Mason professor’s research finds that K–12 teacher evaluation feedback isn’t effective

Seth B. Hunter portrait
Seth B. Hunter. Photo by Creative Services

A George Mason University professor is getting attention in the education world for a paper he co-authored examining the effectiveness of teacher evaluation feedback. Over the past decade, education policymakers have invested millions in the design and implementation of teacher evaluation systems that were intended to improve teacher performance.

The study, co-authored by Seth B. Hunter, assistant professor of education leadership in the College of Education and Human Development, and Matthew Springer at University of North Carolina, represents the first in-depth examination into whether recently implemented teacher evaluation programs improve teacher skills.

“What we found is that the feedback early-career teachers received did not translate into improved performance,” said Hunter of the study. “What it tells us is that changes that were made to improve teaching aren’t working, and so we need to examine that further.”

The article is getting notice from experts in the education field like Matthew A. Kraft at Brown University.

"[This research] makes an important contribution by examining for the first time whether the actual feedback teachers receive is aligned with the theory that feedback can improve teachers’ practice,” Kraft said.

Hunter and Springer spent years examining 5,000 evaluations of 1,200 randomly selected, early-career teachers across the state of Tennessee. Post-observation teacher evaluations, generally performed by principals or vice principals, are in theory supposed to contain enough detail and direct feedback to help teachers improve their skills, said Hunter.

Hunter and Springer concluded that observers conducting teacher evaluations need better training on how to give the kind of tailored, substantive feedback that could result in helping teachers improve their practice. Feedback, they wrote, should identify specific teaching behaviors that could be improved, offer clear and targeted ways to change the behavior, and set goals for when the teacher will improve the behavior.

“The big takeaway from our research is that early-career teachers who have lower levels of effectiveness receive better feedback, but the feedback they receive isn’t as helpful it could be,” said Springer.

“Our findings highlight a significant problem. The feedback teachers are receiving is not high-quality, and as a consequence, teacher evaluation policies are unlikely to have their intended effect until this problem is addressed.”

Hunter said he hopes other researchers will build off of their paper and further explore the quality of feedback in other parts of the country. Ultimately, he believes that would result in better training for principals and other administrators acting as observers, he added.

“I would also love to see teachers getting better access to the resources and support they need to get better, along with a more systematic linkage between evaluations and evaluation-informed professional development,” Hunter said.