The history, context and conflicts of teacher evaluations

Initially, politicians and policymakers saw teacher evaluations as a golden ticket that could strengthen education in Idaho, attract teachers to the profession, and boost the morale of those already in classrooms.  

In their minds, teacher evaluations would: 

  • Hold districts and teachers accountable for student achievement.
  • Foster reflection and improvement among teachers.
  • Identify and elevate the best teachers, who would be paid more – which would help with recruitment and retention.

But along the way, compromise and reality diluted and distorted that vision.

Today, evaluations sometimes reward the best teachers and are sometimes meaningful. But other times, they are tedious checklists and rote paperwork routines that have minimal impact on teacher pay. 

What is universal are the components and requirements. All district evaluations are based on two principal observations, student achievement data, and teacher progress toward a selected goal. Each year, districts and charters are audited for compliance. 

And all evaluations are tied to a teacher’s ability to earn raises and to the amount of money a state allocates to a district for salaries. 

Also universal: Nearly all teachers earn high marks. 

Critics say those marks are inflated. Educators and administrators defend the scores, saying unsatisfactory teachers have been weeded out. 

Most administrators agree that evaluations play an essential role in a teacher’s first three years. But after that, there’s disagreement about the role evaluations should play. Should the best teachers be paid more for excellence, or would that engender competition and undercut collaboration? 

Districts have different answers and approaches to that question – which means that in some districts, teachers can earn up to $11,000 in bonuses. In others, merit-based bonuses aren’t offered at all. 

And the state’s strict requirements for evaluations sideline districts’ ability to tailor the process to their unique needs and goals. 

The current teacher evaluation trajectory – which education leaders see as ongoing – was kickstarted with a major change in 2015.  

A 2015 law sparked an era of change in Idaho’s teacher evaluations

The greatest change to Idaho’s teacher evaluation system came amid sweeping national reforms. 

From 2009 to 2017, there was “a nationwide drive for accountability in K-12 education” that resulted in most states implementing “high-stakes teacher evaluation systems,” according to EdWeek’s Madeline Will

Those efforts were driven in part by former President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which offered incentives and funding to states that incorporated student achievement data in their evaluation systems and increased accountability measures for teachers, Will wrote. 

Arguably the most notable reform to Idaho’s teacher evaluations system occurred in 2015, when Gov. Butch Otter signed into law a career ladder that tied a teacher’s ability to earn raises to performance on evaluations. State allocations to districts for salaries also depended on those evaluations. 

But implementing it proved rocky; a 2015 independent audit (completed by McRel International) found that evaluations were often inaccurate or incomplete. 

And it seemed that Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra doubted the efficacy of the new evaluation system. As it turned out, she was quietly working with McRel to replace the evaluations system – even while the audit was underway. 

Eventually, though, Ybarra decided to scrap a revamp of the evals process and stick with the current model. 

The State Board of Education implemented a rigorous process of auditing its teacher evaluations, and over time, reports have shown improving compliance among districts and charters.

Today, education leaders and teachers say there are benefits to the current evaluations system – but there is still room for growth. 

For one, there is division about the role evaluations should play when it comes to teacher pay. 

And districts feel bound to strict evaluation requirements and say more leeway would allow for more meaningful evaluation practices. 

Read more at the links above, and if you need some more background information on evaluations before you get started, click here.

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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