Inside NYU Steinhardt: Sean Corcoran on Teacher Evaluations

What makes an effective teacher and how to measure teacher quality is the topic of NYU Steinhardt’s Education Policy Breakfast on February 24thSean Corcoran, an associate professor of educational economics in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, offers insight into the most pressing issues that shape the New York City education system.

Why is a teacher evaluation system important?

Teachers are the most important resource schools contribute to student learning. Recent studies suggest teachers vary widely in effectiveness, at least measured by their students’ progress on standardized tests. And while test scores don’t capture everything we expect from our students and their teachers, the variation in progress we observe is enough to conclude that teacher quality can make a big difference. Unfortunately, we haven’t done a good enough job evaluating and rewarding effective classroom teaching. Principals and teachers need a high-quality evaluation system to learn more about what works, recognize and improve upon practices that aren’t working, and identify teachers who are doing an exceptionally good—or exceptionally poor—job in the classroom.

Can you explain the recent agreement that was reached between the New York State Department of Education and the teachers’ union regarding a unified teacher evaluation system?

In 2010, New York passed a law that would base 20% of teacher evaluations on state test scores (through the use of “value-added” measures, for example), 20% on local test results, and 60% on other measures including classroom observation. The latter must follow a research-based rubric for classroom evaluation like the widely used Danielson framework. In a bit of a bait-and-switch, Governor Cuomo raised the bar and insisted the weight on state tests be increased to 40%. The agreement between the State Dept. of Education and the teachers’ union is a compromise that allows local districts to use state test scores as the local component, as long as they are used in a different manner. For example, state test scores could be used to assess the progress of certain subgroups of students, or overall school progress. Importantly, the local 20%—in addition to the 60% observational component—will be collectively bargained, meaning school districts and their union must agree upon a suitable system.

What are the pros and cons of this new system?

Unlike other state systems that place disproportionate weight on test scores, our new system takes a more balanced approach, relying on multiple measures of teaching effectiveness. It also provides substantial local flexibility, acknowledging that a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach cannot work in a diverse state like New York. It aims to treat educators like professionals who understand teaching and know their schools and communities best. Unfortunately, the fierce battle over how much test results should account for a teacher’s job evaluation reflects a basic lack of understanding of our ability to use test scores to infer teaching quality. Governor Cuomo and other hard-line education reformers like to emphasize the “bottom line,” arguing that teachers should be judged by their results in the classroom, period. While appealing in the abstract, inferring the effects of a teacher from a student’s test score is challenging, and not at all straightforward. (I discuss this issue in detail in this policy report). I do fear that over-confident legislators will seek to place even more emphasis on test scores in the future.

What role can NYU Steinhardt’s Education Policy breakfast play in this ongoing conversation to best develop and measure teacher quality and effectiveness?

The Steinhardt Education Policy breakfast provides the perfect forum to discuss this complicated matter. Creating an effective system of teacher evaluation is a technically complex and politically challenging task that requires the input of researchers, community members, educators and practitioners. If we hope to succeed in creating a useful and sustainable system, we need to maintain a constant and open dialogue and we hope to engage in such discourse at tomorrow’s event. Brainstorming new ideas or identifying targeted research opportunities can help move this conversation forward.

Read Balance is the Key to Success of the New Evaluation System by Sean Corcoran in the New York Times’ SchoolBook.