Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Anticipating Innovation in Teacher Evaluation Systems: Lessons for Researchers and Policymakers

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Anticipating Innovation in Teacher Evaluation Systems: Lessons for Researchers and Policymakers

Article excerpt

We are well accustomed to the speed of innovation and change in computers and mobile technology. Simply thumb through the tech pages of your Sunday newspaper, where you are sure to find reviews on the latest product releases. Chances are that the products you see reviewed there now--be they smartphones, e-readers, or tablet computers--bear little resemblance to the products that were featured on the same tech pages just five years before. This ever changing technological landscape is part of buying consumer electronics--we know what we buy today will soon be outdated. And, accordingly, we adjust our behavior to reflect this pace of innovation, particularly weighing the advantages of making a purchase today against the anticipated improvements of waiting for the next product release.

Conversely, we are less accustomed to innovation and change in the realm of education policy. Many of the schools we send our kids to today look almost indistinguishable from the ones we attended in past decades. The timing of policy change is hard to predict--it is stuck in neutral most of the time but periodically comes as a watershed. And, anticipating how the substance of future policy choices will vary from those of today is a difficult endeavor. Consequently, the seemingly mundane decision-making process between taking action today versus delaying in anticipation of future improvements becomes infinitely more complex.

This paper aims to inform this decision-making process for states and districts engaged in making policy decisions that affect the way we evaluate teacher performance. I speculate about the trajectory of innovation in teacher evaluation and where value-added models of teacher effectiveness factor into those changes. Many experts have commented and written about the technical aspects of value-added models, the costs and benefits of these decisions, and about how to adapt them into current evaluation frameworks. I, however, want to investigate how America's teacher evaluation "technology" may likely change in the near future, which will have implications for states' and districts' current and future policy adoption.

An Evolving Perspective of Teacher Performance

Research on the role of teachers in learning has undergone a substantial shift in recent years. The old model of education production envisioned schools as factories in which various inputs (teachers, funding, and curricula) are combined and transferred to students through the learning process, resulting in outputs in the form of student achievement and proficiencies in a broad sense. Yet the results apparent in a steady stream of research examining longitudinal data sources and spanning many states and years suggest this view does not match reality. (1) Given the variation in observed outputs (student achievement gains) from different classrooms, researchers such as Daniel Aaronson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and colleagues have come to the conclusion that teachers themselves are not simply uniform inputs. (2)

Rather, teacher effectiveness varies significantly, both across schools, where teachers of similar quality have a tendency to teach in the same school, and within schools, where teacher quality fluctuates between classrooms. This variation in teacher effectiveness accounts for more of the differences in observed student outcomes than differences in class size or instructional resources. (3) And, contrary to common belief, most of the variation in teacher quality occurs within schools rather than across schools. (4)

As a result of these and similar findings from new research on teacher quality, the consensus among scholars (recently articulated by economists Douglas Staiger and Jonah Rockoff) has shifted to reflect that the classroom is the real factory, and the school is simply a conglomeration of factories of varying effectiveness. (5) In this view, we should focus less on the whole school and more on the teacher. …

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