Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Investing in Better Feedback for Teachers

January 08, 2013

Each of us can recall, by name, great teachers who have made a difference in our education and our lives. And the ones that stuck with us – the ones we remember the longest were often the ones who pushed us harder or made us think in a new way.

Because we all know how important teachers are to student success, at the foundation, we wanted to capture and study those qualities students feel when they are in the presence of a great teacher so that it could be shared to help all teachers be their best.

Up to now, we didn’t know what those qualities were or how to replicate them. So what we often ended up with was a system in which the principal would visit a teacher’s classroom for a few minutes, watch them teach and give them a pass or fail grade. Teachers got little real feedback on their performance and thus, had no real way to improve. For generations, we’ve essentially been asking teachers to get better on their own.

Recognizing this, school districts around the country are re-thinking their approach to identifying and supporting great teaching. As they do, they are asking: Which measures can accurately and reliably identify effective teaching? How can we use those measures to support teachers’ development? What pitfalls should districts avoid?

The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project, launched three years ago with the foundation’s support, has been an extraordinary collaboration involving educators, researchers and practitioners. This study – one of the largest ever undertaken -- involved 3,000 teacher volunteers who opened their classrooms so that we could learn more about teacher practice. The MET project has provided findings throughout the course of the project to help districts that want to build better evaluation and support systems. The culminating results from the research were released today and are detailed in the report “Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching”.

The insights from the MET Project’s research, along with the experiences of our partner districts over the past four years, lead us to some guiding principles for using measures of effective teaching

Measuring Effective Teaching

  • Teachers and district leaders must work together to set clear expectations and agree on the teacher knowledge, skills and behaviors that will enable better student learning.
  • Systems should choose multiple measures that can lead to feedback on different aspects of teaching: MET tested a variety of indicators including: classroom observations; student surveys and achievement gains on state tests. Based on a district’s goals, each district will identify its own mix.
  • When combining measures into a single index, a balanced approach to weighting avoids the risk of over-emphasizing one measure or one dimension of teaching practice. The MET study found that a weight of one-third to one-half for test-based measures was sufficient to meaningfully differentiate teaching performance.

Ensuring High-quality Data

  • Measures should be validated on an ongoing basis.  MET researchers went to great lengths to use random assignment in order to test whether measures could identify effective teaching regardless of how students were assigned. Districts should compare how teacher performance on a measure compares with the student outcomes they value. Essentially, we’re making a deal with teachers that if they focus on improving their practice on these measures, their students will learn more.. 
  • High-quality data requires reliable measures. For observations, that means training and certifying raters and having teachers observed by more than one rater and for more than one lesson.. Ensuring reliability builds trust.
  • Schools are fluid places. Students switch classes. Teachers retire or go on leave. MET findings show that assuring accuracy requires attributing the right students to the right teachers, for example, by having teachers verify student rosters. .

Investing in Improvement

  • Systems that rate teachers “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” don’t provide meaningful distinctions about teaching practice. And while it is possible to clearly identify teachers who are “very effective” (or “very ineffective”), most educators’ practice falls somewhere in between. Districts are better served by focusing on ways to improve practice rather than trying to make too fine or arbitrary distinctions among groups of teachers.
  • Using measures of effective teaching only to make high-stakes decisions misses the opportunity for teachers to learn from better insight about their own practice. Tailored Support and feedback should be a priority.
  • Better information helps inform decisions at all levels. Teachers gain feedback but schools and districts also get information on what professional development investments are working and where they need to provide more support.

As we continue our work, we see many examples of collaboration among districts, teachers and stakeholders that have the potential to transform evaluation and support for great teaching. Some critics challenge the feasibility of investing in better systems, noting that districts are already overstretched and under-resourced. The foundation and others have estimated that it could cost between 1.5 and 2 percent of the overall budget for teacher compensation and benefits to implement a feedback and evaluation system based on multiple measures of teaching performance. Such an investment in great teaching would be small compared to what is being spent now on professional development that shows little results.

I am excited that we have completed this important work but it is just the beginning. I think of the MET results as a building block – an important one – but a first step. What do we do with this information? Teachers don’t just need better feedback; they need support tailored to their specific needs. “Professional development” has to evolve from a one-size-fits-all box checking exercise to something that teachers look forward to because they know it will help them improve. It has to be like the experience we had as a student sitting in the classroom of a teacher who challenged us -- rewarding because it helped us be better.

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