Eliza teaches math to one third of the students in sixth grade, some of whom are also in her homeroom class. During her 25-minute homeroom, Eliza takes attendance, goes over announcements, usually does a short activity with her students, and then lines them up to go on to their next classes.

In her math classes Eliza often uses practice tests, both that she creates and that come from textbooks or state practice tests, to gauge how her students are doing. She can see that a few students in each of her classes are struggling, but expects the rest to do very well on the state test in the spring. She provides some extra resources and differentiated instruction to those struggling students, and continues to use formative assessments to see if they are catching up.

Eliza also works in a state where teacher evaluations are based in part on value-added SCOREs. Given her students’ progress across her classes, Eliza is expecting to receive positive feedback during her evaluation. However, when the time comes for evaluations and her principal shows Eliza her growth data, she finds that her SCOREs are not reflective of how she thought her students were performing throughout the year, and are in fact much worse.

As it turns out, Eliza had only been indicated as the teacher of record (the state/district’s way of indicating which teachers are responsible for which students) for the students in her homeroom. Some of those students were in Eliza’s math class, but many of the others were not, yet those students’ outcomes were nonetheless incorporated into Eliza’s growth data and, consequently, her evaluation. While the 25 minutes Eliza spent each day with those students is important to their learning, she cannot be held directly accountable for all of those students’ math performance.

Because Eliza’s state does not have effective policies around linking teacher and student data—or as we say, a teacher-student data link (TSDL)—she was not appropriately recognized for the growth she helped her actual math students achieve over the course of the year.

Nationwide, state leaders are making effective teachers a priority. But—and I hate to burst bubbles—without data that links teachers to the students they actually teach, we’re not going to get very far. The absence of good TSDL policies doesn’t just hurt teachers like Eliza, who not only did not receive a strong evaluation, but was also not able to use good data provided to her by the state to help all of her students. The lack of a quality TSDL prohibits states from pursuing teacher effectiveness policies in areas beyond teacher evaluation, such as supporting our teachers through targeted professional development or using data on teacher preparation programs to better the pipeline of teachers who enter the classroom. Basically, the absence of a good TSDL leaves you at square one, without the ability to move forward.

Most states in the US have some sort of TSDL, but they were usually developed for compliance reporting and other “low-stakes” activities, not the vital task of measuring and supporting effective teachers. As states continue to pursue these goals, our policymakers need to be sure that their state has effective TSDL policies—and you can’t pass this one off as an issue for the IT people alone; it takes leadership. States must work collaboratively with their districts to develop a strong teacher of record definition and provide teachers the opportunity to verify that they are being linked to the right students. (If only Eliza had access to those data before her evaluation!) And states must decide for what purposes the data are going to be linked, whether it be for evaluations or a host of other powerful uses, before implementation. Anyone who works in and around education has spent some time banging their head against the wall thinking about these questions. This stuff can be hard, yet it’s so important! Getting the right TSDL policies in place is going to takes some seriously hard work, but it’s too important to our teachers and our students to let it slide.

Note on Tennessee: If you got to the end of this post and thought “can what happened to Eliza happen in my state?” then congratulations, you asked the right question! That is the very question that needs to be asked as states work with districts to develop good Teacher of Record (TOR) and TSDL policies.

In Tennessee, the state has a TOR definition that DQC describes as quality. The definition requires that a student be in a teacher’s class for 150 days before being attributed to that teacher, and the state has policies that allow multiple educators to be linked to a student, teachers to verify their rosters, and the data to be collected multiple times per year. In other words, the state has worked to make sure that an Eliza-scenario shouldn’t happen; of course, that isn’t the whole story.

Writing a good TOR is only the first step – states must also work to answer all the “what abouts” that will come up. What about virtual teachers? What about teachers in untested subjects? What about two teachers in one classroom? What about special education teachers?

Like I said, this stuff takes some seriously hard work.