Story Lab

Story Lab: Teacher Evaluation

Few areas of education policy are moving more quickly than teacher evaluations. In 2009, annual evaluations of teachers were mandatory in just 15 states. Today, that number stands at 25. Additionally, in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top competitive grants and No Child Left Behind waivers, states had to pledge to use student assessment data as a factor in measuring a teacher’s performance. At the same time, few issues are fraught with more politics—and potential controversy—than teacher evaluations.

To help navigate through your own reporting, this EWA Story Lab offers important signposts to consider, practical advice from veteran journalists, and a blueprint of story ideas to get you started. It was developed with input from Molly Bloom of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (formerly of StateImpact Ohio) and Sarah Butrymowiz of The Hechinger Report, and written by EWA Public Editor Emily Richmond.

View Molly Bloom’s Teacher Evaluation Project

View Sarah Butrymowiz’s Teacher Evaluation Project

1. Keep it simple. Start with the basics: Is there an evaluation model currently in place? What are rating categories, and how were the teachers distributed in the most recent round of evaluations? How would a new rating system be different? Would the new model change how teachers move toward tenure, or their progress up the pay scale? If you’re working on a data-driven project, focus on the questions you want to answer with your story and the data that will support that goal. It’s easy to get overwhelmed — and lose your way — in the nitty-gritty of the metrics. Most people just want a clear explanation of the accountability system. For parents, the questions are usually even simpler: How will the evaluation system improve classroom instruction and outcomes? Use a sidebar rather than the main story to explain the finer points of your methodology to those who are interested.

2. Bulletproof your data. Document each step of your analysis. Think carefully about the words you use to describe findings. Double- and triple-check numbers and comparisons. “Make value-added nerds your best friend,” said The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butrymowiz. “It’s complicated and it’s important to understand it at even a deeper level than you might put in your article. You’re going to want to simplify it for readers. But you need a decent grasp of it yourself.” After Molly Bloom of StateImpact Ohio and her team completed the bulk of their data work, they wrote up their findings in an informal version of a white paper. They then asked a few researchers to review the findings. “I would definitely recommend doing this,” Bloom said. “Their advice made our analysis and explanations of what we found stronger.”

3. Talk to teachers. While this might seem self-evident, it can be difficult to find individuals willing to go on the record about a hot-button issue like evaluations. But any effort you expend will pay off. Teachers’ work emails are typically public record, and can be gleaned from schools’ websites. Consider sending out an online poll to allow teachers to share their views anonymously. When interviewing teachers be sure to look for a mix of experience levels and backgrounds. A veteran educator with 20- plus years on the job will view evaluations differently than a rookie.

4. Be prepared for fallout. In hearing from critics of her team’s series, Bloom realized many people hadn’t even read the bulk of the stories explaining how the new evaluations worked. Instead, they focused their criticism on the decision to publish individual teachers’ ratings. If your publication decides to identify teachers, be prepared for the fallout. That means you should have a clear rationale for the decision – and that rationale needs to be more than “because we can.” Explain your decision to readers through multiple channels, including engaging in online and offline conversations.

5. Take your time. Teacher evaluations are complex and still in flux. You’re not going to be able to cover every angle with your first, or even second, effort. It’s important to remember that just as the model is changing, so are people’s perceptions about its effectiveness and value. When Butrymowiz first visited Indiana, she found a high level of uncertainty among educators involved in the teacher evaluation pilot programs. A year later, “the stress and fear were gone,” Butrymowiz said. “A lot of the high-intensity talk around teacher evaluations is because it’s a new thing. Keep it in perspective—where are you on the timeline when you’re doing your reporting? That’s going to influence people’s reactions and responses.”

Story Ideas to Steal

Evaluating the Evaluators: In some states, evaluators who conduct classroom observations are required to undergo training and be credentialed. Sit in on the training, and then ask to take the credentialing exam.

Now and Then: What’s really changed in the day-to-day working environment for educators under the new system of teacher evaluations? How is it shaping and informing their classroom practices? If your district already had an evaluations model in place, what was the distribution of the ratings? Did 98 percent of teachers “exceed expectations?” How might those ratings change under the new system?

The Union Factor: Now that the stakes have been raised, teachers’ unions are taking an increasingly active role in not only shaping evaluation models but in preparing their members for evaluations. Have they started offering training, or added new resources? Talk to newer teachers and find out where they’re drawing support (i.e. mentor programs, professional development).

Get Inside the Room: The Washington Post had a remarkable story in which a reporter sat in on a teacher’s performance review. This kind of story obviously requires significant advance planning but the payoff can be significant.

Grading the Principals: Evaluations of school leadership is the next big thing—it’s already under way in many states. What is your district doing to measure the quality of the school’s top administrators? What are the opportunities for teachers to provide meaningful feedback on the performance of their campus leaders? Are parents and students also given a voice in the process? If not, why not?

Alternative Measures: Student assessment data in core subjects like math and reading can only measure certain teachers. How is the school measuring the job performance of teachers in other areas, such as fine arts and elective courses? Are teachers being held accountable for the performance of their peers? If so, what are the implications of that, and what is the impact on staff morale?