Making the Case for a New Direction on Teacher Evaluation

What is presently being pawned off as a reform of teacher evaluation has little grounding in education research and makes for bad policy.
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The most conservative wave of teacher bashing in recent history emanates, not just from the Republicans, but from Barack Obama's Department of Education and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan as well. A carry-over from Bush-era No Child Left Behind, Duncan's version of school reform now focuses mainly on re-inventing teacher evaluation and placing the entire weight of measurable student performance on the individual classroom teacher with little or no attention paid to their student's living and learning environment -- inside or outside of the classroom.

In L.A., newspapers are now publishing the names of teachers along side their student's test scores, mashed into a value-added formula which is then used to publicly (be)rate them as good or bad teachers. New York, Chicago, Miami and most likely every other large urban school district will soon follow suit. This in turn will play a major role in determining how teachers are paid, their professional standing and job security, as well as their rights to bargain collectively as union members.

But what is presently being pawned off as a reform of teacher evaluation has little grounding in education research and makes for bad policy. This according to a policy brief, Getting Teacher Assessment Right: What Policymakers Can Learn From Research, being released today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The Center's report says that teachers' effectiveness and quality can and should be evaluated, but sensible and useful evaluation depends on a balanced system where value-added models using student standardized test scores play only a limited role.

According to the NEPC research review prepared by Pennsylvania State University professor of education Patricia Hinchey, supporting and sustaining high-quality teaching depends on combining many sources of valuable information. The brief describes several different teacher evaluation methods and explains that no single method of teacher evaluation is sufficient by itself. Each has weaknesses that can be compensated for when combined with others. These methods include:

  • Classroom observations and evaluations by administrators,
  • Portfolios prepared by teachers that document a range of teaching behaviors and responsibilities; and
  • Peer review.

"Even after a decade of seeing the damage done by the No Child Left Behind Act, policy makers are still fetishizing student scores on standardized tests, using them as a crutch instead of turning to balanced, sensible solutions to teacher evaluation," notes Kevin G. Welner, co-director of NEPC.

The brief, notes that most current discussions about improving teacher quality tend to be imbalanced, focusing disproportionately on student test scores. "While there are important questions about what exactly achievement scores can -- and cannot -- indicate about individual teachers, there is no question that placing extreme emphasis on test scores alone can have unintended and undesirable consequences that undermine the goal of developing an excellent teaching force," says Hinchey.

The report ends with a series of recommendations to ed policy makers:

  • Be clear about the purposes of any assessment before selecting strategies.
  • Where formative and summative assessment are to be combined, plan to address the challenges of dual-purpose systems.
  • Involve all key stakeholders in system design.
  • Rather than employing a single assessment tool, gather evidence from multiple sources. Combine strategies so that the weakness of any single tool is offset by the strengths of another.
  • Be sure that the criteria for assessing performance, artifacts or other factors are credible and are well understood by teachers and assessors.
  • Provide high-quality, ongoing training for assessors and routinely calibrate their efforts to ensure consistent application of criteria.
  • Look to high-quality research on existing tools and programs to inform the design of assessment systems
  • Commit sufficient resources to produce high-quality, productive assessment

The NEPC policy brief offers policy makers something to consider as a viable alternative to the current test-and-punish madness coming out of the DOE.

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