The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has released “How to Evaluate and Retain Effective Teachers” (2011-2013), but this report misreads the evidence on teacher evaluation and thus distracts high-poverty states from needed educational reform. 
A review of the report
shows it does not establishing a clear problem with teacher quality in SC and misrepresents the current body of research on teacher evaluation, particularly value added methods (VAM) of evaluation.
As a high-poverty and racially diverse state, SC is similar to many other states facing educational hurdles, but those hurdles have less to do with identifying and ranking teacher quality and more to do with the inequitable distribution of teachers. Children of color, children in poverty, English language learners, and special needs students are taught disproportionately by inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. SC and other high-poverty states would do well to address teacher assignment and teaching conditions before experimenting with new teacher evaluation systems.
Ultimately, this report misreads and misrepresents the current understanding of how to evaluate and determine teacher quality—specifically through test-based methods.
Misguided Reform in High-Poverty States
While the report does acknowledge several important concerns with determining teacher quality, the analysis overstates the importance of teacher quality by depending on faulty research (notably work by Hanushek and Chetty, Friendam and Rockoff) and not noting that measurable student outcomes (tests) are overwhelmingly reflections of out-of-school factors, as noted by Di Carlo:
“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms.”
Several flawed studies have received a great deal of media support, leading to flawed assumptions about teacher quality also reflected in the report. The three-great-teachers-in-a-row assertion and high quality teachers equaling higher salaries are two such claims that are either drawn from faulty studies or mischaracterizations by the media.
Yes, teacher quality matters, but measuring teacher quality—especially based on student test scores—is complex since controlling for all factors in student test scores is costly in time and funding. Test-based teacher evaluations are also inconsistent from year to year (teachers rated in one category are typically rated a different category in following years with different students).
The current research base on teacher evaluations linked to tests scores shows that creating a new teacher evaluation system incorporating student test data remains a costly experiment with public funds in states where pressing needs outweigh the need to experiment.
If SC and other high-poverty states were in a situation to experiment (and they aren’t), even advocates of value added methods of teacher evaluation suggest including student test scores at no more than 10-15% of the overall evaluation. Many states, however, are adopting systems including test scores at 40-50%, with many teachers being held accountable for students they never teach.
Now, any efforts to consider or field-test new teacher evaluation systems in high-poverty states are inexcusable wastes of time and money. Instead, high-poverty states would be better served by addressing the following:
• Identify how to allocate better state resources to address childhood and family poverty, childhood food security, child and family access to high-quality health care, and stable, well paying work.
• Replace current education policies based on accountability, standards, and testing with policies that address equity and opportunity for all students.
• Address inequitable distribution of teacher quality among students in greatest need.
• Address the conditions of teaching and learning in the state’s schools, including issues of student/teacher ratios, building conditions and material availability, administrative and community support of teachers, equitable school funding and teacher salaries, teacher job security and academic freedom in a right-to-work state, and school safety.
Any policy changes that further entrench the culture of testing in high-poverty states as a mechanism for evaluating students, teachers, and schools perpetuate the burden of inequity in the state and schools.
High-poverty states do not need new standards, new tests, or new teacher evaluation systems. SC, like much of the U.S., needs to come to terms with identifying problems first before seeking solutions. The problems facing schools are ones of equity and opportunity, and no current teacher evaluation plan is facing those realities, including this report.
 This commentary was submitted to several papers in SC, but none ran the piece.