Grading teacher performance

Posted May 10, 2010, at 6:51 p.m.
This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the achievement gap in public school education; how one group can't get out from under the weight of it and another group feels it's so easy to achieve.
Donna Grethen
This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the achievement gap in public school education; how one group can't get out from under the weight of it and another group feels it's so easy to achieve.

In a recent editorial, The New York Times opined that “in most schools today, teacher evaluations are not worthy of the name.” Teachers are rarely evaluated, the paper continued, and even when they are, “nearly every teacher passes — even at the most dismal schools.”

Data from a March Newsweek article suggest much the same. Of its 30,000 tenured teachers, the magazine reports, New York City fired only three for poor job performance in all of 2008. Chicago fired just 0.1 percent of its teachers for poor performance between 2005 and 2008. Similar statistics, Newsweek reports, can be found in school systems across the nation.

There are, of course, dedicated and hardworking teachers in every school. The simple fact is, though, that no matter how high their level of devotion or how hard they work, some people in teaching positions today simply are not very good at their jobs.

The challenge for policymakers at both the state and school district level is how to ensure there is a highly effective teacher in every classroom. Meeting that challenge is complicated, though, by the fact that there remains some difference of opinion about how best to judge whether a teacher is effective or not.

Traditionally, teachers are evaluated by school administrators, and their effectiveness is judged by the extent to which they meet certain professional standards. Teachers are graded on how well they prepare for their lessons, for example, or how well they manage classroom behavior. Rarely, though, are teacher evaluations based, even in part, on whether students are actually learning.

Teachers, and the unions that represent them, have generally opposed using student achievement as an indicator of teaching effectiveness, but as pressure to improve student outcomes continues to mount, there is a growing interest in developing ways to accurately and fairly evaluate teachers using student performance data.

The city of New Haven, Conn., in fact, has just developed one of the nation’s most innovative teacher evaluations models in response to these pressures. The New York Times, in the editorial referenced above, said that if it were able to implement fully its new approach to evaluating teachers, New Haven would be at “the forefront of the national effort to improve the caliber of instruction in the public schools.”

What is so novel about the New Haven model is the way it deftly balances a more traditional style of teacher evaluation with a thorough and careful analysis of student learning. Teachers in the New Haven system still will be observed by school administrators, but will be observed more frequently and less formally. The students in each teacher’s class will have their performance thoroughly studied as well, using multiple types of assessments administered throughout the year.

At the end of the year, a teacher’s final evaluation rating is to be calculated using a combination of both professional observations and an analysis of student learning growth. The clever formula New Haven developed to combine the two elements means that teachers found to be highly skilled professionally usually will be rated as “effective” even if the academic achievement of their students isn’t above average. Teachers whose students show few academic gains, though, will have to score very high on their professional skills ranking to avoid a lower overall evaluation score.

For a teacher to be rated as “exemplary,” the system’s highest rating, that teacher would have to demonstrate both a high degree of professional skill and have his or her students make substantial academic gains as well.

In response to concerns that school administrators might favor some teachers or target some for poor evaluations, the New Haven system also includes a “peer validation” system, whereby teachers on track for very high or very low evaluation ratings are further evaluated by their peers in order to confirm the ratings of the school administrators.

Though fair to teachers, the New Haven system also has teeth. Teachers rated below “effective” will be provided with additional support and training, and will have to advance up the evaluation scale within a year or two or face termination.

If the New Haven model seems as though it enhances accountability in a reasonable way while providing struggling teachers with additional support, that is because it was developed by a collaborative panel composed of teachers, school officials and parents.

Could such a model work in Maine? We won’t even get a chance to find out if the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, continues to stand in the way of reform. The union recently flexed its political muscles and had legislation enacted that makes it harder than ever for local school districts to begin experimenting with new evaluation models.

With barriers such as these, making sure every student in Maine has a highly effective teacher will take many years to accomplish. We can begin, though, by carefully studying the innovative efforts to improve teacher quality that are being tried in places such as New Haven.

Stephen Bowen directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His new report on the New Haven evaluation model can be found at www.mainepolicy.org.

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