Evaluations score most teachers highly

Few Mass. teachers deemed unsatisfactory

The second year of a new state educator evaluation system has produced results that largely mirror those of the first year, with nearly all teachers and school administrators in Massachusetts receiving positive ratings for their performance during the 2013-14 school year.

According to data being released today, a total of 86.5 percent of Massachusetts educators were rated proficient, while an additional 8.1 percent were rated exemplary, meaning 94.6 percent were deemed to be performing well. Fewer than 5 percent were rated as needing improvement, while only 0.5 percent were given an unsatisfactory rating.

The new evaluation system, which was developed as a condition of the state’s 2010 receipt of $250 million in school funding through the federal Race to the Top program, is designed to generate more calibrated evaluations of educator performance. Teachers and administrators are now given one of four ratings — exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, or unsatisfactory — replacing previous systems that generally only rated educators as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The state is also working to incorporate measures of student achievement into the evaluations, something that will be phased in starting with the next round of evaluations.

Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, said he was “very pleased” to see that evaluations are “discerning” among different levels of performance. In a conference call on Wednesday with reporters, he pointed out that less experienced teachers without tenure are receiving more critical evaluations than tenured teachers with more classroom experience, a further indication, Chester said, that evaluations are capturing meaningful differences in performance. Among newer untenured teachers, 10.4 percent were rated in need of improvement, while just 3.1 percent of tenured teachers received that rating.  

Teacher evaluation has received increased attention in recent years because of recognition of the critical importance of teacher effectiveness to student learning.  A 2006 study of the Los Angeles school district concluded that having a teacher in the top quarter versus the bottom quarter for four years in a row “would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”  

Attention to the crucial role of teacher quality has prompted focus on what many agree has been a teacher evaluation system in the US that is perfunctory at best, with little time devoted to serious evaluation of teachers or to developing improvement plans based on those observations. 

A 2009 report titled “The Widget Effect” concluded that teacher effectiveness is “the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement,” yet it “is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way.” 

The report, issued by The New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit, found that more than 99 percent of teachers were deemed satisfactory in those districts using a binary evaluation system that rated teachers either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Districts that break down performance into more categories, the report said, “do little better; in these districts, 94 percent of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1 percent are rated unsatisfactory.”  

That critical assessment of districts with more performance categories describes almost exactly the latest Massachusetts statewide results.  

There is some evidence that, at least at some schools, evaluations are showing some correspondence with student achievement.  At the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Boston, for example, where just 23 percent of students scored proficient or higher in English and a dismal 11 percent were proficient or higher in math on the most recent MCAS test, 14.3 percent of teachers were rated as in need of improvement and 21.4 percent were rated unsatisfactory. Fifty percent of teachers were rated proficient and 14.3 percent were judged exemplary.  

In other low performing schools, however, far fewer teachers were judged to be in need of improvement or unsatisfactory.   

Chester was asked during the conference call about the fact that not a single Boston principal was rated in need of improvement or unsatisfactory, despite the fact that the state took over two Boston schools because of chronic underperformance and deemed others to be faltering badly. Chester said some of those school leaders may have been facing reassignment or non-renewal, but he did not know why they wouldn’t nonetheless receive a performance rating.  

Teachers who are judged in need of improvement must devise an improvement plan in conjunction with their principal, and must show progress within a year or they are moved into an unsatisfactory rating. Teachers in this bottom rating category are also put an improvement plan, which can give them anywhere from 30 days to a full school year to improve or face possible dismissal.  

There appears to be a lot of inconsistency in the application of the evaluation standards. At several Boston schools, no teachers were rated in need of improvement or unsatisfactory, while at some as many as a third or more were judged exemplary, a rate four times that of the statewide exemplary average of 8.1 percent.

At Arlington High School, despite the four categories now used for evaluations, which are supposed to promote more discerning assessments of educator performance, nearly every teacher (98.8 percent) was judged to be proficient, while the remaining 1.2 percent were rated unsatisfactory. Not a single teacher in the suburban school was deemed exemplary or in need of improvement.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

When it comes to the new teacher evaluation system, there’s still considerable homework to be done. 

Massachusetts does appear to be ahead of some other states, where evaluation results stretch credulity beyond any reasonable point. In Delaware for the 2013-14 school year, for example, not a single teacher in the entire state received an unsatisfactory rating and only 1 percent were rated as needing improvement.