During halftime of a World Cup game several weeks ago, a teacher friend and I discussed the nearly 4,500 New York City teacher layoffs, which were averted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's freezing of salaries for two years. Surely, as a relatively new teacher in the New York City school system, my friend would favor layoffs (if they had happened) based on performance rather than seniority. Right?
Not so. "Seniority is the only fair way," he said. "Plus, how do you identify bad teachers? Standardized tests?" "No, that wouldn't be fair as the sole factor," I responded. "Then," he pressed, "what else would you use?"
That's essentially the question that 13 education reformers discussed last week on the National Journal's Education Experts blog. Here are some of the ideas that struck me (click on the names to see their full responses on the National Journal site):
From Sandy Kress, formerly an education advisor to George W. Bush:
Should helping the team matter? You bet. Should growth matter? You bet. Should hard-to-measure factors be taken into account? You bet. Enterprises all across the spectrum find ways to make these sorts of assessments of professional effectiveness all the time. They're never foolproof or perfect. Nor should they be perceived as doing great harm because they're not perfect.
True, no one has proposed test-score only. But when states decide that 35-50% of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student test scores, they are creating a situation in which teachers will have even more incentive to narrow and skew curriculum and instruction to fit the tests. The tests themselves are heavily skewed toward rote learning. Thus, the incentives for teachers and principals will be to undermine the quality of instruction in the name of accountability - all too familiar. And teachers should not be blamed for doing what their bosses insist they do, boost the scores.
Building a strong system of assessments won’t happen overnight, but better teacher evaluations don’t have to wait until the systems are perfect. Classroom observations by principals and specially trained peers can help identify strong teachers as well as those who need to improve. In addition, students and parents can offer helpful feedback for school and district leaders seeking insights into how well students are engaged.
The myriad influences on student outcomes -- from family to television, curricula to other teachers, to neighborhoods, genetics, and germs -- makes precisely measuring the individual contributions of teachers and principals more than a little “ tricky.” One way to deal with this, the administration and most reformers have conceded, is through classroom observations, which assess teachers' behavior, knowledge, and skills—i.e., inputs and processes. ... We cannot afford to fail to understand, monitor, and improve the "intentions, resources, and efforts" that go into producing “the learning that comes out.”
One other interesting point brought up by Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense is that the rapid proliferation of technology in schools may actually make this hotly debated topic moot in the nearish future. Live teachers are not in danger of going extinct by any measure, but their individual effect on students could drop greatly as computer programs take over up to 50 percent of instruction time.
What we should be talking about is not evaluating teachers but evaluating the entire learning environment—of which the teacher is but one part. Personally, I like to think that the teacher is the most important part. But in some cases, especially as technology develops, this may not always be true.
I agree with Peha that teachers could be losing some of their face time with students to computers, but it's still worth developing a useful evaluation process that can be used to measure their effectiveness for the time they do spend in front of students. Further, for schools that don't have the resources to use these new technologies—which are often the ones who serve the most fragile populations—developing these sorts of metrics will be invaluable.