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What’s the value of being able to identify highly effective teachers? Q&A with Daniel Weisberg, education advocate and chief executive of TNTP

Laura Greanias | September 24, 2018

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LA Unified currently has three tiers in rating teachers: below standard, meets standard, and exceeds standard.

Last year, 96 percent of teachers met or exceeded standards, with about 22 percent in the top category. Just under 4 percent, or 295 of the district’s 7,623 teachers, were rated below standard — a percentage that has risen slightly but has remained mostly unchanged for the last five years.

To raise student achievement, attract and retain good teachers, and keep families in the district, LA Unified is seeking to add a fourth category: highly effective. It is one of the points in its negotiations over a new teachers contract where the district says it and United Teachers Los Angeles “fundamentally disagree.” The two sides enter into mediation this week as the union prepares for a strike, which its members voted last month to authorize.

• Read more: As LA’s teachers union prepares to strike, here’s something that could be a bigger hang-up than raises: how to identify great teachers

LA School Report talked with Daniel Weisberg, chief executive officer of TNTP, an education nonprofit that helps school systems address educational inequity, about teacher evaluations. His answers have been lightly edited for length.

Question: If LA Unified is able to add a new category — highly effective — in its teacher evaluations, what effect would that have? Even if there isn’t an option of paying those teachers more, what benefits are there to being able to rate teachers as highly effective?

Weisberg: Even if there’s no pay attached to it, my prediction would be that you could increase the retention of your best teachers by rating them highly effective.

The recognition, I think, would result in more highly effective teachers deciding to stay in LAUSD, and so that would be a good thing even beyond the pay.

One of the things that actually cause great teachers to stay is being recognized for being great and being asked to stay. And being rated highly effective is a way of recognizing a great teacher’s value. I think it would be useful in that respect.

Categories like highly effective are being used quite broadly nationwide. That was one of the reforms that so far has stuck. You’re seeing rating systems mostly with four or five categories.

My prediction would be, that If you look at the performance of the teachers who are in that top-rated category, it would be better than the rest of the teacher workforce. In other words, principals and others are able to identify with reasonable accuracy the best teachers, and there is value in recognizing them as being the best.

Even if there’s not pay attached to it, it might be that the district looks at a highly effective rating as one of the selection criteria for assistant principals or coaches or central office people.

Could being rated highly effective be a type of shield for a teacher who might find himself or herself in a difficult work situation with a principal or parents, or feel they are being wrongly accused of misconduct?

It could be a shield. If you have a great teacher who is rated highly effective five years in a row, and only a fraction of teachers get that rating, if there is any issue with performance that arises after that or with or misconduct, the teacher’s prior record is going to be taken into account. And if it is a stellar record, then that’s going to weigh in favor of that teacher. Obviously, it all depends on the specific facts and what’s being alleged, but if I am being accused of being incompetent or being accused of having committed misconduct, and I think it is off base, I am going to be feeling a lot more secure if I can say I’m in the top quartile of teachers in LAUSD, and I’ve been there for the past several years, as opposed to saying I’ve got a satisfactory rating just like almost every teacher in the system.

How would you explain this issue to parents?

Parents know that there are some teachers who are just head and shoulders above everybody else, and what I would say to parents is, if we have teachers who are head and shoulders above and doing incredible work with kids, would we want those teachers to get recognized as being great, or would we want them lumped in with everybody else?

UTLA might say it’s unreliable, it’s a popularity contest, but there are ways about how you design a rating system that will matter. But generally, if you set up the opportunity to recognize the best teachers, a decent evaluation system is going to do a pretty reliable job of identifying those teachers, and that’s a good thing.

You have a new study coming out this week. How does it relate to LA Unified and teacher evaluations?

The report is about student experience as reported by students, and how the quality of instruction, the quality of assignments, teacher expectations, and the level of student engagement affect student experience and student achievement.

Teachers obviously have a big influence on student experiences, so The Opportunity Myth connects to efforts to better support and reward teachers pretty directly. For example, kids who start the year behind grow by almost eight additional months of learning in a single year when they’re supported by teachers with high expectations. So high expectations is something we should recognize in great teachers and encourage among all teachers.

When you ask kids about their experiences — in the moment, in the classroom, not just, “Hey do you like school,” but, “What do you think of this lesson” — what they will tell you reflects that kids are the best experts we have on the quality of education. They gave us very sophisticated and nuanced feedback, not, “I love school or I hate school.” The biggest differences we saw in the quality of student experience as reported by students were not between schools, they were not between districts. They were between classrooms. Kids are detecting differences — a big variation, teacher to teacher and lesson to lesson.

And the extent to which kids are engaged in lessons matters to student achievement — we found that students who were engaged gained 2.5 months of learning in a single year. Information about student experience as reported by students would be enormously helpful to school leaders, superintendents and, especially, teachers themselves.

• Read more from The 74: America’s Achievement Gap — Made, Not Born? What a Study of 30,000 Students Reveals About Lowered Expectations and Poorer Quality Instruction for Kids of Color

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