On Monday TNTP released its long-awaited report on the crisis of urban teacher retention. The report explains that the most effective teachers in a given district–termed “The Irreplaceables”– produce 5-6 more months of student learning than poor teachers. Yet those top teachers leave their schools at an alarmingly high rate. Therefore, the report argues, schools should alter their policies to ensure that those teachers are retained.
This is far from surprising. Indeed, all students, parents, and school employees know that some teachers are better than others. The problem is that teacher compensation–presently based on seniority and credentials–implies a false reality where all teachers are equally effective. It is no wonder that a profession which fails to reward its top performers has trouble retaining them.
The fact that some teachers are better than others is not a knock on the teaching profession. Indeed, differences in employee quality exist in all industries. But teachers are too important to society to justify the present complacency. Every kid deserves a great teacher and the incredible achievement that can result, and the failure to retain great teachers is making that much more difficult. Tying teacher compensation to effectiveness would improve retention, shine a light on our best, and toss away the false reality of that teachers are nothing more than interchangeable parts in a machine. Do teachers deserve more respect? Absolutely. And a great way to make that happen–as well as help kids–is to quit hiding behind oppressive and illogical contracts and support a system for compensation driven by common sense instead of convenience.
In yesterday’s Kansas City Star, Joe Robertson outlines various concerns about teacher evaluation proposals that include student performance as a factor. The most widespread of these, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that these “value-added” models include too many variables outside of the teacher’s control to be fair. And this is a problem: in the words of KC teachers’ union president Andrea Flinders, this type of system “will do nothing to attract teachers and it will drive good people away.”
I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this proposal; I’m far from an expert on the underlying calculations. But this case exemplifies the absurd overthinking which mars discussions of teacher evaluations.
The reality is that no method of evaluating employees in any industry is perfectly fair or foolproof. Yet only in education is the concern about “driving away” potential employees so prevalent. A person is hired for a job. They are given various tasks and assignments to complete and asked to meet various expectations of comportment and professionalism in the office. If they meet those expectations, they will remain employed; if they don’t, they will get fired.
Of course, it is often not that simple. Evaluating work performance can be complicated, especially in fields like sales where there are plenty of variables outside of the employee’s control. There can be incompetent supervisors that play favorites or are otherwise arbitrary in their hiring and firing decisions. Yet the system goes on. There is an understanding that, for companies to be successful, they want the best people working there. Supervisors that don’t follow that principle rarely remain supervisors for very long.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be sufficient for teachers. The rhetoric on teacher evaluation rests on the assumption that teachers have rights to their jobs, and that right can only be taken away when they have been objectively proven to be ineffective. As I’ve written previously, if we demand different treatment than other professionals in the workforce, we shouldn’t be surprised by a negative reputation and lack of respect. Will a system of performance evaluation lead to some questionable firing decisions? Sure. But if the system is reasonably and logically designed, in the aggregate it should improve the quality of employees overall. And if that is good enough for other professionals, it should be good enough for us.
According to a report released today, three schools in Washington, D.C. cheated on 2011 standardized tests, while 20 others were found to have some degree of testing violations. These test results were intended to be used for teacher evaluation and hiring, further raising their significance.
This is not the first case of cheating on standardized tests, and it won’t be the last. Indeed, when employees in any industry are expected to meet certain goals, there is a pressure to act deceptively or flat out break the rules (just ask Enron shareholders). When these incidents happen they should be dealt with firmly, harshly, and consistently.
What puzzles me about cheating scandals, though, is that there is a tendency to shift the blame from the perpetrators to the test. As a 2003 Harvard University study claims, high stakes testing actually leads to cheating. From that assertion it is not far to make the next leap: we shouldn’t have these tests.
As an educator, I find that argument deeply offensive. The implicit claim is that teachers will cast all legal, moral, and pedagogical obligations aside when there is pressure to perform. As opposed to blaming the institution, we should blame the cheaters. Any teacher or administrator who willingly contributes to cheating on a standardized test is disrespecting themselves, their profession, their community, and (most importantly) their students. The potential pressure of bonuses, promotions, and contracts is no excuse. Though I teach at a school where teachers are held accountable for student performance on tests, I have no sense of empathy or solidarity with the accused teachers in D.C. Their actions prove that they should not be in the classroom–nothing more. The teachers I work with have more pride in their work and their students to be so blatantly dishonest. We should do what we can to improve monitoring on tests to prevent this from happening, and of course swiftly remove guilty teachers from the classroom. But let’s not frame this as a problem with testing. Teachers deserve more credit than that.
In the NYT this weekend, Michael Winerip details the fiasco in Florida stemming from bad scores on the state standardized writing test. This past summer, the state toughened standards but did not change the required passing score, resulting in plummeting proficiency levels statewide: only 27% of fourth graders scored proficient, compared to 81% just one year ago. Concerned about reactions nationally and from parents, the state scrambled to improve their results, ultimately lowering the score required to pass from a 4 to a 3. Suddenly, proficiency rates were right in line with past performance. All was right again (not). Excuse me for a moment while I bash my head against my desk.
Winerip is right to mock and malign the incompetence here. A couple points:
1) Radically changing the rigor of a test designed to measure longitudinal growth renders the results useless. It is fine to modify a test, and I appreciate the intent to raise academic expectations for students; making these changes at the expense of useful data, on the other hand, is misguided.
2) Fudging the numbers after the fact ultimately makes the problem worse. It is deceptive and unprofessional; I see it no differently from the state filling in bubbles for all of their students. The goal of testing is to highlight deficiencies to help guide instruction while holding schools accountable. Florida was apparently more concerned about its reputation, cheating the students and taxpayers while damaging the legitimacy of all state testing. If the state doesn’t have even have faith in their tests, why should we?
Though this case demonstrates the dark side of testing, we need to be careful about our conclusions. It is clear that there is something wrong with this test and test administration; Florida clearly needs reform in those areas. But it doesn’t mean is that holding schools accountable through testing is a bad idea. As I’ve said before, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Standardized testing as an institution is so young that we should not be surprised that the tests aren’t perfect; it will take time before they are where they need to be. Just as we give any other invention with great potential time to mature–computers, cars, planes–testing deserves the same patience. So while Florida fully deserves our ire and frustration, let’s remember what this incident is: a speed bump and valuable lesson on what not to do as we establish accountability as a tenet of our public education system.