Wednesday, March 14, 2012

DPS places incentives ahead of system of evaluation

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. In the minds of many, it’s the key behind shifting America’s dismal education system into something worth spending taxpayer money. It has become easy to target teachers for failing to fix all that shows up to be taught at low performing schools.

The public’s fascination with evaluations is reflected in interest to reward high performing teachers at Y.E. Smith Elementary School and Hillside High School. Durham school board members are considering a plan that would offer incentives to teachers who show “high growth” on the state’s ABC measures. Individual teachers would receive $1,500 while all faculty and staff receive bonuses if the entire school achieves “high growth”. The principal will receive a bonus of $4,500 and custodians will be awarded $500.

The basis for the incentive plan is the notion that low performing schools need to attract highly motivated teachers with a skill level greater than those currently teaching. The plan assumes the state’s ABC system is the best way to measure teacher performance. There are too many assumptions to move forward on this plan.

As models for teacher performance emerge across the country, one thing is certain - no one has found the best way to get the job done. Given the complexity related to teacher evaluation, it would be a mistake to move on an incentive plan before knowing how to measure teachers.

The motivation behind wanting a system of evaluation is clear. Principals and administrators believe they can terminate ineffective teachers or encourage them to leave if they have evaluations as a tool. Researchers say the evaluation process suffers because there are no agreed-upon norms for what constitutes good teaching. Without a clear standard, deciding what good teaching is becomes a matter of personal taste.

The movement to evaluate is fueled by federal money. Federal officials have attached teacher evaluation as a condition of receiving the second round of federal stimulus funds. States must report the number and percentage of teachers and principals in each district who receive low performance ratings and specify whether their evaluation system requires any evidence of student performance gains.

Since the launch last summer of the federal "Race to the Top" program, 12 states have passed legislation to improve their teacher evaluations. The last decade has produced extensive data about student performance. In many places this data can be used to create a year-over-year analysis of how much a teacher advanced the learning of an individual student.

The values-added approached is considered the best way to evaluate teacher performance. So, why isn’t that method being used?

This approach takes into account other factors impacting student test scores, the most important being whether a student arrived in a teacher’s class room several grades behind. This method of analysis can offer a more accurate estimate of how well a teacher is teaching than simply taking into account the most recent set of student test scores.

With all the talk involving testing, many teachers teach subjects, often electives, for which students are not subjected to standardized testing. Many subjects like science are not tested annually. Most models leave out many teachers who are not teaching math or language arts. This leaves school districts with an imperfect evaluation system.

How far should districts go in evaluating teachers? Will they attach teachers’ names to their scores? Will a time come were parents are offered a chance to search a database to determine how good or bad the teacher is who runs their child’s classroom?

Prior to moving forward with an incentive plan, DPS should develop better training for supervisors and a system for evaluating teachers (using values-added analysis along with classroom observations). In addition, time should be dedicated to formulating a plan to support teachers in a way that limits burn-out. Parents should have access to the results of evaluations. Before any of that takes place a culture that values evaluation must be established.

Failure to do all of that will create a climate were teachers are targeted rather than supported in a way that advances the quality of teaching and stimulates greater student performance.

Throwing dollars at low-performing schools doesn’t solve this problem. Moving in that direction supports the claim that low-performance is the consequence of poor teachers. There isn’t enough data to substantiate that claim. It may be true, but are we willing to throw money to validate that assumption.

It takes time to change a culture. One step at a time.

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