How to Make Teacher Effectiveness Reforms Stick

Related Expertise: Education, Public Sector, Social Impact

How to Make Teacher Effectiveness Reforms Stick

By Lane McBrideJ. PuckettKelsey Clark, and Meghan McQuiggan

We all know that the best teachers can change students’ lives—not just their test scores.

But to raise the quality of their students’ educational experience during their formative school years, teachers—especially those in resource-constrained schools—need much more support than they’ve been getting. For too long, many public-school management systems have failed both to help teachers improve their professional skills and effectiveness in the classroom and to reward and retain the best teachers for their performance and dedication.

Indeed, since the early 1980s, teaching quality has been a recurring theme in public-school-reform calls to action. Over the past two decades, philanthropists, educators, and policymakers have worked on a variety of management solutions, many focused on teacher evaluation practices. From 2010 through 2016, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative (BMGF IP) invested hundreds of millions of dollars in experimentation and implementation of management reforms in school districts with large minority and economically disadvantaged student populations in Memphis, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Tampa, Florida; and a charter school consortium in California.1 1 BCG was among a number of firms engaged by BMGF and its district partners during the planning and early implementation stages of the IP grants. Notes: 1 BCG was among a number of firms engaged by BMGF and its district partners during the planning and early implementation stages of the IP grants.

Participants agreed to pilot new approaches to teacher performance evaluation and talent management and then to measure the impact of these reforms on student outcomes. The independent RAND–American Institutes for Research report commissioned by BMGF to evaluate the initiative showed that, on the basis of traditional indicators such as test scores and graduation rates, there had been little or no improvement in student outcomes.

In our view, these results are not indicators of the program’s failure, as was widely reported by the press. The findings of the BMGF study do, however, reveal the complexity and challenges involved in enabling teacher effectiveness, including assessing the impact of management changes on teachers and students and achieving groundbreaking results. 

Despite the many challenges, there is plenty of evidence that the practices BMGF supported are working. Most of the school districts that participated in the BMGF IP program and many others across the country have adopted classroom observation rubrics, skill-focused evaluation processes, career development and coaching opportunities, and performance-based compensation methods.

Districts are refining reforms across each of these areas as they learn what works best. Continuing to invest in policies and practices that systematically support teacher effectiveness is not only worthwhile, it is also essential for achieving step change improvements in the quality of public education.

Achievements of the BMGF Initiative

The BMGF IP added significantly to a growing body of research on the benefits and challenges of managing teacher effectiveness by tackling substantive process changes in areas such as hiring, dismissal, performance evaluation, coaching, promotion, and compensation. Few districts had previously attempted such a comprehensive and systematic approach to improving teacher effectiveness.

Kriner Cash, when he was the superintendent of Memphis City Schools (now Shelby County Schools), called the grant a “game changer.”  Memphis overhauled its teacher-recruiting practices to identify and attract high-quality applicants, replaced seniority-based with performance-based compensation, added more classroom evaluations led by principals, and instituted new training and coaching programs.

All districts replaced typical binary satisfactory-unsatisfactory rating systems with methods that provide personnel decision makers with a deeper understanding of each teacher’s skills, developmental needs, and potential. The participating districts also began using the evaluation system to systematically increase the number of effective teachers and remove persistently ineffective teachers. Identifying poor performers helped districts target teachers who would benefit from additional coaching and mentoring resources.

Although some of the teachers at BMFG IP sites questioned the fairness of the new evaluation methods, the majority of teachers surveyed for the RAND assessment said that they were comfortable with the changes, including having principals observe them in their classrooms. Most said that the new evaluation system helped them identify specific ways that they could improve their teaching practices.

Teacher Effectiveness Management in Dallas and DC

Around the US, management reforms focused on teacher effectiveness programs are underway and succeeding—even in districts that did not receive BMGF funding. The Dallas Independence School District (Dallas ISD) started its Teacher Excellence Initiative in 2014, and Washington’s District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) launched its IMPACT program in 2009. We have followed these programs closely over the years and have worked with Dallas ISD on other initiatives. Both districts were featured in a 2018 report by the National Council of Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

Neither Dallas nor DC has expected teacher effectiveness work to result in a quick fix. Rather, both have made substantial long-term commitments and have integrated the work into the fabric of their operations. And each has made significant progress.

Differentiated Evaluations and Ratings. Dallas and DC have created multidimensional evaluations that are used to rank development and performance. Teachers are evaluated annually in terms of their teaching performance in the classroom, their leadership outside the classroom, measures of their students’ achievement, and feedback from students and parents.

In Dallas, teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated on the basis of their skills and experience and ranked on a scale that ranges from novice to master. Their performance rating—progressing, proficient, exemplary, or unsatisfactory for teachers who are not novices—is expressed as an average of the current and the prior year’s performance.

Dallas ISD sets distribution targets for each category of teacher ratings. For example, the category representing the lowest rankings can include no more than 3% of the teachers, and the highest category can include no more than 2% of the teachers. Only teachers who are rated in the top 30% of their peer group, have completed at least three years of service, and meet other performance criteria are eligible for the exemplary or master categories. Caps on each category reduce overly generous ratings and aid in discernment of teaching quality. Teachers who earn a rating of proficient or higher are also eligible for additional recognition through the Distinguished Teacher Review (DTR) process, which covers instructional skills, peer leadership, and contributions to the profession. The teachers who achieve this have earned high scores in teaching performance, student achievement, and when applicable, student experience surveys.

DCPS teachers’ performance is rated in five tiers, ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.” Teachers whose ratings put them in the lowest tier are given coaching support. They have one year to improve their scores. Today, teach­ers rated as poor performers are three times more likely to leave their school than those ranked high, according to the NCTQ report. According to a Georgetown University FutureEd study, DCPS retained 94% of its teachers who were ranked highly effective and 89% of those ranked effective from 2016–2017 through 2017–2018. 

Like Dallas ISD, DCPS uses a multistage—teacher, established teacher, advanced teacher, distinguished teacher, and expert teacher—career ladder called the Leadership Initiative for Teachers (LIFT). The categories define new, progressing, and high-performance teachers and also assign teachers compensation, leadership responsibilities, and growth opportunities commensurate with their place on the ladder.

Pay for Effectiveness. Compensation levels in Dallas are tied to each of the effectiveness categories. Prior to the current evaluation system, it would take 37 years for a teacher with a PhD to reach the maximum annual-compensation level of $87,338. Now, the best teachers in the master category can earn up to $100,000 within six years. 

Highly effective DCPS teachers can earn bonuses as high as $25,000. From 2014 through 2018, retention of highly rated teachers improved dramatically. The district reported that just 0.5% of the best teachers left the district, while turnover among the poorest performers was almost 40%. Under the old seniority-based pay system, those percentages were reversed.

In 2017, DCPS increased funding from $5.8 million to $13.5 million for bonuses for teachers with the best performance reviews. The compensation system is fully integrated with LIFT. DCPS teachers who are rated highly effective in consecutive years see their salaries increase dramatically, in some cases rising to more than $100,000 after five years.

High-Performance Teachers in Low-Performance Schools. Dallas and DC have earned recognition for their approaches, which combine skill-level- and performance-based compensation, differentiated by location, with strategies for retaining the best teachers in schools with the most challenging teaching environments. 

Dallas ISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) program pays stipends to its top-rated teachers and administrators who work in the district’s poor-performance schools. Currently, leading teachers are paid $8,000 stipends for taking on extra noninstructional responsibilities in areas such as professional development, lesson planning, and data monitoring.

Dallas ISD’s Annie Webb Blanton Elementary—a Pre-K–5 school in which 90% of the students are from families with incomes below the poverty line—has rapidly benefited from ACE. Preliminary results for 2018 show that Blanton, which had missed the state’s accountability marks in the previous five years, matched or exceeded reading-level scores of schools in more affluent areas of the district.

Teachers in DCPS’s highest-need schools who have earned top ratings for six or more consecutive years are paid salaries that normally go to teachers with 12 additional years of experience. The Georgetown FutureEd study showed that the percentage of highly effective teachers in DCPS’s 40 lowest-performance schools rose from 75% in 2011 to 83% in 2016. Another study of the DCPS program, IMPACT, conducted by professors from the University of Virginia and Stanford University, showed how student outcomes in historically low-performance schools had improved after a single year with highly rated teachers. Their controlled analysis showed that when highly effective teachers replaced less effective teachers in these schools, students progressed an average of four additional months of learning in both math and reading. The NCTQ report also noted that since 2009, DCPS has made significant gains in the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. Furthermore, the white-black student achievement gap in fourth-grade math and reading has narrowed.

Progressing from Programs to Practices

Initiatives aimed at improving teacher effectiveness must be considered more than simple reforms. At the same time, we cannot expect such initiatives to be silver bullets, and we must not reduce their results to sound bite judgments. Such initiatives must become part of how districts operate. The following imperatives are aimed at increasing the likelihood that schools will succeed in embedding management processes in their institutions to enhance teacher effectiveness over time.

  • Make rewards meaningful. Teachers should receive extra compensation for demonstrating outstanding skills, and the financial rewards need to be significant enough to motivate good teachers to stay and to grow. Rewards and recognition beyond compensation are important, too. In a video on the Dallas ISD website, teachers praise the DTR process for recognizing their efforts to, in one teacher’s words, “go above and beyond.” Another praised it for helping her look more critically at her strengths and weaknesses and to find ways that she could improve.
  • Stay the course. Such initiatives must have leaders who support the process, building capacity over time regardless of turnover in the school, district, or state leadership. Despite turnover in the role of DCPS’s chancellor, IMPACT has received consistent support through a dedicated office and committed team. In addition, the Dallas and DC stories illustrate that as long as evaluations are tied to performance-based decisions about teacher retention, development, and pay, teacher evaluation practices can be considered district-level strategy to improve teacher effectiveness. However, to pay off, changing these complex systems requires patience and time.
  • Refine as you learn. Progressing from a program to a permanent process requires continual experimentation and learning-driven improvements. For example, the Dallas ISD compensation model has been reviewed annually to ensure market competitiveness. This means making adjustments to the compensation levels and providing salary increases for returning teachers who meet eligibility requirements. This has prompted Dallas ISD to raise the cap on the number of people who can receive the highest ratings, and it has simplified the system by reducing the number of compensation levels. As noted above, the ACE model continues to evolve.

IMPACT has also made many modifications, including, for example, reducing the number of classroom observations as teachers improve and adjusting the weights assigned to various elements of evaluations. Recognizing the potential for conflict when using evaluations for development and ratings, DCPS created a separate professional-development system that is not based on high-stakes performance evaluations.

  • Be clear and inclusive. The best way to get teachers on board for change is to ask for their input early and often. The sites that have been most successful are those that, from the start, engage teachers in the design and implementation planning and in making improvements. Dallas ISD routinely gathers feedback on the evaluation rubric from teachers, principals, and other stakeholders and calibrates it through campus visits and data analyses. It also recruits teachers from each school campus to attend regular evaluation system trainings and encourages participants to share what they learn with their colleagues. DCPS offers IMPACT guidebooks customized for teachers in different grades and roles, and it provides onsite training at individual schools. An IMPACT team member is on call to answer questions and address teachers’ and administrators’ concerns.
  • Invest beyond teacher effectiveness. While a tight focus on strategies to influence teacher effectiveness is necessary, there are many other investments inside and outside the classroom that are critical for students. BCG’s K–12 Transformation Framework identifies many key drivers of student outcomes, including early-childhood education; students’ social and emotional competencies; “wraparound” support services, such as college prep and health and nutrition guidance; and family engagement. Dallas and DC have invested heavily in these support services, which complement and augment teacher effectiveness efforts. 

The Rewards of Persistence and Patience

Tom Kane, Harvard University’s faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research served as deputy director of the BMGF’s US education branch from 2008 through 2012. In his reflections on the BMGF teaching effectiveness initiative, he wrote that “the US education policy community has a long history of picking up and later dropping reform ideas.”  

Indeed, changing how teachers are evaluated, rewarded, and supported is not easy. Measuring how teacher effectiveness management initiatives affect students is even harder. The good news is that public-school reformers who champion management innovations to increase teacher effectiveness aren’t dropping their ideas—or their ideals. They’re staying the course, doubling down on the ideas that work. And their persistence is being rewarded.

Subscribe to our Education E-Alert.

Subscribe to our Education E-Alert.