Lee Elliot Major on the American revolution in teacher evaluation, and the lessons for the UK

From Colorado to Tennessee, from Florida to New Jersey, all across the United States, a revolution in education is taking place. And it is likely to hit British schools anytime soon. Teachers are for the first time being evaluated on how effective they are in the classroom. Gone are the age old assumptions that teachers should be left to get on with their important work and tenured for life. This is a brave new world of pupil progress measures, classroom observations and student feedback.

The talisman for these bold reforms is one Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which this week hosted a major summit in Washington. Bush delivered a powerful oration on the demise of the American dream and the US’s slide down the international rankings of education performance. It was stirring stuff. One can see why Democrats both respect and fear Bush, who is already being touted as the next Republican presidential candidate.

His belief is that education, and in particular teachers, hold the best hope for the nation to recapture its founding principle of upward social mobility. “We need to have a teacher evaluation system that is based on teachers being professionals, not part of some collective trade union bargaining process,” he said. “There are incredibly fine teachers that get paid less even though they’re doing the Lord’s work consistently over time, and there are teachers that are mediocre that get paid more because they’ve been there longer.”

Improving teacher effectiveness has become the priority of education policy makers across the world. A recent Sutton Trust report demonstrated why. Over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. Teacher impact dwarfs all other influences on learning within school.

The fledgling teacher evaluation systems, partly stimulated by President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) Fund, are now being developed in 30 states – and increasingly supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. US education secretary, Arne Duncan, also spoke at the summit, praising States for their new assessment regimes.

Most systems combine teacher observations with data on pupil progress to assess teachers. But this has been a bitter battle with the teacher unions. One education commissioner likened it to a ‘knife fight in a dark room’.

Even those who have implemented reforms are struggling to translate them into genuine change. Tennessee has gone to great pains to train all its school principals as evaluators. But when it came to the crunch, few principals were willing to assess their teachers as less than average, rendering the assessments fairly meaningless.

Despite these difficulties the reforms will continue and many states are waiting for the results of the $45million Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project due to be released by the Gates Foundation early next year.

What are the lessons for this side of the Pond? Here the opening salvoes of the battle have already been fired. Education Secretary Michael Gove has introduced more freedoms for schools to adopt their own appraisal systems, and abolished the limits on teacher observations. School inspectors meanwhile have more powers to scrutinise the pay and performance of teachers. These add to earlier attempts by the Labour Government to introduce performance related pay.

There is no perfect evaluation model in education – or elsewhere for that matter. But the hope still must be that we can create evaluation systems for the teachers by the teachers. The Sutton Trust plans to review the evidence on teacher evaluation from the US and around the world and work alongside schools to develop best practise. John Podesta, a former aide to Bill Clinton, warned this week’s conference in Washington: “If you go to war on your workforce, sooner or later you’re going to lose.”

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