Reforms of teacher evaluation systems across the country during the last dozen years have largely failed their primary goal: To raise student academic performance.

That’s one of the findings of a study co-authored by UNC School of Education researcher Matthew Springer published as a working paper by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

The study, which its authors say provides the broadest and most generalizable evidence of the efficacy of teacher evaluation reforms in the U.S., concludes that despite billions of dollars spent reforming teacher evaluation systems, the reforms have had almost zero positive effect on student outcomes.

“These data show that on average across the country, teacher evaluation reforms haven’t had their intended effect,” said Springer, the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform. “We found that while linking teacher evaluations to student performance has worked in a few places, it has proved to be very difficult for most school districts to establish these systems in ways that contribute to better academic outcomes for students.”

Racing to nowhere

Before the reforms, teacher evaluations relied primarily on observations, had little direct connection to teacher compensation or employment, and saw nearly all teachers receiving satisfactory ratings, leaving no way to differentiate among the teachers’ performances, researchers have documented.

Reform proponents advocated that teacher evaluation systems that take into account student performance would make it possible for school districts to reward effective teachers, while also identifying lower-performing teachers in need of professional development or to be removed from their jobs.

Incentivized by the federal government’s Race to the Top grant competitions between 2009 and 2017, 44 states and the District of Columbia implemented reforms aimed at linking the evaluations of teachers to the academic performance of their students.

A team of researchers — Springer and colleagues from Michigan State University, Brown University and the University of Connecticut — set out to analyze the effects of the reforms, measuring student performance during the period 2009 to 2018 on standardized mathematics and English Language Arts exams, augmented with data on the student attainment outcomes of high school graduation and college enrollment.

The bottom line: The reforms had no discernable effect on student achievement in mathematics or English Language Arts and little effect on educational attainment.

The team went on to examine whether differences among teacher evaluation systems produced different results, finding that they did not.

Why didn’t the reforms work?

Previous studies have found that teacher evaluation reforms implemented in a few individual school districts and states — such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, Newark, Dallas, Tennessee and New Mexico — have shown positive impact on student achievement.

Analysis by Springer and team confirmed those findings, giving the team confidence in the validity of their analytical methods.

But, the team said, while the findings of successful reforms in a few places demonstrate that it is possible to create teacher evaluation systems that take into account student outcomes, the very few examples of success highlight the fact that it is difficult to do so. The experiences in those few districts and states are not generalizable across the nation as a whole, the researchers said.

The actual design and implementation of reformed evaluation systems across the country frequently failed to follow proven best practices for performance management systems, with the result being systems that only vaguely resembled what reformers had envisioned, the team said. As a result, reformed evaluation systems often were not meaningfully different than the status quo, the team said. Additionally, states that did adopt more rigorous features in their evaluation systems typically failed to sustain them over time.

The reform efforts also may have had unintended consequences of driving down job satisfaction among educators and imposing burdensome demands on administrators’ time, perhaps displacing other more productive activities, the team said.

To read a Q&A with Springer regarding the findings of the study, visit the School of Education website.

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