Conversations with Arne Duncan - Offering advice on educator evaluations By Carol Corbett Burris and Kevin G. Welner

Conversations with Arne Duncan

Offering advice on educator evaluations

The national push for new teacher evaluations is real; educators should not miss this opportunity to influence policy makers with solid evidence.

By Carol Corbett Burris and Kevin G. Welner


38 Kappan October 2011

We can’t say how many high school principals get calls from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, particularly when he knows he’ll be speaking with a critic of his policies. We do know that he got an earful when he called the principal of South Side High School in New York, Carol Burris (one of the authors of this article).

Burris’ correspondence with Secretary Duncan began on July 5, 2011, when she published an open letter to him on The Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog. She writes in that letter about the test-based evaluation of teachers and principals, a policy that’s received increasing national attention from policy makers. She describes the hard-working teachers at her high school and explains how New York state’s new educator evaluation system would harm the work they do:

[T]he punitive evaluation policies that New York state has adopted (and that many other states have adopted) due to the Race to the Top competition are . . . a dangerous gamble that might score political points but . . . will hinder what you and I and so many others want — better schools for our kids. We already know from research that reforms based on high-stakes testing do not improve long-term learning.

She also writes about the negative climate that New York’s teachers and students now experience due to rating teachers by student test scores. “Both students and teachers feel the brunt of this distrust,” she noted. The open letter described the New York policy as “the legacy of the policies that were rushed into place by states to get the federal Race to the Top money.”

A few weeks later, Secretary Duncan called Burris. They spoke about the evaluation of teachers by test scores, and he listened to her concerns. He recognized the problems inherent in test-score based evaluation systems, especially when year-to-year comparisons are made. They both agreed on the importance of high-quality evaluation systems, and Secretary Duncan asked Burris to send him her ideas regarding effective evaluation policies. The two of us then prepared a response. What follows is the central argument contained in our July 27 letter to Secretary Duncan. (The full text of this letter is available on the web site of the National Education Policy Center: Arne-Duncan.)

Evaluations can be powerful interventions. High- quality, thoughtful evaluation carries the potential to improve schooling. Misguided evaluation ap- proaches, however, have a corresponding potential to harm our schools. It is essential, therefore, that we understand how to design evaluation systems that have the greatest likelihood of improving rather than undermining school performance. In our view, any evaluation system must be judged on the basis of its overall effect on student learning and that determin- ing an evaluation regime’s overall effect implicates at least four categories of information: (a) summative data, (b) formative data, (c) the nature of school working conditions, and (d) incentives for students, teachers, and administrators.

Summative data. Summative data have been the dominant focus of recent policies. This has primarily meant test-score results. The key goal of analyses of such summative data is to highlight excellent educa- tors and dismiss ineffective ones.

Formative data. Formative data are used to im- prove teaching and help educators become better at their profession. Formative data and summative data are used together in a sound evaluative system. For ...

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CAROL CORBETT BURRIS ( is prin- cipal of South Side High School, Rockville Centre, New York. KEVIN G. WELNER ( is director of the National Education Policy Center, and a professor of educa- tion policy, both at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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