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Managers still Using Widget Effect when Conducting Teacher Evaluations

Would you ever consider your teachers as nothing more than widgets? Although most principals and school officials would respond with a resounding “No,” it appears that the so-called
“Widget Effect” still applies to how teachers are treated, according to a new study released by Matthew Kraft and Allison Gilmour.

The researchers said that little has changed since 2009. That’s when TNTP released a study that showed administrators often treat teachers as interchangeable components — widgets, in effect. The original report, called “The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness,” was based on 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators. Here are some of the main findings:

Generic ratings: All teachers are rated good or great, with less than 1 percent of teachers earning unsatisfactory ratings. Teachers who are exceptional are lumped with all the others.

Poor performers are not addressed: About 50 percent of the districts in the study had not dismissed a tenured teacher for poor performance in the previous five years.

Inadequacies in professional development: Following their last evaluation, nearly 3 out of 4 teachers did not receive specific feedback on how to improve their performance.

Lack of training for new teachers: Expectations were too low for new teachers, leading to neglect in helping them make progress and earn tenure.

Poor performance goes unaddressed: Half of the districts studied had not dismissed a single tenured teacher for poor performance in the previous five years.

New study findings

In conducting the research, Kraft and Gilmour wanted to determine if teacher evaluation reforms resulted in any meaningful outcomes with teacher performance ratings and if the ratings better reflected perceptions about teacher effectiveness.

In spite of reforms, many of the previous behaviors surrounding teacher evaluations are still apparent — 7 years after the initial “Widget Effect” report. For instance, based on evaluator surveys, 27.8 percent of teachers were estimated at performing at a level below Proficient. Yet, that estimate proved to be four times as high as the percentage of teachers who actually received the lower rating.

When asked about their reluctance to rate teachers more accurately by giving a below Proficient rating, administrators and other evaluators noted that they didn’t have the time to document performance and provide the needed support for the teachers’ professional growth. Others said that it would require a significant amount of observations to justify the rating.

One middle school principal told the researchers, “I just feel like sometimes you have to have a lot of detail before you can give somebody a ‘Needs Improvement.’”

Other reasons for not giving the lower rating included the teachers seemed to have potential for improvement, avoidance of emotional conversations to explain the low ratings, and concerns about finding replacements.