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What Is Accountability? Part II: The Evaluation of Teachers

How the national debate over evaluating teachers affects our district.

Imagine an energetic, idealistic young teacher in one of our elementary schools.  She has been teaching for only two years, but things are going well.  Today, however, she is having a bad day.  Several children are having trouble focusing, and the class is a bit out of control.  At just that moment, the principal walks through the door for an unannounced visit.  What is it that we want our young teacher to think and feel?  Do we want her to think, “Whew, thank goodness, my supportive and experienced principal is here.”  Or do we want our teacher to think:  “Oh no…not now.  Not a ‘gotcha moment.’  I’m going to get written up for this!”

How should we think about holding our teachers accountable for performance? 

Last week, I wrote about top-down v. bottom-up approaches to systems of accountability in education, and then discussed what bottom-up accountability might mean for our district’s provision of special education:

This week, I share some thoughts about teacher accountability.

Unfortunately, “gotcha moments” dominate our current approach to holding teachers accountable.  Across the political spectrum, from President Obama to Governor Christie, our political leaders are all marching to the same steady drum beat of top-down, punitive strategies that engender public distrust and disrespect for our educators.  Consider what’s now in the legislative pipeline in Trenton: the “Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability For Children of New Jersey Act (TEACH NJ), also known as the Ruiz bill. 

TEACH NJ will make student performance on standardized tests an overwhelming factor (as much as 40%) in high-stakes evaluations of teachers for tenure, compensation, and dismissal.  This is problematic for at least three reasons.  First, test scores are the result of a host of factors, among them family background, class size, students’ psychological and physical health, the quality of the curriculum, or the pollen count on test day.  Why, then, would we use standardized tests as prime indicators of teacher quality?*  Second, using state tests in this way creates perverse incentives.  Would we evaluate the quality of heart surgeons by keeping track of whether their patients lived or died on the operating table?   It would not be long before the best surgeons refused to operate on the patients most in need, or most at risk.  And third, because the approach is unfair, it is undermining teacher morale and enthusiasm.  The recent Annual Metropolitan Life Survey of Teachers shows that job satisfaction is at its lowest point since 1989.  Only 44% of teachers are “very satisfied with their jobs,” down from 59% in 2009.  An astonishing 29% said that they are likely to leave teaching within the next five years.  http://www.metlife.com/about/corporate-profile/citizenship/metlife-foundation/metlife-survey-of-the-american-teacher.html?WT.mc_id=vu1101

We certainly need better ways to evaluate teachers and to address the problem of struggling or ineffective ones, tenured and untenured.  But any teacher evaluation system that we embrace must be thoughtful, comprehensive, and fundamentally fair. 

Under Superintendent Osborne’s leadership, our school district has made great strides by adopting the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching.  This framework spells out the skills and competencies that outstanding teachers need in four domains (planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities).  The district has been working hard to diffuse these ideas down to the classroom level. 

However, Superintendant Osborne has also been a vocal supporter of the TEACH NJ Act.  I think the Superintendant is wrong about this.  A more promising approach to teacher evaluation, in my view, is one that would embrace bottom-up accountability.  This would encourage teacher-to-teacher collaboration, more peer support and mentoring, and, possibly even peer review in pursuing disciplinary actions.  Of course, we must make sure that children are not put in harm’s way because of incompetent teachers.

In this regard, the “Peer Assistance and Review” (PAR) program in the Montgomery County, Maryland School District is a great model.  PAR engenders collaboration among administrators, principals, the teacher’s union, and outstanding experienced teachers.  The system was built over many years through the active participation of all stakeholders.  The result is that struggling teachers are given valuable feedback and a chance to improve before disciplinary actions are taken.  Over a decade, the district has fired 200 teachers, and 300 left on their own initiative rather than undergo peer review.   The system enjoys widespread support throughout the district.  As the Montgomery County’s Superintendent put it, “People don’t tear down what they help to build.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/06/education/06oneducation.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Helping%20Teachers%20Help%20Themselves&st=cse

Building such a system requires trust and good faith among administrators, the union, teachers, parents, and community members.  In our district, it might take years to build that, but the effort would be well worth it.  Our educators are a precious resource.  They deserve better than TEACH NJ.  If elected, I would oppose this pending change in our laws, and push for more bottom-up accountability.  Our district may ultimately end up having to comply with TEACH NJ, but there is always a role for local values and commitments when it comes to implementation.  I would be an advocate for these values, and voice for taking a different path.  

If you'd like more information on these and other subjects, please see my website, AmyHiger.org, and also that of Jennifer Payne-Parrish and Karen (Tia) Swanson, with whom I am aligned in this campaign for School Board: payne-parrishandswanson.org. The election is April 17. Polls are open from 2-9 p.m.

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* Technically, TEACH NJ calls for the use of “student growth percentiles” (or SGPs), to measure teacher performance.  SPGs measure how much the individual student has improved academically from one year to the next as compared to his or her academic peers.  This is valuable information because it tracks how individual students are doing, but it was not designed for evaluating teachers.  The problem isn’t the data, but rather the misuse of the data.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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