News Story

Students Here Far From ‘All Above Average’ - But Teachers Rated That Way

A troubling gap between how students really do and how schools rate teacher performance

In an op-ed written for Bridge Magazine, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer recently bemoaned the quality of education delivered by Michigan’s public schools.

“We’re consistently near the bottom of the country on almost every metric from student literacy to college preparedness,” Whitmer wrote. “Less than half the students in every grade, across all subjects, meet basic proficiency standards.”

And Whitmer is not alone in criticizing the schools’ permormance.

John Smith, an education professor at Michigan State University, pointed to the National Assessment of Education Progress scores, where Michigan’s performance lagged.

“I did this because everyone in the policy world seems to accept that NAEP scores are the best comparative metric that we have. On their measures, Michigan is not where we should want it to be — no one of any political position — and not where we were in the relatively recent past (we have fallen considerably),” Smith wrote in an email.

But on one point, these judgments don’t easily square with the consensus of those who actually run the schools: The poor progress of Michigan students is not the fault of the nearly 100,000 teachers responsible for actually delivering an education.

According to the public school administrators who are responsible for evaluating individual teacher competence, Michigan’s teachers are of high quality, with hardly any exceptions.

State law requires public school districts to evaluate all their teachers. The evaluations separate teachers into one of four categories: “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective,” and “ineffective.”

In the six years that the state has used this system, fewer than 1 percent all teachers have ever been assessed as “ineffective.”

In the six school years from 2011-12 to 2016-17, Michigan public schools performed 570,302 teacher performance evaluations. Of these, 3,081 teachers out of where teachers were deemed to be “ineffective.”

In contrast, 98 percent of those evaluations found individual instructors to be either “highly effective” (36 percent) or “effective” (62 percent).

One example of the apparent disconnect is in the Wayne-Westland public school district. Due to poor academic performance, officials at the Michigan Department of Education targeted the district’s Hoover Elementary School in 2017 for “positive, yet pressing, conversations.”

In 2016-17, none of the school’s 20 teachers were given an “ineffective” rating. Four were deemed “highly effective,” 15 were rated “effective” and one was given the “minimally effective” rating.

“Clearly there is a disconnect,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “We can’t distinguish the good teachers from the great teachers. And it is harder to distinguish which teachers are not cut out to do the job.”