Teacher evaluation: Finding “fabulous teachers” in Minnesota


For Dave Heistad, evaluating teacher performance is an important way to recognize what he calls the “fabulous teachers” working in Minnesota. In fact, Heistad believes that the strongest teacher evaluation systems are “instructional, not punitive,” and should be used to recognize and reward excellent teachers.

Heistad is an expert on evaluating teachers and figuring out what works in the classroom. For twenty-five years, he worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools, both as an evaluator of special programs and as the executive director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. Currently, Heistad is the executive director of Research, Evaluation and Testing for the Bloomington schools.

In his current work in Bloomington, Heistad says he just finished a study of second grade reading. The teachers who made progress in student achievement in this category, as measured by test results, have been identified, and will soon be presenting their strategies and stories of success to the Bloomington school board. This fits in with Heistad’s view that teacher evaluations should be used to identify, and learn from, what is working in real classroom settings.

Another example comes from Heistad’s years in Minneapolis. He recalls focusing on kindergarten-level “beat the odds” classrooms, where teachers achieved documented academic growth with low-income students of color. Using student data and teacher evaluations, the goal was to figure out which teachers were having the most success with students, and how they were doing it. By directly observing the teachers and tracking student progress, Heistad and other district staff were able to see what was working in these classrooms: having a strong teacher, with an identifiably structured approach to the classroom, as well as high expectations for all students.

Also, the teachers used data and classroom assessments to put students into small group work, based on their individual needs, and thus experienced greater levels of success with their students. Using the evaluation process to discover specific teaching practices that work, and then sharing them with other educators, should be a primary goal, according to Heistad.

This learning-focused approach to evaluations stands in marked contrast to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which Heistad says “made teachers look like they were failing.” According to Heistad, the NCLB was “all proficiency based,” because it rated schools only according to one form of assessment —“high stakes” standardized testing — for all students, no matter their background or individual needs.

For Heistad, the real value in assessment comes when “Value Added Measures “(VAM) are included. VAM is a system that analyzes student growth according to more than one overall standard applied to all students. Instead, it includes information about where individual students are at the start of a school year, and where they end up.

Also, assessing teachers or students using “VAM” takes into account such factors as a student’s income level, gender, ethnicity, and special ed status, and seeks to control for these factors. Although knowing how much a student’s academic growth to attribute to any one teacher remains somewhat controversial, in Heistad’s work, including such variables leads to a deeper look at student and teacher success.

This method is also applied to high achieving groups of students and their teachers. Under NCLB, students were simply measured on proficiency: did their scores exceed, meet, or not meet expected standards? Therefore, schools that were “high on proficiency and low on growth” would look successful, but students were not necessarily being challenged or moving forward much each year.

Using VAM as part of the equation, though, helps put a spotlight on teaching practices in all types of classrooms by measuring students’ individual growth. This way, schools and teachers are recognized not only for “high proficiency” rates, but also “high growth” rates.

Heistad also favors more than one form of evaluation for teachers. Rather than just using standardized test scores as a measure of student and teacher success, known as “summative assessments,” Heistad also advocates using “formative assessments.” This would include frequent observations of teachers in the classroom, student work, lesson plans, and other connected materials that demonstrate the connection, and success rates, between teaching and learning.

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Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.