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Worth the Risk: Supporting the Art of Great Teaching

How collaborative classroom evaluation is producing measures teachers can trust.

SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results Giving That Gets Results is an eight-week series of voices from the vanguard of giving. Philanthropists and foundation executives share how they are adapting their strategies, aiming for results, and measuring their impact to learn and improve. #givesmart

In the fall of 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project. Our $45 million investment into this first-of-its-kind research sought to answer one seemingly simple question: What does great teaching look like? To suggest that the art of teaching could be measured, though, was controversial. We knew we were taking a risk investing in the MET research, but that the risk would be worth it if the project could generate fair and valid measures that teachers could trust.

We’ve all known terrific teachers. You step into their classroom for only a few minutes, and you’re captivated. However, despite 40 years of research pointing to huge differences in student achievement gains across teachers, most school leaders couldn’t pinpoint what makes a teacher effective. This meant they couldn’t identify their most effective teachers and, perhaps more importantly, couldn’t help develop other effective teachers. That's because for decades, our schools lacked the kinds of measurement tools they needed to effect change. As a result, teachers traditionally received little to no feedback about how to improve their craft.

We also knew that making a new evaluation and professional development system work would require considerable resources and collaboration. The MET project was an extraordinary, three-year collaboration between seven public school districts, dozens of researchers and nearly 3,000 teacher volunteers who opened their classrooms so that we could study how to improve the way we measure and support great teaching.

The results of this collaboration have proven incredibly valuable. Earlier this year, the MET project released its final findings, confirming that it is indeed possible to develop reliable measures of great teaching. The findings also showed something that most teachers already know: Effective evaluation requires more than just tracking student test scores. Useful evaluation also needs to incorporate things like feedback from students, parents and peer teachers, as well as an investment of time in reviewing actual teaching. As a result of the MET findings, states and school districts are now beginning to embrace a more nuanced, multiple-measures approach to improving teacher evaluation and professional development. This is incredibly promising. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, as of October 2013, 27 states plus D.C. have implemented teacher ratings based on multiple measures, and 44 states plus D.C. now require that teacher evaluations include classroom observation.

The risk now is whether we’ll be able to implement what we’ve learned to give teachers the tools, resources, and support they need to do their best work. For example, we learned that multiple-measure approaches that allocate between 33 and 50 percent of the weight to student achievement are enough to show meaningful differences among teachers. Because of this, we are now encouraging districts to use more balanced weights to avoid putting too much emphasis on one measure. Giving any single measure (whether student achievement, observations, or surveys) too much weight can open the door to manipulation and detract attention and effort from improvement on the other measures.

And again, partnership is the way forward. In Memphis, Tenn.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Pittsburgh; and Los Angeles, district officials are working alongside teachers, principals, union leaders, and community organizations to develop cutting-edge evaluation systems. These systems will provide teachers with specific feedback about how to hone their craft.

Changing the way we think about teaching evaluation and professional development is a relatively new pursuit, and there is still a lot that we don’t know. We’re committed to sharing what we learn, and we hope that others will continue to build on that knowledge base over time. Taking on some risk is the price of enacting this kind of change, particularly for foundations and nonprofits. If you want to get results, you can't cut out all risk. The challenge is to strike the balance—a bold vision coupled with a considered, collaborative approach.

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