His latest on the unscientific and discredited scheme of teacher evaluations based on test scores offers no surprises. It is presented here with my reactions interspersed for those who may, out of no fault of their own, believe the postulations of a disingenuous parrot.
The Chicago teachers’ strike was prompted in part by a fierce disagreement over how much student test scores will weigh in a new teacher evaluation system mandated by state law. That teachers’ unions in much of the country now agree that student achievement should count in evaluations at all reflects a major change from the past, when it was often argued that teaching was an “art” that could not be rigorously evaluated or, even more outrageously, that teachers should not be held accountable for student progress.
Traditional teacher evaluations often consist of cursory classroom visits by principals who declare nearly every teacher good, or at least competent, even in failing schools where few if any children meet basic educational standards.
As a result of this system, bad things can happen. High-performing teachers who have an enormous impact on student achievement go unidentified, and they often leave the district. Promising, but struggling, young teachers never get the help they need to master the job. And disastrous teachers who have no feel for the profession continue as long as they wish, hurting young lives along the way.
The more rigorous evaluation systems that have taken root in several states and districts around the country are intended to change that picture. These systems, which take student achievement into account in various ways, are still in their formative years, but they have already opened the door to a different way of doing business. At their best, these evaluation systems are based on the idea that teaching is difficult to master and that high-performers tend to get that way through intensive feedback and help from colleagues.
The school system in Montgomery County, Md., established its evaluation and mentoring system more than a decade ago. The system does not specify exactly how much weight student test scores and other data should receive. But depending on the circumstances, the evaluation may include scores from state tests, student projects, student and parent surveys and other data.
It is an intensive program that aims to help both novice teachers and experienced teachers who receive a “below standard” evaluation. The system, which has required a considerable investment of time and money, assigns consulting teachers who work full time assisting a number of colleagues. These master teachers help their charges plan lessons, review student work and also arrange for them to observe other teachers on the job. After a year of support, a panel of teachers and principals can recommend dismissal or another year of support.
The widely praised evaluation system in New Haven also relies on a complex mix of factors. It takes into account year-by-year improvement in student learning, as measured by progress on state and local tests and attainment of academic goals. The system also examines the teachers’ instructional abilities, judged by frequent observations by principals and other managers. Teachers receive regular face-to-face feedback so that they are fully aware of what they need to do to improve.
Some systems give a specific weight to so-called value-added test scores, which try to account for socioeconomic differences by tracking students’ improvement year to year, rather than looking just at their absolute scores. That approach, though, has come under attack by critics who argue that these scores are too often statistically flawed.
Reasonable school officials understand that test scores, while important, do not reflect the sum total of what good teachers provide for their students. In Washington, D.C., where the evaluation system is now in its fourth year, school officials have decided to change the weighting of tests. Originally, value-added scores accounted for 50 percent of teacher evaluations; that has been reduced to 35 percent, with an additional 15 percent consisting of other goals (like the students’ mastery of certain skills) collaboratively arrived at by teacher and principal.
Officials there say they reduced the importance of value-added scores after some of the most successful teachers expressed anxiety about the measure and argued that it might not give some teachers full credit for their work because they teach subjects not covered by the state tests.
Many of these new programs are better than the slipshod evaluation systems they replaced. But they are far from perfect. States and cities, like Chicago, will need to keep working at them to ensure fairness, accuracy and transparency.