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Grading Teachers Sparks Conflict as U.S. States Compete for Federal Grants

by By Esmé E. Deprez and John Hechinger
February 23, 2012

David Wright, a high school technology teacher in Middletown,Delaware (STODE1), has never taught reading or math. Even so, the state planned to judge his job performance partly on student test scores in those subjects.

That was until last month, when state officials said they would throw out a provision in a new system linking teacher performance to student achievement that assessed educators such as Wright on schoolwide performance in subjects they don’t teach.

“Judge me, fine, just let’s make sure it’s on things that I can control,” Wright, 34, and president of the local chapter of the state union, said in a phone interview. “In the rush to get it done as quickly as possible, they lost some of the logic.”

Delaware is in the vanguard of states developing new systems to evaluate teachers, according to Sandi Jacobs, vice president of theNational Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research and policy group in Washington. Delaware’s struggle may foreshadow complications that New York and other states face as they follow suit. Along with questions about fairness, states are encountering delays because of the complexity of tracking data, conflicts with teachers unions and concern from researchers that the entire effort could be misguided.

President Barack Obama’s administration has made tying teacher evaluation to student performance a centerpiece of its education agenda. Changing evaluations was a requirement for winning grants in the Education Department’s $5 billion Race to the Top program, of which Delaware was an early recipient.

Changing the Metrics

The evaluations also figure prominently in a proposed $5 billion grant program, part of the administration’s fiscal 2013 budget, designed to revamp teacher pay and tenure plans.

States are developing data systems to show how much individual teachers contribute to student achievement. The aim: measuring pupils’ improvement during their time in class, taking into account their skills when they enter. Districts would then combine these measures with more subjective evaluations, such as observation by principals. It’s a shift from gauging teacher quality by the number of years on the job or advanced degrees.

Tying teacher evaluations to student test scores is vital to determine how educators enhance achievement, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and diminished union power.

‘Hire and Fire’

“Until we get to the point that school leadership can hire and fire, and they themselves can be hired and fired based on the value they add to a child’s life, we’re not making progress on improving education,” Allen said by telephone. “Evaluation is the first step, and performance pay is the second.”

Student test scores are one of many components that schools should use to assess educators, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates wrote today in a New York Times op-ed calling the impending public release of ratings based on student test scores for more than 12,000 New York City teachers “a big mistake.” His charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has spent millions on programs aimed at evaluating teacher performance.

“Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment,” he wrote. “Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Sea Change

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia require that objective measures of student achievement, such as student test scores, be included in the evaluation of teachers, according to an October report from the teacher-quality council.

“We’re seeing a real sea change,” Jacobs, the council’s vice president, said in a phone interview. “Two or three years ago, almost no place was using any objective evidence of student performance.”

Pam Nichols, director of communications at the Delaware State Education Association, the state’s only teachers union, with 12,000 members, said officials shouldn’t rush to implement evaluation systems.

“It’s not about getting it done,” Nichols said by telephone from Dover. “It’s about getting it done right, or it’s a waste of money and you’re not really seeing if a teacher is effectively doing what he or she was hired to do.”

Establishing Guidelines

State officials and hundreds of teachers in Delaware, the sixth least-populous state, are working to establish guidelines that will measure student performance on subjects that aren’t tested using the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System, the standard state exam for grades 3 through 10. According to Race to the Top, they must have the guidelines in place by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, said Diane Donohue, special assistant for educator effectiveness at the state education department.

In contrast with states such as New York and New Jersey, where government and union representatives have sparred, collaboration between the two has been essential, Donohue said.

“It’s hard enough when you are collaborating, let alone if there’s no collaboration,” said Donohue, who was previously president of the union. “You have to have the perspective of all the stakeholders in order for it to work, and you definitely need the perspective of the educators.”

Under Fire

The wisdom of using improvement on student-achievement tests to assess teachers has come under fire from some academics. Too little is known about their accuracy as a teacher-evaluation tool, according to a 2009 report by the National Research Council, a unit of theNational Academy of Sciences.

The student-achievement tests weren’t designed for measuring teachers and may not be sensitive enough for the task, said Diane Rentner, interim director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group. “I have a concern that the assessments aren’t quite there to do this on a completely fair basis,” she said in an interview.

No high-performing nation in the world evaluates teachers by student test scores, according toDiane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

“This is madness,” Ravitch wrote Feb. 21 on the New York Review of Books website. “Will we ever break free of our national addiction to data? Will we ever stop to wonder if the data mean anything important? Will education survive school reform?”

New York Agreement

Last week, New York officials announced an agreement with the state’s largest teachers union to save $700 million in federal funding, after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned it would have to return the money if its Race to the Top promise to implement evaluations went unfulfilled. Assessments in local districts will be based 60 percent on classroom observations by administrators, and peer and parent feedback. Forty percent will be split between students’ performance on state tests and locally developed ones.

The National Council on Teacher Quality gives grades to states based on their policies on recruiting, preparing and evaluating teachers. Florida ranks highest, with a ‘B’, because of the variety of its efforts to change teacher policies, such as those regarding tenure.

California got a ‘D-plus’, with the organization saying it hadn’t made progress in changing teacher policies since 2009, such as identifying effective instructors. The state is “encouraging the development of more effective educator evaluation systems,” according to a statement last month from the office of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. The department declined to comment further, said Pam Slater, a spokeswoman.

Nineteen states, including New York, received a ‘C.’ Montana — which had no state policy regarding teacher effectiveness — came in last, with an F. The state is working on an evaluation system now, said Allyson Hagen, a spokeswoman for the Office of Public Instruction.

To contact the reporters on this story: Esmé E. Deprez in New York atedeprez@bloomberg.net; John Hechinger in Boston at jhechinger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: William Glasgall at wglasgall@bloomberg.net

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