As Michigan lawmakers continue to grapple with the best way to evaluate teachers, a new study raises questions about whether the current evaluation system is fair to everyone.

A policy brief by Michigan State University researchers finds that teachers of color — especially African-American teachers — are more likely than their white peers to receive low ratings on annual performance evaluations.

Also more likely to get low ratings: men and teachers who work in charter schools.

The study from researchers Steven Drake, Amy Auletto, and Joshua Cowen sheds light on an important conversation happening across the country about how schools should measure effective teaching. It also raises questions about how to ensure teachers are evaluated fairly and equitably at a time when many districts are struggling to recruit and retain teachers of color to serve diverse student populations.

In Michigan, schools are required by state law to evaluate every teacher’s performance every year. Those evaluations can be used to make decisions about bonuses or whether a teacher is re-hired.

The Michigan State researchers examined the evaluations of teachers working in Michigan schools between the 2011-12 school year and the 2015-16 school year — the years following changes in state law that required schools to assign all teachers one of four possible ratings: highly effective, effective, minimally effective or ineffective.

They found no racial or gender differences on a measure that looked at how well teachers helped their students advance on state math and English exams. Yet they did see racial differences in final ratings as well as differences in who received the lowest marks. 

Notably, they found that African-American teachers were more likely to get poor marks if they worked in a school where most of the teachers were white.

That suggests ratings could be influenced by the biases of administrators who do the classroom observations that contribute to most of a teacher’s evaluation in Michigan, Cowen said.

“The deck might be stacked against teachers of color in our schools and we have to pay attention to this,” Cowen said.

There’s been an ongoing debate about how much of a teacher’s evaluation should be based on classroom observation by an administrator versus student tests scores. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation last month that postponed by a year a law that would have required schools to base 40% of evaluations on test scores.

For now, 25% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on test scores. The rest comes from classroom observations.

That’s where the Michigan State University study raises the possibility of bias influencing results.

Only a fraction of Michigan teachers — about 3% — received the lowest ratings during the years the researchers studied but they weren’t distributed evenly among demographic groups. Among the findings:

  • Black teachers were 50% more likely than their white peers in the same school to receive a low evaluation.
  • Black teachers were more likely to get a low rating if they worked in a school where most of the teachers were white.
  • Male teachers were more likely than female teachers to get a low rating.
  • Male teachers were less likely to receive a low rating if they worked in schools with male administrators.
  • Teachers in charter schools were more likely to get a low rating than their peers in traditional schools.

Though just a fraction of teachers receive low marks, the study questions whether the higher rate of ineffective ratings for African-American teachers could be contributing to an alarming decline in the state’s population of African-American teachers.

Research shows that African-American students do better in classrooms led by teachers with the same racial background but a report last year found that while a third of Michigan students are children of color, more than 90 percent of teachers and 80 percent of administrators are white.

Meanwhile, the state’s African-American teaching population declined by 27% between 2011 and 2015. Evaluations could be part of the reason, Cowen said.

“If you get a low rating, you’re more likely to leave your school,” Cowen said. “We’ve been losing black teachers for 10 years in Michigan so you start to worry … that it will add up.”

Read the full policy brief below: