Research & Commentary: Objective Teacher Evaluations

Published November 12, 2012

In the past three years, more than 20 states have passed legislation modifying teacher evaluation systems, and more have committed to do the same in Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind waiver applications. Legislators and administrators have done so because decades of data have shown most evaluation systems rate nearly all teachers “satisfactory” despite glaring gaps in U.S. students’ knowledge, and poor teachers are nearly impossible to dismiss.

States have begun to incorporate objective data into teacher evaluations by tying some percent of a teacher’s evaluation to students’ learning improvements as measured by test score changes.

Critics of this approach come from both sides of the political spectrum. Teachers unions argue teachers cannot control the deep influence of their students’ home lives. They also say evaluations will create a hierarchy among teachers, which will lead to animosity and a competitive rather than cooperative school culture.

Researchers who support use of test score data in teacher evaluations typically don’t suggest making them the sole measure but instead a complement and a way of gauging whether objective information confirms subjective impressions. A teacher may be well-liked and charismatic but not particularly good at increasing students’ knowledge. It’s better to focus on a teacher’s effects on student achievement rather than specific behaviors or attributes from a list, they say. In addition, creating a hierarchy is necessary because poor teachers hold children back, which makes it essential to identify them and identify good teachers who can train others.

Observers with business and economic knowhow understand that even use of test scores is not enough, because tests cannot control for, say, students who don’t care about test results or learning. The best way to judge teachers, they say, is not through a grid imposed by state bureaucrats miles away, but by giving power to the people who know them through close experience—parents and administrators—to choose and promote excellent teachers while removing ineffective ones. Parents and administrators currently cannot do this because parents usually cannot choose their child’s school or teacher, and state laws and local union contracts prevent administrators from hiring and firing according to performance.

The following documents offer more information about tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.


Study: Carefully Crafted Evaluations Improve Teacher Performance, Student Scores
A recent study found Cincinnati’s Teacher Evaluation System improves midcareer teachers’ contribution to student test scores, reports Ashley Bateman in School Reform News. The authors found students of teachers who completed the year-long evaluation moved up 4.5 percentile points relative to their peers in math, and similarly in reading. As of summer 2011, 18 state legislatures had altered tenure or continuing contract policies, which rely heavily on evaluation determinations. Twelve states further amended such laws this year.

Merit Pay for Teachers Has Economic Flaws
Using test scores as the determinant of teacher pay misses what economist Friedrich Hayek called “tacit knowledge” and “local knowledge,” writes economist Arnold Kling for School Reform News. Many factors affect student test scores, meaning scores are a noisy indicator of teacher performance. People closest to the teacher, including peers, principals, and parents, have more information about teacher quality than what can be obtained by remote administrators relying on test scores. Kling explains how data-based systems have failed in the private sector and suggests an alternative.

Can School Performance Be Measured Fairly?
Countless sectors have learned quantitative measurement can improve decision-making, and it’s time for schools to do so, too, writes Marcus Winters in the New York Times. Value-added measurement shows how a particular teacher contributes to or detracts from her students’ learning. Although schools should not use such data as the sole measure of a teacher, it is reliable enough to incorporate in the evaluation. This would help address the nationwide problem that teacher evaluations do not indicate teacher quality at all.

Can Teacher Evaluation Improve Teaching?
Well-designed teacher-evaluation programs could directly improve individual teacher performance, and for the long term, write Eric S. Taylor and John H. Tyler in a study published by Education Next. They constructed the first study, to their knowledge, that tests the idea, using a sample of mid-career Cincinnati elementary and middle-school teachers. They found evaluating teachers improved their students’ achievement in reading and math during the evaluation year and several years later. Their students scored 4.5 percentile points higher in math than a similar student taught by the same teacher before the teacher was evaluated.

A Better Way to Pay: Five Rules for Reforming Teacher Compensation
Despite ongoing debates over teacher pay, merit pay systems, and pension benefits, there is broad agreement that teacher pay should be designed to recruit and retain the highest-quality teachers as cost-effectively as possible, writes Jason Richwine in this backgrounder for The Heritage Foundation. Policymakers should focus instead on performance pay rather than pay raises for all, by easing restrictions to entering the teaching profession and basing tenure decisions on performance. Value-added models help to identify the best teachers, but they should be used cautiously alongside other performance-based measures. Retirement benefits should take the form of 401(k)-style plans to avoid the cost overruns and irrational retirement incentives traditional pensions create.

2011 State Teacher Policy Yearbook
This fifth annual edition of the National Council on Teacher Quality’s State Teacher Policy Yearbook documents more changes in state teacher policy than any of its previous top-to-bottom reviews of the laws and regulations governing the teaching profession in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The yearbook explains and rates each state’s teacher policies, and documents recent changes.

Teacher Evaluation 2.0
This guide from The New Teacher Project proposes six design standards that any rigorous and fair evaluation system should meet: annual updates, clear and rigorous expectations, multiple performance measures, multiple evaluation ratings, regular feedback, and real consequences. It reviews the actions states have so far taken to revise teacher evaluations and the justifications for doing so, then discusses the research and reasoning supporting each of its six criteria.

Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers
Public school teachers in the United States are notoriously difficult to dismiss: after three years, most receive tenure, after a brief, subjective evaluation process where nearly none receives a negative rating, notes Marcus Winters in this Manhattan Institute report. He suggests an alternative: using value-added modeling to generate objective data on how each teacher performs, and use that data as part of teacher evaluations. Winters analyzes data from Florida public schools to show that a VAM score in a teacher’s third year is a good predictor of that teacher’s success in his or her fifth year. He then addresses the most effective ways to use VAM in tenure reform.

The Hangover: Thinking About the Unintended Consequences of the Nation’s Teacher Evaluation Binge
The flood of new legislative activity regarding teacher evaluations responds to obvious problems with old systems, but it also risks cementing premature solutions and imperfect metrics, write the three authors of this American Enterprise Institute report. The paper highlights four tensions to consider in developing new teacher evaluations: flexibility versus control, evolving systems, goals, and evaluating teachers as professionals. It discusses these at length and makes several policy recommendations, including: be clear about what new evaluations are intended to solve; do not mistake processes and systems as substitutes for cultural change; focus on improvement; and encourage innovation.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].