Stakes and mistakes in assessing teacher effectiveness

Robert C. Pianta

Teacher evaluation is emerging as the central flash point in education policy debates. The recent controversy in Los Angeles over publication of teachers’ student test score gains illustrates this. So does D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s reelection loss following his school chancellor’s firing of 173 teachers who were rated “ineffective.”
Both incidents drew national attention because they exemplify an approach to teacher effectiveness aggressively promoted by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — both rhetorically and in the Race to the Top and I-3 grant programs. Teacher evaluation was the main focus of NBC’s “Education Nation” coverage; one segment featured New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ranting over teacher unions’ defensive stance on evaluation.
Teacher evaluation is controversial because it combines two elements new to education professionals and the public – quantifiable measurement of performance, and stakes like firing or public exposure. Teachers matter. But the core problem in public education is not identifying effective teachers. It’s that our existing system does not produce effective teaching in sufficient scope, scale, regularity, or intensity.