With many states passing merit-pay laws, it is imperative that we find a good method to evaluate educators effectively. A new report from The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., says a way to accurately judge student progress, or a teacher’s “value added,” needs to be developed. The report also calls for uniformity among school districts. I’m going to wade into the debate with the following points.
1. Do not eliminate teacher tenure. Some reformers point out the inordinately low number of teachers who are fired or do not have their contracts renewed. The problem, they say, is teacher tenure. Simply remove the legal protection that teachers have and administrators will have the freedom to get rid of bad teachers. Regardless of how we feel about those reformers’ political views, we have to face truth of the matter. In schools across the country, too many mediocre (and in some cases downright bad) teachers are given new contracts and shuffled from one school to another. The students ultimately lose under the current practice.
The answer is not be found in weakening teacher tenure laws. My stance might surprise some who know me as a principal and superintendent who placed high expectations on teacher quality. But teachers must have the protection and security found in tenure, not only to preserve academic freedom, but to protect them from capricious decisions made by administrators and school boards. The answer is found by unions and other teacher groups working collaboratively with policy makers to develop honest and effective methods of teacher evaluation that results in teacher improvement. Yes, in some cases those methods must include parameters to remove ineffective teachers. We must reject the notion that we will defend teachers at all cost.
2. Develop an effective teacher evaluation system based on various measures. I’m troubled by the notion that teacher quality should be determined by student performance on a single high-stakes test. Some districts use student progress as a measure, but even that fails to address many contextual issues such as socio-economic status, student motivation, and class size.
Just what constitutes good teaching? Student performance must be the starting point to measure quality teaching, but unfortunately the task isn’t as easy as examining test scores. I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, How do Principals Model Good Instruction? that teaching and learning are very tacit occurrences. At the same time, we all know what constitutes good teaching, and we all know the best teachers. Ask any principal and he or she will quickly give you the names of the best teachers in the building. Ask the students, ask the parents, ask the community. You can even ask the staff, and you will get the names of the best teachers in the school and those who are not as effective. The task facing us education professionals is to develop both qualitative and quantitative measures of teacher quality.
3. Invest in frameworks that support quality teaching in every school. Teacher pay and benefits, smaller class sizes, appropriate technology, and clean, well-maintained buildings are only the beginning of supporting good teaching and learning. One component of effective schools is teacher collaboration. If we put teachers in competition with one another to receive a certain amount of bonus funding, teacher trust and collaboration will fall by the wayside. Most teachers get into the field because they care about children and really want them to learn. Give them the tools to do this by providing appropriate student data and the time to plan together. Place expectations on teachers, but treat them like professionals.