Teacher evaluation policies are widely used to measure effective teaching and improve teacher quality. Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development and Michigan State University wanted to know if early career teachers adjust their instruction to get better scores. And if they do, by how much.
In a new study published this spring in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Peter Youngs, professor of education at UVA, Jihyun Kim, a graduate of Michigan State and assistant professor of education at Sungshin Women’s University, and Ken Frank, professor of education at Michigan State, found that as teachers perceived pressure associated with teacher evaluation policies, their instruction, specifically their ambitious mathematics instruction, changes.
Kim, Frank, and Youngs identified ambitious or rigorous math instruction as the way to measure how teachers’ instruction changed based on their perceived pressure from teacher evaluation. Ambitious math instruction is defined as teaching that helps students develop both procedural knowledge and conceptual understanding in mathematics.
“The core finding of our study is that when teachers feel a lot of pressure from teacher evaluation policies, they move away from ambitious math instruction,” Kim said.
Ambitious math instruction is less about the level or difficulty of math being taught and more about the way teachers engage the curriculum in different ways. Instead of only aiming for students to get the right answer, it is focused on helping students develop conceptual understanding of mathematics and apply it in in-depth ways to solve math problems.
For example, an elementary teacher using ambitious math instruction may begin a lesson by explaining the importance of math in a larger context and reminding her students that they are, indeed, mathematicians. She would then present the class with a problem to solve and provide a variety of tools to solve it. Finally, she would provide support for students as they work toward a solution and then end the lesson by having students share their solutions and explain how they reached them.
“Following this example, less ambitious instruction can take many forms,” Young explained. “The teacher might not position each child as a capable mathematician. The teacher might have only a single solution strategy/representation in mind that they expect students to use. The teacher might have students work independently without sharing or being asked to justify their solution strategies.”
The team focused on ambitious instruction in this study for two reasons.
“First, the 2010 Common Core State Standards in Mathematics called for elementary teachers to focus on students’ higher-order thinking skills in mathematics,” Youngs said. “Second, research indicates that the specific kind of mathematics instruction included in ambitious instruction contributes to student learning.”
The study revealed that the teachers with high levels of mathematical teaching knowledge made the most significant changes to their instruction based on perceived pressure from teacher evaluation policies.
“Among teachers who perceived high levels of pressure associated with teacher evaluation, teachers with high levels of mathematical knowledge for teaching reduced the rigor of their mathematics instruction more than teachers with low levels of mathematical knowledge for teaching,” Youngs said.
The study aimed to uncover how teachers perceived teacher evaluation and how much pressure they felt because of it. The researchers measured the magnitude of the pressure teachers felt by their responses to the team’s survey.
According to Youngs, the team didn’t know if specific risks exist with a lower evaluation score, for example, if a teacher was at risk of experiencing any discipline or at risk of losing their job.
“We don’t know individual teacher evaluation ratings, though we know very few teachers score low enough on teacher evaluations to be concerned about losing their positions,” Kim said.
This paper is part of a larger study of social networks surrounding early career teachers the researchers are conducting. The larger study examined if early career teachers’ social networks played in a role in their enactment of ambitious mathematics instruction.
The researchers are hoping their findings can help inform the discussion around teacher evaluation policies and how those are understood by teachers. Ideally, policymakers will explore additional ways to help teachers will maintain their high levels of rigorous mathematics instruction.