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Incentives And Behavior In DC's Teacher Evaluation System


The only valid conclusion that can be drawn from the study’s methodology was reported by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown. “Rewards and punishments embedded in the District’s controversial teacher evaluation program have shaped the school system’s workforce, affecting both retention and performance,” Brown explained, but the report is “silent about whether the incentives have translated into improved student achievement.” Wyckoff and Dee compared teachers whose evaluation scores were close to the dividing lines for being considered a high performer or a low performer. This method could have been the first step in a valid social science study. Under the D.C. IMPACT system is that the lower-rated teacher’s job is at risk, and thus has a strong incentive for changing his behavior. Such a teacher has more motivation for increasing his evaluation scores. To my knowledge, nobody has ever doubted that such a teacher would make changes to avoid termination. The question of whether that teacher becomes more effective in teaching, however, is completely separate. Wyckoff and Dee don’t even attempt to address that, more important, question. Real world, it should be obvious, under-the-gun teachers have more motivation to precisely follow instructions and teach more directly to the test. In such a situation, test scores and the teacher’s value-added scores are likely to increase. Similarly, threatened teachers are more likely to be more obedient when writing lesson plans, articulating the objectives and standards in precisely the right manner. When a teacher’s job is at risk, he will work harder to do what evaluators think is important. More often than not, he will put more care into his “data walls” and “word walls,” and conform to whatever the evaluator sees as the ideal presentation of those silly little details. In other words, at-risk teachers will bite their tongues, toe the line, and put much more compliant regarding the trappings of observation process. Regardless of whether that effort improves teaching and learning, it should result in higher scores on evaluations. Because of IMPACT, the behavior of principals, other evaluators and teachers have changed enough to increase teachers’ evaluation scores by about 10 points on a 400 point scale. Perhaps such a change requires more than just stepping up effort on busy-work, or perhaps not. The more interesting question would be whether teachers increased their “value-added.” Perhaps the most interesting question is why Wyckoff and Dee do not focus on that issue … Wyckoff and Dee make a big deal about teachers who are ranked lower leaving the system, because “less effective teachers under the threat of dismissal are more likely to voluntarily leave.” That would be a big deal if they had evidence that those who left were actually lower-performing. But, effective teachers who are wrongly indicted at “Minimally effective” are also more likely to say “take this job and shove it,” and leave. It is safe to assume that some low-rated teachers were fairly evaluated and are actually less effective in the classroom and some are good teachers who were misidentified. Wyckoff and Dee have no clue who was correctly or incorrectly identified as low-performing. IMPACT and other systems that use value-added are systematically biased against classrooms with larger numbers of English Language Learners, students on special educations IEPs, and low-income students. It stands to reason that effective teachers who are “false positives,” meaning that they were inaccurately categorized, will behave like their colleagues who are not effective. Both will leave the D.C. schools. For argument's sake, however, let’s say that all of the 14% of the district’s teachers who were judged to be “Minimally Effective” were accurately placed in that category. Wyckoff and Dee proclaim IMPACT a success because about 20% just above the threshold for “Effective” left the school system at the end of a year while about 30% of teachers just below that threshold quit. Was it a good bargain for the D.C. schools to impose all of the stress and the other negative byproducts of IMPACT in order to speed the exit of such a small number? The only metric that seems to be able to differientate very well is the Core Professional one. Had the district merely focused on the behavior of teachers, and held them accountable for good professional conduct, would such an evaluation system produced just as much good while minimizing the downsides of the controversial new system? Fire bad teachers for what they do and don't do and won't you also get rid of most ineffective ones?

Here's an interesting narrative on teacher evaluations from a blogger in Los Angeles, which in my opinion describes in more concrete terms what all these studies are talking about. Sometimes it's easy to forget how things impact real life people:


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