Wausau Report Highlights Need for Centralized Teacher Evaluations in Wisconsin

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Teacher evaluations have long been more of a formality than a learning experience for public school administrators. Many of these sessions fail to accurately gauge how educators are performing in their classrooms. Recently, only five out of 2,424 Milwaukee Public School teachers earned “unsatisfactory” marks while the vast majority passed their exams with little meaningful feedback.

The Wausau Daily Herald suggests that these issues aren’t just relegated to Wisconsin’s largest cities.

The paper recently released a study that suggests that evaluations in the four largest Wausau-area districts are ineffective and inefficient for public school instructors. These results were not encouraging. Student achievement did not play a significant role in any of the district’s administrative procedures, and good and bad teachers earned the same levels of income regardless of their progress reports.

Teacher evaluations seem to have little-to-no impact on the teachers and staff that they are meant to grade. While the strongest teachers may earn high marks, there is ultimately little that sets them apart from teachers that grade out poorly but still pass inspection. As a result, good and bad teachers can be lumped together in a system that allows mediocrity to be a pillar of evaluation.

The issue of tying student performance to teacher evaluations has been a tenuous one in Wisconsin. It became a topic of discussion during the state’s application for federal Race to the Top money. These grants would have required that teacher evaluations include student performance as an indicator of a teacher’s abilities.

While some local districts were willing to include this provision, the vast majority balked at the caveat that any administrative action could be tied to this data. This included policies like merit pay and disciplinary action. As a result, these evaluations would have been neutered versions of what they were supposed to be; an ineffective tool that expands the scope of what we know about a teacher’s performance but is ultimately unable to do anything about it.

Revelations about how many teachers have been terminated after gaining tenure were another eye-opener in the study. Administrators in D.C. Everest, Merrill, Mosinee, and Wausau could only recall one case where a tenured teacher had been fired – the result of a conviction for having sexual contact with a minor. While this may mean that the districts’ teachers are performing capably, this number seems especially low amongst the over 1,400 educators employed in these schools.

Wausau Human Resources Director Jeff Gress suggests that this low number is thanks to many low-performing teachers being “counseled out” of their positions before administrative action is needed. Still, it seems to be a small figure given the depth of staff in these schools. In the D.C. Everest School District, 20 teachers earned discipline letters between 2006 and 2011. None were fired, though five did resign.

The issue of grading teachers and schools is a problem that exists across Wisconsin. However, a system is in place to improve the way that educators are evaluated and allow for greater transparency in neighborhood schools. A team of legislators, educations, and local leaders has combined to create a task force in order to improve school accountability. This new system will phase out the old No Child Left Behind method with a more comprehensive and state-specific program. We have previously discussed the group’s work here.

While this program will focus more on grading schools than on individual teachers, it will take a step towards focusing on accountability in Wisconsin’s classrooms. This won’t solve the problem on a singular teacher-by-teacher level, but it will help thrust the issue of comprehensive evaluations into the spotlight.

Good educators should be rewarded for their skills. Bad ones shouldn’t be treated similarly. Though the issue of finding a way to gauge these talents and abilities is still up in the air, few would disagree that a more comprehensive system of teacher grading is a good thing.

The Daily Herald’s report emphasizes the need for change. It won’t be easy, but it will have an impact. Wisconsin’s schools need to find a way to lift up their best teachers and ensure that struggling ones get the guidance they need. Until then, the state’s public schools will continue to operate with little formal awareness of the skills of their educators.