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Opinion: Keeping the Task Force on Task

The Teacher Effectiveness Task Force is too important to fail.

In late September, Governor Chris Christie commissioned a task force to report on how teacher and principal evaluations can be made more effective.

This is an important objective,. The current system is just about useless, finding everybody above average and outstanding.

But if the new system isn't going to meet the same fate, some basic assumption need to be challenged.

Let's start with the executive order establishing the task force, which repeats the reformer's favorite mantra: “Research has consistently shown that the single most important factor in a student’s educational attainment is the quality of his or her teacher and school leader."

Wrong.

What research has consistently shown is that the most important factor in educational achievement is who the student picked as his or her parents.

If s/he were smart enough to pick better-educated parents who stayed together and brought in a middle-class income, the kid will do much better than one who picked an undereducated single mom with a lousy work record.

The second most important factor: the socio-economic status of the other kids in the same classroom and school. Poor kids concentrated together is an almost certain predictor of poor outcome.

Yes, quality of instruction counts, but it explains relatively little of the variation in academic performance. Moreover, the research on the relationship of an effective “school leader” (that would be the principal) to academic achievement is scant and unreliable.

There is wide agreement, however, that the prevailing method of recruiting, retaining, mentoring, supporting, evaluating, promoting and compensating teachers does little to help committed teachers or their students and can protect lazy and incompetent teachers.

Clearly, the task force faces a tough task. Unfortunately, the governor has made it more difficult than it need be, by insisting that at least 50 percent of teacher and principal evaluations be based on student achievement.

At first glance, that seems like an entirely reasonable criterion. Let’s take a second glance.

Measures of student achievement almost always mean standardized test scores. Other appraisals are practically never mentioned because there is no agreement on what they should be.

This is what the task force must contend with:

  • Only about 20 percent of instructors teach a grade or subject evaluated by a standardized test. That leaves out grades K-2, 9-10 and 12 and subjects like history, economics, chemistry, Spanish, gym....

  • Standardized tests are not intended to measure teacher performance. They are meant to gauge student mastery of a defined body of content and skills.

The SAT exam, for instance, is designed to determine the likelihood that a high-school student can adequately handle the academic content in the first year of college. SATs should not be used to rate high schools or predict performance in law school.

Yes, test results can be included in the mix of factors used to evaluate teachers, but they should not be the predominant yardstick -- which is what the governor has mandated. Consider:

  • For standardized tests to be used fairly and uniformly for teachers of reading and math, the distribution of students to their classes should be random. In the real world, parents may gang up on the principal to ensure that their kids get Miss Jones and not Mr. Lopez.

  • The now-popular “value-added” method of evaluating teachers by measuring the gain during the school year does not take into account students who attend academic summer camps, are tutored, or move around a lot. This does not mean that the method is fatally flawed, but it does mean it is not ready to be used to make crucial decisions about tenure, merit pay or dismissal.

  • The same is true of merit-based bonuses. It is possible that some of the experiments now underway in Denver, New Haven, and Washington, D.C., will demonstrate that compensation can be adjusted for performance while simultaneously strengthening a culture of collaboration and problem-sharing. To assume that merit systems are ready to roll is a mistake. The last thing struggling schools need is a top-down system that further isolates individual teachers in competition for a bigger paycheck.

Other hurdles before the task force have been noted by commentators and interest groups. To work, its recommendations should lead to negotiations among interested parties, including parents and taxpayers.

Just as teaching in schools with lots of poor kids is a complicated and difficult job, so too is the task of creating an improved system for evaluating teachers and principals. The idea that a workable and fair system can be created by continuing to snub organizations like the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association is unrealistic at best.

If Governor Christie wants to come up with an improved system, he should modify his executive order to give the task force greater leeway and add a few members.

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