Teachers Under Attack: Research on Attitudes

It's a loaded question, but it is undeniable that many teachers across the country do feel their profession is publicly questioned, and College of Education student researchers are on the beat determining how state and national policies are creating perceived aggression.

Jessica Gottlieb, PhD Policy Studies in Urban Education student, found a suburban Chicago school district’s teacher evaluation system transformed from a professional development tool to a feared job retaining tool, despite no changes to the actual evaluation system itself.

What changed was Illinois state law.  Senate Bill 7, the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, required teacher evaluations to include data and indicators of student growth as a “significant factor” and introduced a new teacher rating system.

“The district I studied already had a strong evaluation system in place prior to the state requirements, but teachers felt the state legislation undermined the system almost entirely,” Gottlieb said. “They felt the system they had in place was about growing as a professional but was changing to a system that was very bureaucratic, do I get to keep my job or not.”

Through qualitative and quantitative research of teacher perceptions, Gottlieb found teachers’ focus changed from pursuing growth opportunities through evaluation to obtaining the best score possible on the state’s 1-4 scale.  Previously, the district had employed a last-in-first-out policy when layoffs were required, leading to long-term leadership roles for teachers with seniority.  State law now requires the most poorly rated teachers to be laid off first.

“If the process was about growth, teachers would be more comfortable in sharing if they were weak in a area of practice or to ask for help,” Gottlieb said. “With higher stakes evaluation, teachers felt less like they wanted to expose themselves.”

Gottlieb is expanding her research as part of a post-doctoral project in math education.  Looking specifically at math and science teachers, she is investigating if these educators view evaluation systems differently than other content area teachers.  Through the use of observational rubrics, she hopes to determine if these specific content areas impact how teachers respond to evaluation systems.  Her future research aims to explore how teachers respond to evaluation systems when they are asked to teach in entirely new ways.  With Common Core state standards implementation under way, teachers are simultaneously engaging in experimentation while undergoing ratings evaluations that impact their future employment.

“The research really makes a strong case that it is hard to have evaluation systems that serve dual purposes,” Gottlieb said. “It’s hard to have a system that is critical and supportive.  I think it is overlooked that districts are doing solid work, and in the case of evaluations, that work can really be undermined by top-down policies.”