Grade Inflation in Michigan’s Teacher Evaluation System

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write, January 17, 2017

According to Michigan’s latest teacher effectiveness ratings, nearly every teacher in the state is doing very well.
Photo courtesy of Ludwig.

It’s not just students who are impacted by grade inflation these days. Teacher evaluation ratings for the 2015-16 school year were recently released, and the results are either very impressive or very disconcerting depending on how you look at them. According to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), only 400 teachers were “ineffective” last year and 1,923 were “minimally effective.” The other 91,841 teachers (or 97.5% of them) were rated either “effective” or “highly effective.”

At first, this may sound like great news – nearly every single student in Michigan is being taught by an effective teacher. However, as discussed in more depth in a previous Green & Write piece, Michigan students’ lackluster academic achievement is in stark contrast to the state’s supposedly high-performing teachers. National test results from 2015 place Michigan far below average. The state ranked 42nd in fourth-grade math, 41st in fourth-grade reading, 38th in eighth-grade math, and 31st in eighth-grade reading. In Detroit, the gap between teacher and student performance is even greater. Since 2009, Detroit students have ranked last among their peers in 20 large urban centers. Despite the city’s abysmal standing, 68% of teachers were rated “highly effective.” Yet statewide, only 42% of teachers were given this highest label.

Inflated Teacher Effectiveness Ratings Aren’t New or Unique to Michigan

It’s difficult to make sense of the fact that nearly every teacher in Michigan has been deemed effective when students aren’t even achieving at an average level relative to their peers across the country. But these inflated teacher evaluation ratings are not new in Michigan. Since 2011-12, no fewer than 97% of teachers in the state have been rated “effective” or “highly effective.”

This lack of variance in teacher effectiveness has been an issue across the country for a number of years, most notably documented by The New Teacher Project’s (TNTP) 2009 report titled The Widget Effect. Over the years, researchers have continued to find that that low effectiveness ratings are used sparingly in most states. According to a 2016 study by Matthew A. Kraft and Allison F. Gilmour (discussed in more detail here), Michigan has fewer ineffective teachers than nearly every state also using four performance categories. Only Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Hawaii have fewer ineffective teachers.

Moving Toward a More Realistic Teacher Evaluation System

It’s time to be more realistic about teacher evaluation. According to education researcher Robert J. Marzano, teacher evaluation has two purposes – to measure and develop teachers. I argue that we are currently failing at both in Michigan. We can’t possibly be measuring teacher performance accurately given the incongruity between teacher evaluation ratings and student achievement. We are also doing very little to develop teachers by labeling nearly every single one of them as effective. Telling a teacher year after year that he or she is “effective” or “highly effective” does not encourage ongoing development. We need to stop attaching such a negative stigma to low effectiveness ratings and instead use them productively. Teacher evaluation ought to provide an accurate picture of teacher performance and should be used to assist all teachers in improving their practices. Michigan’s inflated teacher effectiveness ratings are currently doing a disservice to both teachers and students.

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.