • Toledo Public Schools

          The "pervasive and longstanding failure" to utilize teacher effectiveness information is a phenomena the report calls the "Widget Effect." The report cites this effect as a pervasive fallacy where teachers are viewed as interchangeable parts, assuming their classroom effectiveness is the same across individual teachers. "In its [The Widget Effect] denial of individual strengths and weaknesses, it is deeply disrespectful to teachers; in its indifference to instructional effectiveness, it gambles with the lives of students (pg 4)."

          The institutionalized "indifference" of the Widget Effect is characterized by the following:

          • All teachers are rated good or great.
          • Excellence goes unrecognized.
          • Inadequate professional development.
          • No special attention to novices.
          • Poor performance goes unaddressed.

          Minimal performance evaluation practices of teachers based on short and infrequent observations by untrained administrators combined with the "expectation among teachers that they will be among the vast majority rated as top performers" has resulted in a system that is deeply engrained in the processed that govern teachers in the public schools according to the report.


          The report makes four interdependent recommendations that require implementation of all four initiatives in order to eliminate the widget effect and succeed in producing "the quantum leaps in student achievement our children deserve (pg. 27)." The following is a summary of the report recommendations (pgs. 27-30).

          Recommendation 1: 

          "Adopt a comprehensive performance evaluation and development system that fairly, accurately and credibly differentiates teachers based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement and provides targeted professional development to help them improve."

          The report identifies the characteristics of a credible evaluation system as one with:

          • "Clear and straightforward performance standards focused on student achievement outcomes.
          • Multiple, distinct rating options that allow administrators to precisely describe and compare differences in instructional performance.
          • Regular monitoring and norming of administrator judgment (e.g. through or with the aid of peer evaluations, independent or third party reviews, and/or [confidential] teacher surveys.
          • Frequent and regular feedback to teachers about whether and how their teaching performance meets, exceeds or fails to meet standards.
          • Professional development that is linked to the performance standards and differentiated based on individual teacher needs.
          • Intensive support for teachers who fall below performance standards."

          Recommendation 2: 

          "Train administrators and other evaluators in the teacher performance evaluation system and hold them accountable for using it effectively."

          "Administrators who cannot effectively evaluate teacher performance will be unable to reward and retain top performers, improve or remove poor performers, or help all teachers to understand and respond to their own strengths and weaknesses. This fundamental failure translates to an inability to ensure that students receive consistently high-quality instruction, a failing that administrators' own evaluations must reflect."

          Recommendation 3: 

          "Use performance evaluations to inform key decisions such as teacher assignment, professional development, compensation, retention and dismissal."

          The "fair and accurate" assessments of teacher effectiveness should be put to a broad use according to the report. These uses include:

          • "Modify teacher compensation systems, most of which are exclusively based on years of service and attainment of educational credits, so that they also reward high-performing teachers and withhold step increases for low-performing teachers.
          • "Factor teacher effectiveness into layoff and excessing (displacement) decisions, rather than basing such decisions solely on seniority.
          • "Target professional development to identified teacher needs so that it helps address areas where they can improve.
          • "Recognize consistently excellent teachers through additional compensation and career ladder opportunities as well as opportunities to employ innovative instructional approaches and share best practices with novices and other colleagues.
          • "Fairly but swiftly remove consistently low-performing teachers who are identified as such through a fair, credible evaluation process and who fail to meet performance standards despite receiving individualized support."

          Recommendation 4: 

          "Adopt dismissal policies that provide lower-stakes options for ineffective teachers to exit the district and a system of due process that is fair but streamlined and efficient."

          The report identifies some low-stakes exit options including:

          • Multi-year unpaid sabbaticals without job guarantees upon return;
          • Denial of yearly step increase unless and until performance standards are met; and
          • Allowing pension plan portability to other districts.

          The report acknowledges that the recommendations are ambitious and comprehensive but also to be pragmatic and achievable. The report also recognizes that transition costs are inevitable and that external funding may be needed.

          Reprinted with permission, NAEN Bulletin, July/August 2009, Volume 25, Issue 1, published by North American Association of Educational Negotiators.