Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness

Effective teachers are the key to student success. Yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives. The Widget Effect is a wide-ranging report that studies teacher evaluation and dismissal in four states and 12 diverse districts, ranging from 4,000 to 400,000 students in enrollment. From the beginning, over 50 district and state officials and 25 teachers’ union representatives actively informed the study through advisory panels in each state.

Panel members provided ongoing feedback and perspective and were invited to submit unedited written responses to the study’s findings and recommendations. Their insights supplemented survey responses from over 15,000 teachers and 1,300 principals, and data from more than 40,000 teacher evaluation records.

The study illustrates that teacher evaluation systems reflect and codify the “Widget Effect”—the tendency of school districts to treat teachers as essentially interchangeable—in several major ways:

All teachers are rated “good” or “great.” Less than 1 percent of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings, even in schools where students fail to meet basic academic standards, year after year.

Excellence goes unrecognized. In districts with more than two ratings, 94 percent of teachers receive one of the top two. When superlative ratings are the norm, truly exceptional teachers cannot be formally identified. Nor can they be compensated, promoted or retained on a systemic basis.

Professional development is inadequate. Almost 3 in 4 teachers did not receive any specific feedback on improving their performance in their last evaluation.

Novice teachers are neglected. Low expectations for beginning teachers translate into benign neglect in the classroom and a toothless tenure process.

Poor performance goes unaddressed. Half of the districts studied have not dismissed a single tenured teacher for poor performance in the past five years. None dismiss more than a few each year.

The Widget Effect