The way educators are evaluated is changing across the country, with a switch from routine "satisfactory" ratings to actual proof that students are learning.
President Barack Obama's recent use of executive authority to revise the No Child Left Behind education law is one of several factors driving a trend toward using student test scores, classroom observation and potentially even input from students, among other measures, to determine just how effective educators are. A growing number of states are using these evaluations to decide critical issues such as pay, tenure, firings and the awarding of teaching licenses.
Two years ago, only four states used student achievement as a predominant influence in how teacher performance is assessed. Today, the number is 13, according to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. Ten other states count student achievement in a lesser but still significant way in teacher evaluations. In 19 states and the District of Columbia, teachers can be fired based on the results, the report said.
Even more changes are anticipated in coming months.
Obama said in September that states wanting relief from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law could apply for a waiver from the law's tough-to-meet requirements for student achievement in reading and math. To get a waiver, one thing states must do is come up with ways to use teacher and principal evaluations to make personnel decisions.
This week, 11 states applied for waivers, and an additional 28 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico say they will be seeking waivers, too.
In addition to Obama's waivers, a major driver has been the administration's high-profile "Race to the Top" competition, which had states competing for billions in prize dollars if they adopted stronger evaluation systems. Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said another factor is a growing body of research showing that teachers matter in how much students learn and an influential 2009 report by the New Teacher Project revealing that fewer than 1 percent of teachers surveyed receive unsatisfactory ratings - even in failing schools.
Historically, states have considered teacher evaluations to be untouchable, in part because of teachers unions.
"Once states started to see from other states that you could move this, the ball has continued to roll," Jacobs said.
States are using a combination of measures to evaluate educators. For example, in Minnesota, evaluation systems under development for teachers and principals will include feedback from superiors, fellow educators and parents. Thirty-five percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student test scores, but teachers will also be able to present a portfolio showing professional growth that includes student work and classroom video.
Some states, such as Georgia and Massachusetts, are testing or considering the limited use of student input. A study by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found the average student can tell who is an effective teacher. It said students' feedback is more specific and useful to teachers than scores or tests alone.
Those opposed to linking test scores to evaluations say standardized tests are limited and don't necessarily reflect what's taught in the classroom. They say student performance can be affected by variables outside a teacher's control like a child coming from an abusive home, transferring midyear or being behind because a previous teacher didn't teach properly.
In recent years, however, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association unions have warmed to the idea of teacher evaluations based on student performance, with some caveats. In July, delegates to the NEA's national convention voted in support of a policy statement that called for a comprehensive overhaul of teacher evaluations. The AFT has worked for two years with dozens of districts to help develop such systems, said AFT president Randi Weingarten.
But the unions want evaluations developed at the local level with input from teachers and little reliance on test scores. In too many places, Weingarten said, systems are being rolled out too fast with serious implications for educators.
She said that has happened in the District of Columbia and Tennessee, though advocates of tougher evaluation systems have held both up for praise.
This year, Tennessee implemented a new system that has teachers rated every year and observed multiple times a year. Thirty-five percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on student growth on the state standardized test over time. Weingarten said the system has put the focus on test scores instead of learning and that there have been too many bureaucratic hurdles.
"Teachers are not nervous about taking responsibility," Weingarten said. "What they are nervous about is that all of this is being done to them, without them ... in so many places (not) having any voice in it whatsoever, and it's about thwarting and firing as opposed to about helping to improve instruction."
In the District of Columbia, controversial former Chancellor Michelle Rhee adopted a teacher evaluation system in part based on student performance, and teachers were among hundreds of school employees laid off under the new evaluation system. Some teachers like the recognition and pay increases in the system, but her policies played a role in the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty for re-election.
As states develop new methods of rating teachers, challenges include training school districts to use the new systems and finding ways to evaluate teachers of subjects that don't have standardized tests, said Janice Poda of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
To ease growing pains, some states like New Jersey, which asked the Obama administration this week for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, have opted to try evaluation systems in only a limited number of school districts before going statewide. Among the 11 states that asked for waivers this week, much of what was included on teacher and principal evaluations was preliminary but already in the works. As other states submit applications, more changes in evaluations are expected.
"I absolutely think it's important for teachers to get feedback about their practice," said Poda, the council's strategic initiative director for the education workforce.
"I think all teachers should be on some kind of a continuous growth plan so that they can always be learning new things and improving their practice, and I think that's true for leaders as well," Poda said.
Associated Press writers Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Kristen Wyatt in Denver, Rodrique Ngowi in Boston, Christopher Williams in Minneapolis, Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis, Christine Armario in Miami and Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.