State Policies on Teacher Effectiveness Show Incremental Improvements

If states were students, they'd barely be passing their classes on teacher policies. Across the country, the average state teacher policy grade for this year is C-. Nobody in the class of 51 (including the District of Columbia) rates better than a B+. That high mark goes to Florida.

The grades are issued by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a nonpartisan research and policy group that examines state laws, rules and regulations related to the teaching profession. In a 294-page report, the organization provides a state-by-state examination of teacher preparation, licensing and evaluation, compensation, professional development and dismissal.

The report noted that since the NCTQ first began issuing its letter grades in 2007, almost every state has improved its overall grade, but never has any earned an A overall. However, this year 13 states were given grades in the B+ to B- range; as a comparison, no state earned higher than a C in 2009.

In the area of teacher prep program admission, 24 states now set a "high academic bar." That means they specify a particular grade point average and/or test requirements for their candidates.

Elementary teachers in 22 states, middle school teachers in 26 states and secondary teachers in five states are required to demonstrate their content knowledge by passing academic content tests in every core subject they'll be teaching. For the first time, a slim majority of states (26) "adequately" measure new elementary teachers' knowledge of math.

More than two-thirds of states require at least a 10-week placement for student teaching; 13 states require that the mentor working with a student teacher prove effectiveness in the classroom through consistent gains in student achievement.

It's almost universal now that new, probationary teachers get annual evaluations; that's true for 45 states now. Slightly more than half of all states (27) require annual evaluations for all teachers.

Teacher effectiveness systems have come a long way. The report explained that in 2009, "not a single state had a longitudinal data system with unique statewide student and teacher identifiers that could connect student data across years and match individual teacher records with individual student records." Now, the "vast majority" of states have such systems. Also, 34 states can connect multiple teachers to a single student; and 26 states have a process for roster verification. These components are important, the researchers wrote, "for evaluations of teacher effectiveness that measure student growth."

The use of student outcomes as part of teacher evaluations shows up in 43 states. While five states — California, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska and Vermont — buck that trend altogether, in 16 states, it's considered a "preponderant criterion" in those evaluations (up from four states in 2009), and another 19 states consider it a "significant criterion."

Student achievement is also playing a bigger role in teacher tenure. Currently, 23 states require that tenure decisions be "informed" by teacher performance. In nine states it's the most significant criterion by which to grant teachers tenure or teacher contracts.

Teacher development has received a boost over the last several years. In 2011, the NCTQ began monitoring how many states connected teacher evaluation results to improvements in classroom practice through targeted professional development. That year, the organization found that 24 states required that teachers get feedback from evaluators on their evaluation results. Now that count is 38 states.

The identification of ineffective teaching as grounds for firing a teacher exists on the books within 28 states, a dramatic increase from a lone state that had a similar policy in 2009. Along the same lines 19 states now use performance as a factor in determining who should go first during a layoff; in 2011 when NCTQ began monitoring that, only 11 states had a similar policy. "Even more promising," the report noted, regulations in 22 additional states prevent seniority from being the "sole factor" in deciding which teachers must be laid off during cutbacks.

Licensing policies for special education are rated overall "abysmal" by NCTQ's researchers. Their reasoning: 21 states allow special ed teachers to earn a generic license to teach any special ed student in any grade. Another 16 offer K-12 licenses as an option. And only 14 states mandate that elementary special ed candidates demonstrate content knowledge on subjects they'll be teaching compared to 22 states that require it of any other teacher at that level. Currently, only three states require secondary-level special ed teachers to pass a test in every subject they're licensed to teach.

Florida beats all other states with its overall grade of B+, which is driven, the report stated, "by its strong teacher preparation and evaluation policies as well as the state's efforts to connect teacher evaluations to other policies of consequence, such as teacher salaries, contracts, professional development and dismissal." The most improved player is New Mexico, which has risen to a grade of C this year from a grade of D+, which it has held since 2009. There, the improvements have focused on bolstering requirements for teacher preparation programs and stronger teacher effectiveness policies.

At the bottom of the curve are four states that earned D- or F this year: Alaska, Montana, South Dakota and Vermont. "These states have consistently been unwilling to adopt teacher effectiveness policies," the report explained. In all cases except one, those states have made incremental improvements from grades they received in 2009; only Montana has retained the F grade it was issued back then.

"We haven't been easy on the states and we've never graded on a curve," acknowledged the report's authors. "The Yearbook has set the bar high for teacher quality because we think teaching is arguably the most important job there is. By focusing attention on policies that shape preparation, licensing, evaluation and compensation, NCTQ has aimed to push states to recognize the critical role they play in championing teacher effectiveness."

The organization asserted that it's "optimistic." "The progress made by states to date is real," the report pointed out, "and the willingness of state policymakers to take ownership of teacher effectiveness policy continues to grow." As a result, NCTQ is optimistic that every state in the U.S. is better positioned than ever to adopt strong and meaningful policies ensuring that every child, in every school, has an effective teacher."

The project was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.

The full report, "2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, National Summary," is openly available on the NCTQ Web site. The same link also leads to individual state reports.

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