The War Over Teacher Evaluations Misses the Point

Making an impact for kids is the reason we joined this profession. A system that provides options and pathways to do exactly that is one that should excite any teacher.
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In recent months, both school districts and teachers unions have agreed that our current system of teacher evaluation is broken -- but just how to fix it has been the topic of bitter debate. In Los Angeles, UTLA, the union representing public school teachers, filed a lawsuit challenging the implementation of a pilot evaluation system that would use standardized test scores to measure student growth. But this month, the union decided to suspend their legal challenge -- at least for now -- and work with the district to improve and implement the new system. This is an important step forward for LA teachers and for LA children. We need an evaluation system that helps teachers like me understand what we're doing right, and what we need to improve upon. Student growth data should be a component of this system.

I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago to become a middle school math teacher because I believed I could make an impact on the lives of young people. In the years to come, my most memorable days were those in which I was able to see that impact taking place, whether it was helping a student who was far below grade level finally master his multiplication tables, or challenging an advanced learner to read and calculate in binary code. Ultimately this is the calling of every public school teacher: to attempt to make an impact on each of the incredibly diverse students who walk through our door.

Until very recently, any sense I had of my own efficacy as a teacher was either anecdotal or pseudo-statistical. Many former students drop by my classroom and express how much they learned there; nonetheless, state test results often showed that the highest scorers leaving my class were the same highest scorers who entered my class. It was difficult to measure exactly what impact my own teaching strategies were having.

In the last few years, school systems have begun to adopt models that are designed to measure how much value teachers add to their students' learning. At present, LAUSD is in the process of piloting a new teacher evaluation system that includes this controversial "value-added" component. The district plans to quantify teacher contributions to student learning through the use of student outcome data, using a model they are calling Academic Growth over Time (AGT). AGT, like most value-added models, is designed to measure a student's growth from year to year in comparison with the growth of similar students across the district. LAUSD hopes to eventually use this measure, combined with additional measures of teacher effectiveness, in teachers' evaluations. The concept of a metric designed to isolate the actual effects of teaching practices is intriguing, not only for me, but for the thousands of other teachers who have always known we've made an impact, but yearn to know how much.

Unfortunately, a lot of the outcry over this new evaluation system misses the point. While no evaluation system will ever be perfect, this should not keep us from moving forward to develop one that actually serves the teaching profession. As teachers, we know the importance of giving our students meaningful feedback on their work -- not as judgment, but as opportunity for improvement. This same attitude should be driving the development of teacher evaluation systems. By having better data available, LAUSD will be able to learn from their own teachers what practices are working and, in so doing, develop more meaningful professional development opportunities.

The conversation regarding how we use student growth data is certainly in its infancy, but it is absolutely the right conversation to be having. And let's be clear: there are still many unanswered questions regarding both the reliability and consequences of using such a measure. While I fully believe in the value of using student growth data, LAUSD must address both concerns around the accuracy of the metric and the potential unintended consequences that a test-based metric can create, such as the incentive to "teach to the test," or even (as we have seen unfortunately in some cases) to cheat. But these issues ought to be starting points for powerful conversations between districts, teachers, families, and the union about not only how we measure excellence, but what we do with the knowledge when we find out.

For example, given these concerns, might the district and the union be willing to use AGT initially as a very small (perhaps 5%) component of a teacher's overall evaluation? In future years, this weight could be increased as the district and union work together to improve the reliability of AGT, to develop systems that ensure the teaching of a deep and rich curriculum, and most importantly, to connect these scores to meaningful opportunities for professional development geared toward helping teachers like me become even more effective.

Making an impact for kids is the reason we joined this profession. A system that provides options and pathways to do exactly that is one that should excite any teacher.

By Kyle Hunsberger, Los Angeles Unified School District math teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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