What You Need To Know: Teacher Quality And Evaluations

Teacher Quality broadly defines a set of measures ensuring that employees or applicants for jobs in education fields are proficient. Quality measures are especially visible as applied to teachers in grades K-12, but also apply to Pre-K and higher education. These measures examine whether children are learning and retaining appropriate information for their grade levels based on instruction. Teacher quality measures and controls vary by state. Regulating teacher quality at a governmental level started fairly recently.

National and State Teacher Quality Websites:

Regulating Teacher Quality: A Brief History

Normal Schools

The first attempts to regulate teacher training came through “Normal Schools,” the precursor to the modern-day teaching colleges, where teachers learned the “norms” of the profession. But it was still customary for communities to set rules governing teacher quality, which often amounted to a set of personal and moral codes of conduct.

Education and the Space Race

The Department of Education became an office under the Department of the Interior in 1868, offering guidance to states but little more. After the Soviet Union beat the United States into space, launching Sputnik in 1957, the US turned its attention to education under an increasing sense that the United States was falling behind “the communists” in core subjects like science and math. So in 1958, the U.S. government offered schools funding tied to improving teaching science and math through the National Defense Education Act; that act still expressly forbade federal control over curriculum, administration, or personnel, leaving quality control in the hands of states and local districts.

The New Department of Education and “A Nation at Risk”

President Jimmy Carter established the current U.S. Department of Education as a cabinet-level department in 1979. In 1983, the fledgling department published “A Nation at Risk,” a study of teacher and school quality completed under then-president Ronald Reagan.

“A Nation at Risk” put the fears of 1958 on paper – that the United States was falling behind in worldwide competition because of holes in the education system. “A Nation at Risk” also listed ways to reform education, including seven measures for improving teacher quality like college preparation, limited contracts , building career ladders and encouraging nontraditional math and science teachers, education incentives, master teachers, and performance-based pay.

Introducing Value-Added Measures

The report unleashed a groundswell of education reform. In Tennessee, in response to Reagan’s education initiatives, Governor Lamar Alexander looked for a way to measure teachers based on student learning. Dr. William Sanders, an agricultural geneticist at the University of Tennessee, presented Alexander with a solution: a “value-added” assessment for teachers.

Value-added data would become extremely important in guiding teacher quality measures nationwide almost two decades later; Alexander would later become Secretary of Education under George H. Bush.

Although President Ronald Reagan said he preferred to let states manage education policy, after “A Nation at Risk” was published, he began to link federal aid to measures of student achievement.

Building Reform Measures

Seven years later, in 1989, President George H. Bush called an education summit, laying groundwork for the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) of 1994. President George Clinton signed the IASA into law.  The act re-authorized the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” or ESEA.

The ESEA was written in 1965 to fund schools at an equal level; Congress can renew the measure every five years. The IASA was meant to “[provide] greater decision-making authority and flexibility to schools and teachers in exchange for greater responsibility for student performance.” By 1998, the IASA was unfunded and unsupported.

No Child Left Behind

When the ESEA was due for renewal in 2001, Congress and President George W. Bush wrote an act known as “No Child Left Behind,” definitively tying federal funding and school assistance to student achievement. The act mandated “highly qualified teachers” in core subject areas. States determined what those  teachers looked like in plans they submitted to the Department of Education in 2002.

NCLB was due for renewal in 2007 during a presidential election; it’s due for renewal again in 2012. President Barack Obama has called for a rewrite in the renewal.

Race to the Top and Teacher Quality

In 2010, Obama announced a federal competition for stimulus money for education known as “Race to the Top.” Through that initiative and under plans to revise NCLB, Obama called for increased accountability measures, including teacher evaluations rooted in measures like student achievement.

Common Teacher Quality Controls and Measures

Certification refers to how colleges, universities or other nationally-recognized training organizations recognize teachers for completing professional programs. Teachers may earn certification through a licensed teacher education program, state programs and testing, or National Board Certification tests. Candidates must pass the National Teacher Examination (NTE) for graduation from teacher colleges.

Licensure is determined at the state level; many states use tests to determine teacher competency. Licensure is sometimes used interchangeably with certification, but licensure typically refers to teaching credentials conferred at the individual state level. Common licensure tests include PRAXIS and NES in addition to state-developed and mandated exams. All states recognize national certification, but only a few states offer reciprocity for localized state teaching licenses.

Differential pay, also known as performance pay or merit pay, rewards teachers for accomplishments instead of through a pay model based on level of education and classroom experience. Teachers often earn differential pay for student achievement, additional duties and working in hard-to-staff schools and subjects. Some states have adopted differential pay scales for all teachers; others allow differential pay scales but leave the final decision to local education agencies. Two federal grant programs, the Teacher Incentive Fund and the School Improvement Grant, provide funding for teacher differential pay based on value-added measurements (see below).

Evaluation measures how teachers perform in classrooms. Tests for teacher quality typically center around evaluations. The United States Department of Education made teacher evaluations a key requirement in a competition for federal grant money known as Race to the Top (RTTP). As a result, many states either put teacher evaluations in place in hopes of winning the competition or as part of the requirement for accepting the funds. Although Race to the Top requirements did set some guidelines, each state department of education sets its own requirements for teacher evaluation.

Evaluation systems in Southern Education Desk states

Professional Development is often included in discussions about teacher quality. Professional development is education above and beyond initial certification. Most professional development is offered within local districts, although teachers may also earn additional development credits from accredited education colleges or national programs. For example, National Board Certification may count as professional development in some regions.

Tenure is a contract of employment with a local school system that establishes continued contract renewal unless the employer can show “just cause” to refuse renewal. “Just cause” includes, but is not limited to, acts of insubordination, conduct unbecoming a teacher, inefficiency, incompetence, physical or mental disability that interferes with job performance, neglect of duty, failure to maintain certification, or immoral character.  Tenured teachers may also have a hearing before a school board or other governing body before dismissal and may appeal the decision – except in some states, including Mississippi and Alabama. New teachers must go through a probationary period before earning tenure; the terms and time of those guidelines are set by each state.  Tenure is non-transferrable.

Tenure in Southern Education Desk States:

  • Alabama: After three consecutive years,
  • Georgia: After three consecutive years.
  • Louisiana: After three consecutive years.
  • Mississippi: After one year.
  • Tennessee: After five consecutive years and two consecutive above-average ratings on evaluations.

Value-Added Measurements:

Value-Added measurements examine effectiveness based on statistics pulled from student test scores and achievement data, determining what was added to a student’s knowledge base during his or her time with a specific teacher.

Criticism of Current Teacher Quality Measures:

Certification and Licensure: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called national teacher colleges “mediocre,” and many have come under national criticism for inadequately preparing teachers. Groups such as the New Teacher Project  and Teach for America say their teachers show strong gains in student growth with without specialized education degrees.

Differential Pay has proven to be a controversial topic in education.  While supporters say it will reward teachers based on classroom achievement rather than on experience and education, critics say differential pay can foster a negative feeling of competition in schools.

Additional Reading:

Evaluations are also controversial in many areas. Critics – the most vocal of which are teacher unions – argue performance measures don’t always adequately demonstrate teacher quality. Proponents – the largest of which is the U.S. Department of Education – argue that regular evaluations develop best teaching practices and ensure all students receive a high-quality education.

Part of the controversy stems from how teacher evaluations are used; critics say they’re often used punitively, while the U.S. Department of education maintains evaluations should be used as guidelines for professional development.

Professional Development isn’t controversial as a practice as much as it is controversial for the cost and lasting effectiveness.


Many Southern states have changed teacher tenure regulations over the last several years as part of educational reform movements.

The Center for American Progress – February 2010 publication reviewing the reform effort for teacher tenure:

2011: Alabama changes tenure appeals process
2000: Georgia eliminates teacher tenure/2003: Georgia reinstates teacher tenure
2012: Louisiana’s education commissioner looks to change teacher tenure
2011: Tennessee changes teacher tenure

Value-Added Measurements have come under fire nationally from teacher associations.

Looking Ahead

Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality

Common Core State standards are state-developed standards guiding what students should learn at each grade level.  Common Core standards are also expected to help guide teacher quality in that teachers should understand what a consistent measure of student progress looks like and strive to meet those goals.

Further Reading

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