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Teaching Profession Opinion

Oversimplification Abounds in Teacher Evaluation Discussion

By Justin Baeder — September 27, 2012 2 min read
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Should student achievement data be a major factor in teacher evaluations? While the political winds are whispering “yes” more loudly every day—and in many places, the whispers have become shouts—it seems that the louder we yell, the dumber we get.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has been widely misquoted as having said that there is no way to measure teacher effectiveness. Patrick Riccards, Alyssa Granacki, and others have contributed to the spread of the inaccurate quotation. Lewis actually said:

This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator," Lewis said Sunday. "Further, there are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control." Karen Lewis, President, Chicago Teachers Union, via CNN

A union head who thinks it’s impossible to measure teacher effectiveness in any way wouldn’t stay on the job long, yet union incompetence is a story people want to believe, so it’s no surprise that the misquote has spread so fast. I haven’t asked her, but I’m pretty sure Karen Lewis believes that teacher effectiveness can be measured. But can it be measured by test scores?

The San Francisco Chronicle says yes, rejoicing that a bill limiting test score use was defeated in the California legislature:

[T]he time has come to include test scores in teacher evaluations. There's no way to hold teachers accountable without them." San Francisco Chronicle op-ed

This month, we’ve been told both that teachers believe their effectiveness can’t be measured, and that teachers can’t be held accountable without test scores. In my best Seth Meyers voice, I have to ask “REALLY?” Because if memory serves, we’ve had a couple hundred years of public education in this country, and it wasn’t until Race to the Top that there was any serious national push to use student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Steve Peha brings some rationality and clarity to the issue:

Teacher resistance to evaluation is a red herring. The skill of evaluators, not the nature of evaluations, is the real issue.

In no other industry do we judge the performance of one group of people by the performance of another group of people (who are not their employees) based on data that only measure a narrow slice of the relevant outcomes. When we expect kids to learn a rich, deep, and engaging curriculum, but test kids on just a handful of reading and math skills, it’s no wonder that teachers don’t find it fair to use this data as the sole basis for judging their effectiveness.

In the news, this application of common sense is transformed into a narrative about how teachers don’t want to be judged on the quality of their work with students.

As Peha notes, evaluation is doable, and we can do it better, but all this talk of using student test scores is a distraction. Instead, he suggests we:

To move the teacher evaluation issue forward, we need to do the following: 1. Stop arguing about whether or not teachers want to be evaluated and start thinking about ways to ensure they get thorough, constructive, and actionable feedback from competent evaluators along with the support and resources they need to implement suggested improvements. 2. Operationalize policies that increase the capacity of schools to improve the evaluation instruments they use and the skills of the people who use them. 3. Reframe evaluation as feedback, balance summative consequences with formative support, and prioritize coaching over contempt. 4. Re-evaluate the notion that the path to better academic outcomes is to pressure the people who play a direct role in determining them, recognize that the solution lies in ensuring that teachers do their best work, and acknowledge that few people do their best when they are constantly under pressure. link

But it’s more exciting to mis-quote a union leader and paint all teachers as duty-shirking accountability-dodgers who just want their pay raises and long vacations, so I don’t expect the media coverage of the substantive issues of teacher evaluation to get much better any time soon.

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