Wisconsin Needs Better Standards, Methods by which to Evaluate Teacher Performance

According to Milwaukee-area school principals, their teachers are almost uniformly great. So why are their students performing poorly in the classroom?

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel tackled the issue of teacher evaluations. Amongst the tales of lackluster teacher observations and questions about the criteria that educators should be graded on was a surprising figure; a staggeringly low amount of teachers rate as “unsatisfactory” or worse. Despite some of the lowest performing students in the state, these districts are highly likely to grade their teachers as “above average” or “exemplary” for their work in the classroom.

The report looked at evaluation results from Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Racine, and found that favorable reviews were the norm in these school districts. Of 3,267 teachers graded in 2010, only 133 were given marks that would equate to below average or worse. In MPS, just five of 2,424 instructors were deemed “unsatisfactory” while 101 more earned “needs improvement” on their report cards. In all, just four percent of all teachers in the area tested poorly when it came to their classroom evaluations.

Conversely, 925 teachers in Milwaukee graded out as “exemplary” – 38 percent of the tested teacher population. 380 educators in Racine were earned above average marks – 82 percent of their tested ranks. And 356 teachers in Waukesha earned a “met expectations” assessment – 94 percent. Every district has its own system for evaluating its employees – and each one seems to think that their teachers are doing better than fine, despite low test scores and problems in the classroom.

This brings a pair of problems to the forefront – a subjective, incompatible series of evaluations for teachers that can’t be easily transferred from one city to the next in Wisconsin, and a system that rewards even mediocre teachers with inflated grades.

What’s the difference between “exemplary” and “above average”? And what elevates these teachers to this standard? Beyond that, how can 82 percent of your population be “above average” in the first place? Doesn’t that strip the word “average” of its meaning in these evaluations?

The standards for teacher effectiveness are too low to hold any meaning. Coupled with the general lack of consequence behind these ratings makes them an inefficient use of administrator time in schools across the state. Teachers are likely to get a vague thumbs-up for their efforts regardless of how their students perform, and even mediocre performances are lumped into board categories that reward effective and ineffective teachers similarly.

What extra motivation is there for a teacher to truly stand out when their evaluation either lumps them in with 4/5ths of the population as “above average,” or with 925 of their peers as “exemplary” when there is no way to understand how they would stack up outside of their district? These evaluation systems are being handled with kid gloves, and it’s only serving to make teachers worse rather than better.

The inability to compare teachers across districts is similar to the ineffectiveness of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) and its place amongst the rest of the country. Like teacher evaluations, student results in Wisconsin are uniquely calculated and cannot be compared across state lines. Also like these evaluations, the WKCE’s standards are laughably low providing an illusion of quality and accountability that just aren’t there when you take a deeper look inside the classroom.

Wisconsinites were smart enough to realize the WKCE’s flaws and get the ball rolling to replace it. A new test is coming for students that will not only grade them appropriately, but make their results compatible for comparison across the nation. The state’s teachers need to be afforded this option as well. Schools, parents, and communities need to better understand the abilities of the educators in their public schools.

Effective teachers deserve more recognition than “met expectations.” Mediocre teachers need to learn a stronger lesson than what the label “satisfactory” places on them. As more and more of an onus is placed on effective teachers and the importance of professional development in public schools, there has been little talk on how to gauge what’s working. The current system doesn’t work – and teachers, parents, and especially the students deserve a better method of identifying the good from the bad when it comes to teaching.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst