Education Funding Opinion

Should Schools Trade Seniority for “Effectiveness” Rankings?

By Anthony Cody — March 09, 2011 6 min read
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The Parent Teacher Association in the state of Washington has issued their list of legislative priorities for the coming year, including these two:

4. Teacher Reduction in Force Policies: expand school district teacher "reduction in force" policies to include factors other than seniority, such as teacher effectiveness and cohesiveness of school teams.
6. New Model for Teacher Compensation: lead to a new research-based teacher compensation model that emphasizes rewarding teacher effectiveness in improving student learning


A colleague there asked how we might respond to these ideas. My thoughts:

We are at a place where fear has driven us to mistrust the teachers in our schools.
We have been told a false story about our nation’s teachers -- that large numbers are incompetent, “bad,” and hiding in plain sight. And these “bad teachers” are responsible for our lackluster performance compared to other nations. First, debunk this. Our schools do a decent job -- schools where fewer than 10% of the students live in poverty score with the top nations in the world -- which, not coincidentally, have child poverty rates of less than 5%. Please take a look at Richard Rothstein’s recent article here. The education “crisis” is truly a crisis of poverty, because we are in a nation where one child in four is living below the poverty line, and in many schools, that number is closer to 100%. If you want to understand how poverty affects educational outcomes, please read here.

Second, let’s look at the supposed cure for this.
We are supposed to uncover these “bad teachers” by using data drawn from one or two sets of tests given once a year. Evaluations of teacher effectiveness based on student learning sound great. And it *could* be great, if it was based on a reflective process that encouraged teachers to collect authentic reflections of student learning, and work with one another and their supervisor to see how students are learning, similar to the National Board certification process. However, that is not what this phrase actually means these days. Instead, it means that scores from a single set of standardized tests taken last spring are compared to the scores from tests taken the following spring, and the teacher is to be evaluated based on whether the students in her class matched the growth that might be expected. (Or in the newer models being developed, even more tests are given, with even more importance attached to the results.)

You are speaking with parents. Do you believe that the scores you get from these tests are an adequate representation of your child’s skills, abilities and interests? Are these scores what you want your child’s teacher to spend the year focusing on? What happens to instruction when we make these tests ever more consequential for our teachers and students? We know very well, because we have seen it over the past decade. More and more teaching to the test. Less time for activities that the students love, like art, science, history, physical education, music, and more time spent preparing for tests. And if your child happens to attend a school that has high poverty, these pressures are increased tenfold.

If you want to replace seniority with some system by which teachers are ranked according to their effectiveness, think about what that means.
Every year there will be a different ranking, based on the latest test score data. Our experience with these Value Added models is that some 20% of teachers in the top level one year wind up in the bottom level the next year. Would you want to stake your job security or pay on such a set of measures? Did you see the article in last week’s New York Times about the outstanding teacher who found herself rated in the bottom 7th percentile based on these models? And the latest research shows that programs that pay teachers more for test scores have zero effect -- even on raising test scores!

The real challenge we face is how to build effectiveness, not how to ferret out bad teachers. Schools can be places where teachers, just like students, can be nurtured and grow in their capacity to teach. But we need to understand that we want learning in many dimensions beyond the annual tests. We want teachers able to encourage all styles of learning. We want teachers who can spot the curiosity in our children and feed it with experiences that excite and engage them. At its best, this is a spontaneous, organic process, that builds on the interests and events that present themselves. Teachers who are able to do this are the most effective, and the school should be organized so that all teachers can learn to be this way. This does not mean they do not attend to academic basics. It means those basics are organized around the interests and curiosities of the children themselves, rather than a prepared script or even a textbook (though textbooks may be useful at times).

We want teachers engaged in processes that build their effectiveness. The best processes bring teachers together to reflect on authentic student work, or to observe students learning. Things like Lesson Study, or the National Board’s Take One! process. I have heard from so many teachers who find their time being occupied by endless meetings where they pore over test data, as if looking at graphs and percentiles helps us understand what is going on in the mind of a child. This data may occasionally be useful in revealing patterns or deficiencies in our instruction, but its value has been greatly inflated in the false economy we have created. Great teaching is all about understanding our children and helping them to engage in learning new things. It is about giving them meaningful, timely feedback and helping them to improve.

What does this have to do with seniority? On the surface, nothing. Below the surface, everything. A basic premise is that teaching is complex work that takes at least three or four years of experience to begin to achieve mastery. Teachers gain in their effectiveness for at least their first ten years, and under the right conditions, throughout their career. I know I was still learning in my tenth year, and in my 12th year, when I went for National Board certification, I learned a tremendous amount. What does it take to get people to invest these years in a professional career? Especially if we ask them to take on the challenge of working in our many schools with high levels of poverty? It takes some level of confidence that their growth will be supported, that the rich work they do will be honored and not reduced to a test score. And it takes some degree of job security. Why would I choose to work in a high poverty school if I thought my chances would be one in five that my students’ test scores might drop one year and I could find myself labeled a “bad teacher” and laid off? We do need to have better ways to evaluate teachers, that offer more feedback and opportunities for growth. But trying to turn this into a test-score data-driven process is going to lead us further down the dead end we have been following for the past decade.

Our high poverty schools already suffer from high levels of teacher turnover and burnout. Many schools in Oakland start each year with as many as half of their staff being brand new. This makes it very hard to build a culture of collaboration and growth. What these schools need most is stability and investment in the children and the adults working with them. We will not drive improvement by intensifying the climate of fear that already plagues these schools. These schools already spend far too much time focused on test preparation, sacrificing the aspects of school most likely to engage and enliven their students. We have ridden the NCLB train far too long, and it has taken us to an ugly place. Now is the time to change the scene, not make it even uglier by attaching even more consequences to test scores.

What do you think? Should we replace existing pay and seniority systems with new ones based on rankings of effectiveness based on test scores?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.