Assessment Opinion

Teacher Evaluations Must Be Fair

By John Wilson — January 25, 2012 3 min read
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One of the highest compliments a teacher can get from a student is to be told that she or he is fair. When students believe their teacher is fair, they accept test grades, homework assignments, and discipline without drama. Teachers, like their students and like people in other professions, appreciate fairness and should expect it. With that in mind, I am not surprised by the pushback on new evaluation systems from teachers in Hawaii, New York, Tennessee, and many other state and local school districts. Using student test scores from flawed standardized tests as a measure of teacher evaluation does not meet the fairness test for teachers who have had to endure “reform du jour’ for the last decade. It does not look like a fair deal for teachers, and fairness is one of the strongest core values of teachers.

Why is it that teachers reject being measured by student test scores? It makes perfect sense to corporate America and the media world. The mentality of “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count” rings true in their world. It makes sense to them that teachers would have the most impact on the test scores of their students, and of course, tests would “count” everything a teacher needs to teach.

It’s time for a reality check. Anyone who’s ever spent time in classrooms knows that there are factors over which the teacher, despite valiant efforts, has no effect. Student effort on tests may have a much greater impact on test scores than all the greatest teaching in the world. In the real world of school, pass out a test to students, and the first thing you hear is, “Does it count toward my report card grade?” Start a test at 8:00 in the morning and you will see a dozen teenagers’ heads nodding. Using a single test on a single day for a high stakes decision like teacher evaluation is malpractice and attacks that core value of fairness.

Student effort on test scores is not the only impact. Parental responsibility is high on that list also. Did the child get enough sleep, a healthy breakfast, nurturing support, and reinforcement of the teacher’s lessons through homework or just parent-student conversations? I won’t even start with elected and appointed officials’ responsibility for setting good policy and providing funding to enable great teaching.

That being said, let me also say that I firmly believe that teachers do indeed have a great deal of responsibility for student learning for which they should be held accountable. That responsibility starts with the best teaching practices. If student test scores are not indicating student learning, the principal needs to be in that classroom looking at the practice of the teacher. All teachers should be accountable for their practice and evaluated accordingly. Practice should drive professional development choices as well as renewal and career status (tenure) decisions. After all if a patient dies, it is the practice of a doctor that gets the scrutiny first---followed by a careful look at resources, medical procedures, and policies as well. The teaching profession can learn much from the medical model.

I recognize that many well-intentioned people are trying to create a teacher evaluation system that can be embraced by all. Some say that student test scores should be only one indicator of many. Teachers know, though, that it is easy and cheap to use test scores and that, eventually, those will be the only indicators that matter. Good teacher evaluation of practice and strong professional support are expensive, but those are key to making a real difference in student learning in the long run.

Teacher evaluation should not be a political decision. It should be a professional decision determined by professional standards boards. And those boards should be comprised of a majority of the most accomplished teachers. Furthermore, politicians should put their funding behind world class teacher preparation programs so only well-prepared people get into our classrooms to begin with. The hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars being spent on schemes to tie test scores to teacher evaluations could instead be spent on those preparation programs and on scholarships to attract the best students to them.

Involve teachers in making decisions about their profession, and they will demand and set high standards. They will also use the filter of fairness for every decision and so should administrators and policy makers.

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