[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on January 19th of this year, was our #3 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues tomorrow with #2, so be sure to check back!]

Teachers might be at a disadvantage during classroom observation of their instructional practice, which is one of the most widely-used tools for high-stakes job performance evaluations. And whether or not students have a history of high classroom achievement could be the reason why.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) indicates that evaluations based on observing teachers in the classroom often fail to meaningfully assess teacher performance.

The study, published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, adds to the ongoing policy debate over when and how teachers should be evaluated.

Researchers Matthew Steinberg, from Penn GSE, and Rachel Garrett, from AIR, found that students’ prior academic achievement is a significant predictor of teacher success in the high-stakes evaluation system.

“When information about teacher performance does not reflect a teacher’s practice, but rather the students to whom the teacher is assigned, such systems are at risk of misidentifying and mislabeling teacher performance,” Steinberg and Garrett wrote.

(Next page: Which teachers are more likely to be among top performers when assigned high-achieving students?)

Among Steinberg and Garrett’s findings:
• Math teachers were six times more likely to be among the top performers when assigned students who were the highest achievers the previous year. English language arts (ELA) teachers with high achievers in their classroom were twice as likely to be among top performers.
• Only 37 percent of ELA teachers and 18 percent of math teachers assigned the lowest-performing students were highly rated based on classroom observation scores.
• When teachers were assigned a class with higher incoming achievement, they were more likely to see an increase in their measured performance.
• Teachers with higher achieving students are rated higher in “communicating with students” and “engaging students in learning.” These areas reflect teacher interaction with students, so they tend to be student dependent.
• However, measures that depend more on the instructional strategies teachers bring to the classroom — “using questioning techniques” and “assessment to drive instruction” — were largely uncorrelated with student achievement.

Based on their results, Steinberg and Garrett caution that using observation-based measures for high-stakes teacher accountability without understanding and accounting for classroom composition will skew results, with potentially significant consequences.

“The misidentification of teachers’ performance levels has real implications for personnel decisions, and fundamentally calls into question an evaluation system’s ability to effectively and equitably improve, reward, and sanction teachers,” wrote Steinberg and Garrett.

Steinberg and Garrett reviewed data from a previous study that looked at six school districts over two years, including the New York City Department of Education. This Measure of Effective Teaching study randomly matched teachers to classrooms, differentiating between grade and if a teacher is a subject matter generalist or specialist.

The study comes as schools across the country have stepped up efforts to evaluate teachers. By the start of the 2014–2015 school year, 78 percent of states and 85 percent of the largest school districts and the District of Columbia had implemented teacher evaluation reform.

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura