Reviewing REACH five years later: teachers say yes to helpful feedback, no to punitive scoring

Five years after Chicago rolled out a teacher evaluation system that tied educator scores to student achievement, a new survey shows most teachers say it improves their performance in the classroom, but don’t want the scores used to hire or fire them. 

The survey from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research asks educators and administrators how effective they find the annual evaluations, and what they’d like to see change. 

The main takeaway: Teachers and administrators markedly split on the stakes of evaluations.  

Researchers spoke to 1,200 teachers and administrators in Chicago Public Schools. While 83% of teachers and 93% of administrators agreed that teacher evaluations have helped improve classroom instruction, they differed on how those results should be used. Most teachers said evaluations should not be a factor in deciding whether to dismiss or grant tenure to a teacher. But 85% of administrators said they found evaluations helpful in making personnel decisions. 

The study looked at the evaluation system known as Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago’s Students, known as REACH, for  the 2016-2017 school year. Results show a tension inherent in the current system of teacher evaluations, Lauren Sartain, one of the study’s authors, said. She said teacher evaluations serve dual purposes, both to improve instruction and to hold teachers accountable.

That means the evaluations can carry high stakes and also provide a useful learning tool. “When you have one policy with two goals, there is a tension there,“ she said. 

REACH came about as part of a push to remake teacher evaluations by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which offered federal dollars to enact favored policies, like those linking teacher evaluation to student test scores. Chicago threw out its old evaluation system and brought in REACH. The Chicago Teachers Union criticized it at the time and has continued in contract negotiations and during last year’s teachers strike to press for changing its impact.

Now the conversation on teacher evaluations has shifted. The state is grappling with a growing teacher shortage and lawmakers have been considering how tests, evaluations and other ways of measuring teacher performance have seen backlash from teachers, even as it’s harder to convince people to enter the profession. 

In Indiana, lawmakers are considering decoupling evaluations from test scores

 “The conventional wisdom has shifted,“ said Dan Weisberg, head of the teacher training group TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project. Even so, he said, “we are not going to go back to the time when it is acceptable to say we have addressed teacher quality because we have a certified teacher in every classroom.“

Weisberg is concerned that the current evaluation system isn’t set up to discern nuanced differences, like whether wealthier districts benefit from more experienced teachers. “One of the problems with having a system that rates all teachers the same is you can’t see the inequities in the distribution of talent,“ he said. 

A teacher’s REACH evaluation is composed, broadly, of classroom observations and either performance tasks, which show student growth on district-created measures, or a score based on standardized math and reading tests, in grades 3-8. Observations carry the most weight. The ratings have four tiers: unsatisfactory, developing, proficient, and excellent. 

Researchers interviewed teachers about their experience with REACH during the 2016-2017 school year. During that time, nearly nine in 10 Chicago teachers received the top two ratings. Nearly half, or 40%, received an “excellent“ in that year, compared with 26% two years earlier. 

Research shows most teachers find REACH effective for instructional practice, but less so for student learning 

A total of 83% of teachers and administrators said the evaluations helped them pinpoint specific areas for improvement. 

To a lesser degree, they saw positive impacts on students. The paper found that 71% of administrators and 69% of teachers said REACH had improved student learning. 

Teachers cited the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers as the least accurate part of the evaluations.That may be because they questioned the reliability of results of standardized tests, known by their acronym NWEA. In Chicago, the integrity of recent NWEA tests, which are used to evaluate student learning for REACH, has been questioned by the district’s former inspector general after an investigation found discrepancies in how it was administered. 

On the other hand, administrators said that skills that teachers graded themselves on were the least accurate reflections of teacher performance. About two-thirds of administrators said those skills, known as performance tasks, only measured teacher performance a little or not at all.

But opinions varied by school, perhaps because of differing teacher-principal relations and attitudes toward feedback and evaluation. 

REACH ratings are highly correlated with teacher mobility  

Administrators and teachers differed the most on using evaluations to decide tenure or dismissal. 

Most teachers didn’t want REACH to be tied to any personnel decisions. 

But only 15% of administrators surveyed disagreed with using the evaluations to determine dismissal or tenure. 

The Chicago Teachers Union has remained critical of teacher evaluations, arguing they reflect a school’s climate and culture and the measure of poverty among families. The union keeps a tally of grievances related to REACH that it files on behalf of members.

A negative evaluation “essentially puts a black mark on their careers as teachers,“ rather than reflecting their skills, spokeswoman Chris Geovanis said. “For many of the evaluations that members contest, there have been other issues that motivate poor REACH evaluations that can threaten members’ capacity to continue to teach at a school …  like a principal looking to retool a position or free up funding.“ 

The survey found that lower evaluation also means teachers are more likely to leave their schools. More than half of teachers who received the lowest rating left Chicago schools altogether, while 16% switched schools within the district. 

The study found that clear, actionable and direct feedback works best 

The report suggests that the key to a successful use of teacher evaluations is making sure that feedback is useful to educators. It should be specific, transferable and applicable, researchers suggested. 

It also worked best amid a strong collaborative relationship between an evaluator and teacher — and sufficient time and effort reflecting on the evaluation. 

“The question is, how do you move away from this accountability lens and toward this instructional improvement piece,” Sartain said, referring to the dual purposes of evaluation. “How can this be used to identify teachers who need support and targeted help?“