Indiana’s Teacher Evaluation Problem

The state of Indiana has a teacher evaluation problem. Or does it?

On Monday, April 7, the Indiana Department of Education released data pertaining to the evaluation of public school teachers during the 2012-2013 academic year. A 2011 law passed by the Indiana General Assembly stipulates that each public school district in the state is required to conduct an annual in-house review of teachers and administrators. Teachers are graded on a four-tier scale as either “Highly Effective,” “Effective,” “Improvement Necessary,” or “Ineffective.” Districts are given wide latitude to interpret the definitions of these terms and the nature of their evaluations as they see fit, raising questions about potential biases and the effectiveness of these evaluations.

As I flipped through the evaluations of various schools throughout the state, my eye caught some particularly weird data for the Indianapolis Public School District. In addition to teacher evaluations, Indiana School districts are also graded on an A-F scale. The IPS District, according to the Department of Education, is one of four school districts in the state with an F grade. You would imagine, therefore, that these teacher evaluations would not be very good for teachers in IPS, right?

You would be wrong.

According to the DOE’s data, here is how 2,672 IPS teachers stacked up in their evaluations (keep in mind that 142 teachers were not evaluated because they are retiring):

Highly Effective: 347 (12.9%)
Effective: 2,028 (75.8%)
Improvement Necessary: 150 (5.6%)
Ineffective: 5 (0.1%)

So, even though IPS is a failing school district, only 5.7 percent of its teachers are in need of improvement or have been deemed ineffective by the DOE. What gives?

The failure of IPS cannot fall solely on its teachers: As discussed before, I have a fundamental disagreement with Davis Guggenheim–the creator of the popular film Waiting for Superman–who argues that public education fails many of its students because of inadequate teaching and the teachers unions that protect those bad teachers. While acknowledging that there does in fact exist a small minority of bad teachers in public education (perhaps around 5.7% of all teachers?), the failure of these schools cannot be divorced from larger socioeconomic issues such as segregation, poverty, and broken homes. Waiting for a “Superman” teacher to pop out of nowhere and single-handedly lift all students in failing schools out of poverty and into college is meaningless if you’re not doing anything to better the communities in which these students are being raised. Middle School and High School teachers spend maybe 3-5 hours a week with each of their students; shouldn’t parents be spending at least that much time with their children every day (or every other day)? IPS is failing for many reasons, and not all of them are connected to the teachers. And it should be pointed out that IPS is performing better than local charter schools in the area.

Who in your local district would you fire? Everyone has an opinion on public education, and it seems like many of those opinions, if not most, are negative. I can’t find any studies to back up my opinions, but I’ve had several conversations where people have complained about public schools to me, and when asked by me which teachers in their local school district they would fire if given the chance, these people can’t give me an answer. I don’t know why this is, but it seems like we’re too often ready to criticize public education in the abstract without thinking about the ramifications and consequences of our proposed “solutions.” Who in IPS will need to get fired before the school district starts improving? I’m not sure if firing teachers is the right idea.

Who should be evaluating the schools?: Having districts conduct their own evaluations seems problematic in the same way that having eighth graders assess the final grades of their fifth grade classmates is problematic. But I’m also concerned about giving the Department of Education and/or the Indiana General Assembly any more power in evaluating teachers. I’m especially concerned with the latter because their hostile view of public education has led to the creation of the largest voucher program in the country, taking away crucial tax dollars from public schools and siphoning that money to private schools in some instances. I’m not sure who would be the best third-party evaluator for public schools, but I wonder if there are ways for local township and county leaders to get involved in the evaluation of their local schools and their teachers.

I find it odd that the Indiana DOE has deemed the IPS district a failure while at the same time giving an overwhelmingly positive assessment of its teachers. I think the state’s teacher evaluation system needs to be reworked, but in a way that keeps the state legislators themselves away from the evaluation sheets. In the end, perhaps this strange situation is somehow an acknowledgement that teachers cannot succeed on their own in an individualized vacuum, free from the concerns of the world outside the classroom. There are effective teachers out there, but they need the support of their communities in order to do their jobs effectively.

What do you think?