Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Think Before Acting

Deputy Director, FairTest

 I doubt there is anyone who thinks current teacher evaluation is adequate. The weaknesses have been well known for some time. Good ideas for improving teacher evaluation, such as Charlotte Danielson’s work, have been around for decades.

What is happening now, however, is one more effort to claim a crisis, then stampede people into accepting whatever the proclaimer of “crisis” wants them to do. Through Race to the Top, Education Secretary Duncan pressured states to use student test scores as a significant factor in evaluating teachers.

This process is the equivalent of: “Fire” (teachers), “Aim” (prepare adequate evaluation systems), “Ready” (carefully evaluate existing evidence and good examples of best practices). The upside-down process caught on: several governors have used state fiscal crises to push for immediately changing how layoffs take place...

If we start with the evidence, we see that using student test scores, including mislabeled “value added measurement” (VAM) procedures, will massively disrupt the teaching force and educator morale in many states, without putting anything in place that stands up to reason or evidence. (I recently summed up some of the available data in a short piece for Mass. Citizens for Public Schools here. The basic conclusion: VAM is not ready for prime time.)

In addition to technical flaws, the larger problem is that evaluating educators primarily based on their students’ scores will lead to even more teaching to the narrow tests than we now have. Since inducing such academic damage is one of the major failures of NLCB, it makes no sense to make that problem worse.

The public is recognizing the absurdity of such politically-driven initiatives. In a recent Vanderbilt University survey, two thirds of Tennessee residents opposed paying teachers for their student test scores. The pollsters thought concerns over too much emphasis on testing produced that result. Sadly, the state had already adopted such a scheme.

Richard Rothstein points out clearly that the claims of crisis underlying the push to introduce payment for scores are far more manufactured than real. I would add that gains in NAEP have slowed or halted in recent years, quite possibly a consequence of the over-emphasis on testing. Slowing NAEP gains provide another reason not to extend the flawed logic and practice of NLCB.

Yes, education gaps remain large by many measures. But as “60 Minutes” pointed out on Sunday, March 6, soon one quarter of U.S. children will be living below the official (and inadequate) poverty line. Nations whose students outperform the U.S. have far lower rates of child poverty. Finland, often cited as global model, has a poverty rate of less than five percent. Closing the “poverty gap” would be a far more productive place to start in addressing the root causes of our nation’s mediocre educational performance. .

Yes, schools can and should improve, even in light of huge opportunity-to-learn inequities. Improvement, however, takes thoughtful action, not perpetuating the errors of NCLB and not pushing states to plunge into more test-based decision-making using bribes and manufactured crises.