Teaching Profession

Houston Approves Use of Test Scores in Teacher Dismissals

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 12, 2010 2 min read
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We’ve officially entered the brave new world of teacher accountability based largely on student test-score growth: Under protest from some teachers, the Houston board of education last night approved a policy to permit the nonrenewal of contracts for teachers whose students make insufficient academic growth on the state test.

There are a couple of reasons why this is an important story to follow. First, as Ericka Mellon has reported, the district has already identified over 400 teachers whose students have scored far below expectations for several years. Assuming some are ultimately removed, this would become one of the first widespread high-stakes uses of teacher “value added” or “effect” data. Currently, such data are used mainly to determine eligibility for performance-based bonuses (pick any number of cities’ programs) or for a career-ladder program (as in Springfield, Mass.), but not for a formal accountability purpose.

Aside from Houston, I can think of only two other large-scale examples. The District of Columbia’s IMPACT evaluation system, which just debuted in the fall of 2009, uses student-achievement data for anywhere from 5 percent to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

The state of Tennessee, meanwhile, has permitted the use of growth data in formal teacher evaluations since 1998. But there the use of the data is a somewhat vaguely prescribed, minor, and optional component of a formal evaluation process. So it’s hard to know how many principals now use it for evaluation, and to what extent.

While a bunch of states, Tennessee included, have changed their laws to increase greatly the weight given to student growth in teacher evaluations to position themselves for the $4 billion federal Race to the Top competition, none of them has implemented it yet.

And here’s the second reason you should be paying attention: Teachers’ unions are increasingly being pressured to accept such policies. In January, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, in her Big Speech at the National Press Club, reiterated that such scores can be used for teacher accountability under certain conditions. The Houston situation has, fairly or unfairly, become a big litmus test.

It isn’t just Eduwonk who’s calling Weingarten’s bluff; there are others, including Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC. Take this zinger from the DFER blog: "[F]ar too often in the past, promises by union leaders for real reform over the airwaves have been squarely contradicted by the positions advanced by union officials in political backrooms. ... The first test of AFT’s commitment to the principles it outlined last month will begin tonight in Houston, and play out over the days and weeks ahead.” The Education Equality Project is also a supporter of the policy.

To be fair to Weingarten, she and the head of the local teachers’ association have asserted that the Houston policy doesn’t meet the conditions on which they’d be willing to accept such a policy. That may be so, but at some level it probably doesn’t matter: The rhetoric of politics and the rhetoric of policy infrequently, if ever, go hand in hand. And this is one issue where no matter how things work out, the union seems to have more to lose.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.