Commentary

Judging Teachers by Students' Achievement

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Currently, most teacher-evaluation efforts do little more than accommodate union demands for due process, satisfy state legislatures, and give school boards a sense of doing the right thing. They do little to improve the performance of good teachers, and they fail to weed out those who should not be in a classroom.

They are often based on structured classroom observations, exercises that are hollow, sterile, and easily skewed.

A high-school student gave the lie to this method at a parents' meeting in Shaker Heights, Ohio, when the president of the teachers' association finished describing the 50-minute evaluation he must pass as a tenured teacher. The student said, "Yes, we knew when the principal was coming to evaluate you and that we could fix the evaluation any way we wanted. We did just that."

School systems also frequently use a check-list rating form, a device subject to much abuse. Many teachers faced with termination of their contract have been able to produce years of highly favorable ratings prepared by political, timid, or lazy supervisors.

Evaluating teachers on the basis of their ability to meet specific, pre-established goals is a form of teacher-evaluation that has received much attention and has some merit. However, measurable student achievement is seldom included among these goals. Furthermore, there is a reluctance among people being evaluated to suggest goals they may not be able to attain, and there is a tendency to focus on curriculum rather than improvement in teacher behavior.

The underlying weakness in most evaluation plans is their dependence upon formal periodic examinations. It is common practice to "evaluate" experienced teachers only every two to four years. This infrequency suggests that the formal process is considered to be too cumbersome or of little practical value. Guesswork is the hallmark of much teacher evaluation.

Teachers are seldom evaluated on the basis of their students' performance on tests, even as students, schools, and school systems are. Instead, in most school systems, they are evaluated according to what an administrator--on the basis of the infrequent, formal classroom visits--thinks student achievement will be.

Teachers have opposed the use of student-achievement data in their evaluations on several grounds. The strongest objection is based upon teachers' lack of control over the mix of students (with their varying abilities and backgrounds) in their classes.

But computers now make it practical to take student characteristics into account when analyzing their test results. Student profiles, including I. Q., prior grades, race, family income, number of parents, education of parents, and number of siblings, can be developed easily. They can then be constructed for each class using those characteristics considered most critical in teaching. Moreover, more sophisticated criterion- referenced tests offer an increasingly more reliable method to measure students' progress toward specific learning objectives. At present, however, many school systems do not have the standardized, systemwide examinations that would be needed to construct reliable profiles.

Teacher evaluation is usually designed to help teachers teach. What better guide is there than the actual results of teaching? They may both illuminate weaknesses and point to strengths that should be further developed. They may sharpen the focus on student weaknesses that call for special treatment. They provide the salient facts on which to base a constructive course of action.

Some express concern that records of student achievement do not reflect the fine work of teachers who prevent underachievers from failing, students who nonetheless end up with relatively low grades. Student profiles should show the history of underachievement and the actual grades will then enhance the teachers' image.

Others object to the use of student-achievement data in evaluating teachers on the grounds that teachers will teach to the test and will give "soft" grades, and that teachers have little control over the climate for learning in their schools. The appropriate response to these concerns is that no plan of evaluation will be effective without competent school leadership. Effective leadership will assure a productive school climate, adequate breadth of teaching, and close oversight of grading practices.

A final reservation about placing new emphasis on actual student achievement in teacher evaluation is that it overlooks the contribution that inspirational teachers make in stimulating student interest in learning. However, it seems likely that success in learning will promote a desire to learn. In that case, the teacher's contribution is reflected in achievement results.

Weighting for student characteristics is not precise enough to permit grading each teacher on a scale based upon student achievement. And certainly there should be other criteria incorporated into teacher evaluations, including collaboration with colleagues, handling of discipline, and dealings with parents.

But student achievement can-and should-be a key factor in identifying outstanding teachers for due recognition, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses of other teachers for purposes of school organization, and arriving at employment decisions.

Vol. 02, Issue 30, Page 18

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