Everyone Gets an 'A'

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
The New York Times editorial page opines ("Truth in Teaching") this morning on teacher evaluation, informed by a new report from the New Teacher Project. I am happy to see the Times's expansive take on this issue, not focusing purely on firing ineffective teachers, but also talking about better training of school administrators, rewarding teaching excellence, and access to better quality professional development to improve classroom practice across the board. That said, the teacher evaluation process needs a complete overhaul to serve a real purpose for both teachers and students.

Read a selection from the editorial below:
Education reform will go nowhere until the states are forced to revamp corrupt teacher evaluation systems that rate a vast majority of teachers as “excellent,” even in schools where children learn nothing.

A startling new report from a nonpartisan New York research group known as The New Teacher Project lays out the scope of the problem. The study, titled “The Widget Effect,” is based on surveys of more than 16,000 teachers and administrators in four states: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio.

The first problem it identifies is that evaluation sessions are often short, infrequent and pro forma — typically two or fewer classroom observations totaling 60 minutes or less. The administrators who perform them are rarely trained to do the evaluations and are under intense pressure from colleagues not to be critical. Not surprisingly, nearly every teacher passes, and an overwhelming majority receives top ratings.

At the same time, more than 80 percent of administrators and nearly 60 percent of teachers surveyed said that they knew a tenured teacher who deserved to be dismissed for poor performance. Half of 12 districts studied had not dismissed a tenured teacher in the previous five years. The study also says that teachers who need and want to improve their skills find it very hard to get help.

Until things change, excellent teachers will not be recognized and rewarded, low-performing teachers will remain in the classroom and teachers who could become high achievers if they had more support never will.

To break out of this failing system, the report says, the states will need to create effective evaluation practices. Those must fairly rate teachers’ different levels of ability. School districts must also invest in teacher development programs and be prepared to fire bad teachers who show no ability or desire to get better.
In a related story, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports ("Ackerman vows tighter teacher standards") that just 13 of 10,700 Philadelphia teachers district-wide received an "unsatisfactory" evaluation last year. It is simply not possible in any human resources system -- assuming the existence of an honest, useful and properly weighted evaluation instrument (which clearly is not the case here) -- that only 0.12% of employees are performing unsatisfactorily. And, not that it is all the teachers' fault, but this in a school district in its sixth year of corrective action! This just further highlights the problem. Teacher evaluations are neither providing informative feedback to educators to help them improve nor are they holding truly ineffective educators accountable for either improving their performance or moving onto something else.