Opinion
IT Infrastructure Opinion

Making ‘Teacher Identifiers’ Work

By Alex Medler & Robert Reichardt — December 28, 2009 4 min read

President Barack Obama campaigned on it. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan maintains it’s a critical component of improving student achievement. Twenty-four states already employ the tool, and the federal Race to the Top competition has ignited serious political conflict around this issue in several states.

The “teacher identifier” is either a key to unlocking the mysteries of successful classrooms, or just another way to pummel an already beleaguered teaching corps. It all depends on your point of view.

A teacher identifier is simply a system whereby every teacher is assigned a number that can be used to link pertinent data to that teacher, such as student-performance measurements, demographic statistics, curriculum details, and training and professional-development information. The data collection’s purpose is to give teachers and administrators a clearer picture of what is happening in their schools and classrooms, and what seems to be working, or not.

Even opposing sides of this issue agree on one point: The teacher identifier could be an important determinant of success in the competition for federal stimulus funds under the Race to the Top program. That federal initiative calls for states to improve the metrics they use to measure academic progress and school performance.

A report produced jointly this year by the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver and the Colorado Children’s Campaign suggests that implementation of such a system doesn’t have to be a polarizing experience. The secret—and the challenge to educators—is to do it well.

“Teacher Identifiers and Improving Education Practice: Experiences in Colorado and the Nation” outlines both the challenges and the potential benefits, and offers suggestions for capitalizing on the experiences of other states in designing effective systems, well-informed policies, and efficient means of implementation.

The complicated part of developing such a system lies in accurately selecting and matching data, judging the data’s relevance, and acting on the findings. The University of Washington education researcher Dan Goldhaber, one of five authors contributing white papers for the report, notes that the thorny issues of politics and privacy arise in this process.

When it comes to politics, Goldhaber says, the main concern people have about linking teachers to their students’ progress and releasing this information is that policymakers will use it for high-stakes purposes such as determining tenure or pay for performance.

The challenge of dealing with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act also is problematic, says Goldhaber, but by developing a data-coding system, “states can provide linked teacher-student data while preserving the confidentiality of students and teachers.”

One Colorado community has been using teacher identifiers to link student performance to individual teachers for several years. In his chapter of the report, Jason Glass, the director of human resources for the Eagle County school district, discusses strategies for dealing with two serious problems in the implementation of teacher identifiers: the lack of valid student assessments in some curriculum areas, and the challenge of isolating the teachers responsible for each student’s performance in a given subject area.

“In today’s schools, the situation where one teacher provides all the academic instruction to one group of students is rare and is becoming more and more uncommon,” he says.

As a way to address this problem, Eagle County requires each building principal to validate the data, and allows him or her to assign, for purposes of data tracking, up to three teachers to each student in core content areas.

As for expanding the range of valid assessment tools across the curriculum, the report’s authors suggest leaving this issue to each district and state to resolve.

Elliott Asp, an assistant superintendent for Colorado’s Cherry Creek school district, in the suburbs south of Denver, another district that has used teacher identifiers for a number of years, confronted in his white paper one of teacher-identifier implementation’s most difficult problems: gaining the support of teachers.

Unfortunately, Asp notes, teacher-evaluation systems typically don’t clearly rank levels of performance: “Teachers are either ‘perfect’ or they are ‘incompetent,’ with little middle ground.” He calls for a culture shift in which school communities would commit themselves to “a consistent norm of continuous improvement.” Without such a context, he says, “fear and resistance to change will derail efforts to create and use this very valuable data source.”

Implemented well, teacher identifiers have the potential to improve education for all our children, and to bring critical federal dollars to education systems. Ensuring that we use every tool possible to achieve those goals is a cultural shift we can’t afford to miss.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Making ‘Teacher Identifiers’ Work

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