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Who's a Good Teacher?

When Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers in Washington D.C. on July 23, the news was heralded as evidence that true accountability was finally a reality because the evaluation system used is considered one of the most rigorous in the nation. But like most controversial issues in education, there's more to the story than initially meets the eye.

The firings included 165 teachers for poor performance and the rest for lack of proper teaching credentials. These constituted 6 percent of the district's 4,300 teachers. Rhee put an additional 737 on notice that if they don't improve next year, they too could lose their jobs. George Parker, the head of the Washington Teacher's Union, said he will contest the firings because the evaluation system used was flawed.

To try to determine who's right, it's necessary to take a closer look at the actual way D.C. teachers are evaluated. They are observed five times a year by administrators and master teachers on the basis of coherent lesson plans and student engagement. After the first observation, teachers receive a detailed plan spelling out their weaknesses and are offered coaching to help them improve. Fifty percent of the evaluation of math and reading teachers in 4th through 8th grades is based on their students' growth on standardized achievement tests. (High school teachers will be included in the future.) Teachers are then placed into four categories.

Rhee acknowledged that she didn't know how many teachers were fired for low student achievement on standardized tests, and how many were dismissed for poor classroom performance. This is a crucial distinction. Despite what is widely believed, these are not necessarily interchangeable criteria. It is altogether possible for teachers to violate every principle of effective instruction while being observed and yet still post satisfactory - if not remarkable - results on the same tests. There is something about their personality and style that is likely responsible. The reverse is true as well. In Testing! Testing! (Allyn and Bacon, 2000). W. James Popham explains why it's risky to draw conclusions about effectiveness merely by observing teachers in action. He calls the research underlying the principles of effective instruction "tendency research" because teachers who follow them tend to be effective. But the results are far from conclusive.

Then there is the question of using growth - rather than proficiency - on standardized tests as a major determinant. In theory, it makes eminent sense. If teachers happen to inherit a class of students with low skills and are able to show progress in their learning, these teachers deserve credit, even though their students may still not have reached proficiency. By the same token, if teachers happen to inherit a class of Talmudic scholars, they don't deserve credit for how their students subsequently perform on the same tests unless the students have shown improvement. In other words, these teachers can't coast.

In practice, however, the growth model, which is similar to the value-added model, does not adequately control for factors outside the classroom. For example, teachers are not responsible for the influences, either positive or negative, that moving to a new neighborhood exert. Nor are teachers responsible for changes within the family in the form of divorce, unemployment, and death of a parent. These are not theoretical factors. They affect student learning in the classroom in ways that non-educators do not understand.

Finally, there is the element of non-cognitive outcomes that are not being evaluated. If teachers know that half their evaluation is based on standardized test scores, they will feel pressure to turn their classrooms into test preparation factories. This strategy will no doubt boost test scores, but it is not likely to develop a love of the subject. That's because it's possible to teach a subject well (high test scores), but teach students to hate the subject in the process (low affective scores). When that happens, are teachers to be lauded? If so, why? Isn't one of the goals of education to make students lifelong learners?

None of the above is meant to suggest that the teachers who were fired deserve to remain in the classroom. Instead, it is intended to emphasize that evaluating teachers is more complex than is appreciated. That's why I've long believed hindsight is the fairest way of evaluating teachers. So often, the influence of teachers doesn't show up until years after students graduate. With the passage of time and the insights of maturity, students are in a far better position to evaluate their teachers. For obvious reasons, the accountability movement doesn't allow this luxury. Nevertheless, it's something to think about.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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