Tag Archives: evaluation

The Tide is Turning In Teacher Evaluation

Last week, Teach Plus released its long-awaited national survey of teachers’ opinions on various aspects of education reform. The report focuses on the growing differences in opinion between teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience–“The New Majority”–and teaching veterans. Perhaps the most striking of these differences concerns the use of student growth in evaluating teachers. From the report:

Whereas the notion of standards of effectiveness finds broad support among all teachers, measuring teacher effectiveness sees far less support among veteran teachers. New Majority teachers are far more likely
to agree that growth in student learning should be included as part of  a teacher’s evaluation. When asked about the use of student growth measures in their evaluations, 71 percent of New Majority teachers
agree that student gains should be included in teacher evaluations as compared to 41 percent of veteran teachers.

In other words, younger teachers are more than twice as likely to say that student learning should be used as part of their evaluation. As I’ve written previously, such a system is both common sense and elevates the profession; only inertia and reliance on anachronism have prevented widespread implementation.

But that may soon change. Indeed, the results of the survey show that the days of that status quo in education may be numbered. Since we know that a great teacher is the ultimate difference maker for kids, it is only logical that our system takes student growth into account. Younger teachers understand this. They acknowledge that a contract that rewards longevity and credentials instead of effectiveness, while predictable and stable for employees, is not best for kids. The “New Majority” is ready to redefine and professionalize the teaching profession as respected, accountable deliverers of education. I just hope that veterans join the fight sooner rather than later.

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Interests of Teachers Or Interests of Kids?

When I first heard about the teacher strike in Chicago, my thoughts turned to the students. Besides the lost instructional time, I know from teaching in Philly how much students in cities need the structure, safety, and positive atmosphere of school. I shudder at the thought of my own students getting locked out of the school building for a week without anywhere else to go.

Yet as I’ve read perspectives on the strike from both sides, I still can’t wrap my head around the CTU talking point that the strike is somehow in the interests of the kids. To put it bluntly: How could you say with a straight face that locking 400,000 kids out of school for a week is in the interests of students? As I see it, the strike is finally knocking down the illogical but widely-held view that teachers’ unions should be trusted with determining what is best for students. Unions should still exist, but let’s dispense with the farcical idea that what is best for them is best for students.

Amidst the present ubiquity of education reform in the news and on pundits’ tongues, it’s easy to forget that education only recently became a real public policy issue. Indeed, prior to No Child Left Behind and its precursors, education was pretty much a local concern, handled by the only people viewed as qualified to do so: teachers and administrators. Teachers’ unions, then, were given the power to define and pursue the interests of students as well as teachers. Pretty sweet deal. (N.B. I wrote in much greater depth about the history of the unions in chapter 2 of my undergraduate thesis.)

But with the emergence of data showing the flaws of public education in this country, unions are having trouble proving that they still represent the interests of students.  Clinging to structural anachronisms while opposing logical reforms like evaluations linked to performance, substantive tenure reform, and expansion of high-quality school choices in cities is hard to square with claims that the unions speak for anyone but teachers.

The strike in Chicago is bringing that disconnect to light even more.  Teachers are banishing nearly half a million kids to the Chicago streets over getting a less than 30% raise in a recession and  because they don’t want to toughen an evaluation system that laughably rates 99.7% of teachers satisfactory. It takes serious cojones for the CTU to say that those demands are in anyone’s interests but their own.

News reports suggest that the sides are getting closer and students will be back in school on Monday–by all accounts, a great development. But the whole ordeal should serve as a reminder that any organization that keeps kids out of school for a week does not represent the best interests of students. We ought to reconsider where objective educational expertise actually resides.

 

Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

Overthinking Evaluation

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.

A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.

Cheating Scandals and Disrespect of Teachers

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.