Monday, February 21, 2011

A Few Words on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability

Teachers have been getting a lot of bad press lately. One would think they spent their days sipping bourbon in the classroom and earning six figure salaries. In fact, in Pennsylvania, in 2006-2007 the average teacher's salary in Pennsylvania was $54,977 with an average of 14 years experience (see list of salaries and time in teaching county by county from the Morning Call). For 2008-2009 PSEA reported similar data, the average annual salary was $56,092, with an average of 13.5 yeas of experience. For a profession requiring a college degree that is not bad, especially considering many teachers have advanced degrees. For comparison, nationally new college graduates in 2010 were offered an average starting salary of $48,661 (from National Associate of Colleges and Employers).

Evaluating teachers is tricky. What criteria do you use? I had a high school math teacher that I thought was terrible. He doubled as a sports coach and spent a lot of his time on that. I thought he was an ineffective classroom teacher. In recent years as various kinds of social media has brought me into contact with people I went to high school with and have not communicated with since then, I am amazed at how many people loved him. He inspired some to become math teachers themselves. Other wrote fondly of the tutoring he did in the summer and the school year. Was he a good teacher? Depends on who you talk to.

Carl Bialik discussed various evaluation methids in the Wall Street Journal last summer ("Needs improvement" where teacher report cards fall short," August 21-22, 2010). He writes about the rise of the standardized test score as an evaluation criteria, but notes: "in a group of elementary-school math teachers who ranked in the top 20% in five Florida counties early last decade, more than three in five didn't stay in the top quintile in the following year, ..." Bialik notes that some teachers do well with students who tend to score poorly, but that can bring down the teacher's ratings, and therefore make those teachers less eager to take on more difficult students. Also, those with small class size means there is a very small sampling of test scores to work with. Other evaluation criteria are subjective and frequently very brief classroom observations.

The use of test scores is tricky for other reasons as well. You can view Pennsylvania's test scores on the state Dept. of Education's state report cards (that site also has links to school report cards for individual school scores). Note what is being tested: math and reading, with science added in to a few grades in recent years. What if you teach science in a grade that doesn't test it? What if you teach Social Studies? What are those teachers evaluated on? There aren't any state-wide test scores. Classroom grades? Everyone knows the easiest way to get good classroom test scores is to make easy tests or give open book tests. A challenging curriculum will invariably lead to a few poor grades. What teacher will do that if is means a lower grade for the teacher? Test scores alone don't take into account what happens outside the classroom. A group of students whose parents value education and supervise homework will, by and large, do better than a group of students whose parents don't care or are too busy working multiple jobs to oversee homework or create a good environment for doing homework. Students who get enough to eat and sleep soundly and safely at night are more likely to do better in school than those who don't.

A 2006 NEA report found that half of all new teachers left the job in the first five years on the job. The reasons were low salaries and poor working conditions ("Half of teachers quit in 5 years," by Lisa Lambert, Washington Post, May 9, 2006). So how do you find the good teachers and get them to stay? Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker ("Most likely to succeed," 12/15/2008) comparing the identification of good football players and good teachers and the training of good financial advisors and good teachers. Here's an excerpt:

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.

Tenure itself has come under fire. The general perception is that tenure means it is impossible to fire a teacher. That's incorrect. Look at the fine print closely enough and all contracts or policy manuals will contain information on how to remove a tenured teacher, even at the college level. It may not be easily done but it can be done. What becomes problematic is when a teacher has been given positive evaluations for years and then suddenly someone wants them removed. Truly egregious behavior can get someone removed from the classroom immediately while a more thorough evaluation is conducted. More common, though, is a teacher who is having trouble in the classroom who doesn't realize their techniques are ineffective or have become stale. More than one year of flat or poor evaluations should lead to mentoring and supervision and if that doesn't help improve performance, then that teacher should be encouraged to find another line of work. There should be, and most often are, guidelines and procedures for doing this. It's just a matter of following them.

It distresses me that teachers have become public scapegoats. Vilifying teachers does not improve our educational systems. It merely drives good people out of the profession and discourages our best and brightest from going into teaching.

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