D.C.'s lessons for New York on teacher evaluations

April 09, 2015

When Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new teacher evaluation system in January that would rely heavily on the judgment of outside consultants, rank-and-file teachers and principals across the city exploded in outrage.

Similar consultants have already evaluated teachers in a handful of other places across the country, including Toledo, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; and perhaps most notably, Washington, D.C. And experience elsewhere suggests that having outside educators observe teachers can be successful in the short term.

But whether the use of outside evaluators improves teaching in the long run remains an open question.

Research supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has advocated for more rigorous teacher evaluations, suggests that using two evaluators tends to yield more accurate assessments than using one. But such a system is costly to implement and requires careful planning, as well as buy-in from teachers, to work well.

The discussion in New York about using outside evaluators to help grade teachers has been divisive. The teachers’ and principals’ unions weren’t consulted before the plan was announced, and Cuomo initially tied increases in school funding to the plan’s passage. Now, the Legislature may hand some responsibility for a new evaluation system to the Board of Regents, with a deadline of June 30.

The Washington, D.C. system, with its reliance on outside observers to evaluate teachers, is probably the most similar to Cuomo’s proposal, but differs in key ways—most notably in the weight placed on the outsiders’ opinions.

“This type of evaluation system can help drive and sustain improvements in performance, but they have to be well communicated to teachers,” said Thomas Dee, an education researcher at Stanford University and co-author of a study that found the D.C. system to be an effective means of encouraging low-performing teachers to improve their practice.