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Rate Teachers on Overall Student Achievement, Not Tests

August 19, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The idea that teacher performance reviews need to be reformed is a popular one these days, usually promoted by people who believe teachers are being paid too much or are getting away with not working very hard.

The argument misses the point entirely. Like many professions, teaching requires a unique set of skills. A teacher's goal is not simply to cram information into students' heads, but to develop the whole student.
To judge a teacher's performance, a reviewer has to determine the entirety of a student's experience. This brings up several points that are important to answer: Who conducts reviews? What criteria are used in reviews? What is the end result of reviews?

Until these basic questions are answered, the idea of teacher merit pay is more about finding fault with teachers than it is about improving the quality of the student experience.

Who conducts reviews?
That's a problem because the people best qualified to conduct reviews are either school administrators or other teachers. Unfortunately, school underfunding has cut the number of teachers and administrators to such an extent that they have no time to perform meaningful reviews.
If, as a state, we decide that teachers need to undergo meaningful performance reviews, then we have to create and fund a system to execute those reviews. That means freeing up expert teachers or administrators to give them the time to conduct those reviews. Until that happens, all talk of performance reviews is moot.

What criteria are appropriate to use in teacher performance reviews?
It's telling that many non-teachers say student testing is the best way to judge performance while most teachers recoil at such an idea.

Why not use student test results?

Because it's a false measurement. The current No Child Left Behind debacle tells us what will happen if we judge teacher merit on test scores. For NCLB ratings, schools test students once each year in reading and math. Doing this has placed too much importance on the results of that one test. Teachers teach to the test. Subjects not covered on the test are downplayed or ignored. The individual learning style of each student is downplayed or ignored.

But that doesn't stop some organizations from trying to force teacher performance measurements into the testing mold. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday the results of an examination of seven years of testing data that estimated the performance value of 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It uses a system that compares year-to-year NCLB test performance of individual students, which the newspaper claims controls for outside influences such as poverty.
While this seems like a valuable research project, it is flawed because it still uses only NCLB test results to measure teachers. Basing teacher evaluations on a single test paints a distorted picture of individual student achievement and does not take into account addressing a specific child's needs. Furthermore, there is no index to adequately adjust for other influences such as changes in the lives of particular students or changes in classroom dynamics from year to year.
An alternative might lie in a combination of formative tests given at three points through the school year coupled with meaningful classroom observation. When this is combined with input from parents, a strong mentorship program and both formal and informal continuing education, a well-rounded view of each teacher and his or her ability emerges.

What are the end result of reviews?
With this information, a teacher might be fairly judged. But to what end? Those who think the end result should be income increases or the loss of employment seriously underestimates the motivation of teachers.

To non-teachers, it makes perfect sense to use money as a means to reward or punish performance. They don't understand that teachers are a breed apart. While teachers certainly need to pay their bills and save for retirement like the rest of us, there are few who become teachers because they want to make generous amounts of money.

The reasons a young person enters the education profession are various and complicated, but those reasons rarely include greed or avarice. Therefore, punishing a teacher by cutting pay, or conversely rewarding a teacher by raising pay, is a dubious strategy at best.
A review should encourage good teachers to get better while allowing those who need help to receive it through continuing education or counseling.

Public schools are open to every child no matter the students' intelligence, special needs, literacy ability, home language or family background. It's a great equalizer, but it doesn't allow for an easy measure of teacher effectiveness.

Education is too valuable to leave to chance.  There should be measures in place to ensure teachers have the support they need to improve and progress.  However, leaving it to a single test is unfair to both teachers and students.

A comprehensive system to properly evaluate teacher effectiveness is elusive.  We should keep progressing toward a fairer system and avoid the temptation to use quick and easy evaluations in judging teacher effectiveness.

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