STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Will better evaluations and more training help Michigan's teachers improve?

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

Teacher evaluations have become a hot political topic in Michigan.

Chances are if you’ve heard anything about them, the discussion has been about how to use evaluations to get rid of poor-performing teachers.

But that's not the only way to use them. Teacher evaluations can be a tool to help teachers improve their craft. 

Now, Michigan legislators are considering changes that some say could help teachers do so. 

Michigan already has a law to mandate teacher evaluations. It was passed in 2011. Now, less than three years later, lawmakers are already considering changes.

Last time around, they left out something that’s turned out to be pretty important.

"The 2011 bill didn’t provide any training," says Amber Arrellano, who leads the advocacy group Education Trust-Midwest. "And that’s part of the problem."

She compares Michigan to other states that also put teacher evaluation laws on the books, while at the same time investing in teacher training.

"All invested heavily in teachers that are in their classrooms today and ensuring that they get regular coaching and support in how to improve their practice," Arrellano says.

Arrellano says those states, states like Tennessee, are now crushing Michigan in measures of student growth.

But if good teacher training matters, how do we know what it looks like?

Earlier this school year, I sat in on a teacher professional development day at Grand Rapids Public Schools. The morning session focused on a video of a teacher giving a lesson on area and perimeter.

Bridget Cheney, principal at Congress Elementary, told teachers what to look for as they watched the video a second time.

"We want you to focus this time, on those specific teacher moves that were high-yielding in the classroom," she instructed.

It might not seem like much, but it turns out video can be a powerful tool to improve teaching.

Thomas Kane is a researcher at Harvard, and one of the leading experts on how to improve teacher performance.  

He says coaching teachers can be a lot like coaching athletes. Every athlete analyzes video. Kane says every teacher should too.

"And for some reason, we’ve never taken teaching seriously enough, and expertise in teaching seriously enough to use the tools of video to allow teachers to get that kind of feedback that athletes get," he says.

"I wish I could tell you that every school system, or even the majority of school systems, were doing this well yet," Kane says of teacher evaluations. "And I don't think I can say that."

Kane says teachers shouldn’t just be watching videos of other people’s lessons. They should have videos of their own lessons.

He says the videos can also be used to improve teacher evaluations.

"I wish I could tell you that every school system, or even the majority of school systems, were doing this well yet," Kane says. "And I don’t think I can say that."

Part of the reason is that doing evaluations well costs districts money.

"We don’t have staff development offices, says Matt Wandrie, superintendent ofLapeerCommunity Schools. "And the ratio of administrators to teachers is so large. You may have three administrators in a building with a hundred teachers. And you’ve got to evaluate and observe each of those people. Does that kind of ratio allow for really in-depth work? Probably not. Not to the level it needs to be."

The level it needs to be involves frequent observation, and supportive coaching. Sometimes what an evaluator is looking for can seem like a tiny detail: Are instructions clear enough? Does the teacher take too much time handing out papers? These little things can make a big difference in the classroom.

If teachers could see these steps on video, it might help.  

But it also helps to have a coach who’s trained in what to look for.

The proposed changes to Michigan’s teacher evaluation law would create more standards for how to conduct the evaluations. At the same time, Gov. Snyder has also proposed spending an additional $28 million on teacher training and evaluation. Lawmakers are currently considering both proposals. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.