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How Useful Are Tougher Teacher Evaluations?

It seems rarely a week goes by without another new study about one educational issue or another.  The results are then cited as evidence to support a particular point of view, and then urged to be adopted ("Bulletin: Some Good D.C. News," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 29).

The latest example is a study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, which purports to show how tough teacher evaluations help the poorest students.  Foes of teachers' unions will be elated by the conclusions.  It implies that the turnover in the teacher workforce caused by the policy is actually beneficial since it encourages many low-rated teachers to quit.  In other words, these ineffective teachers can't be protected by their union if they willingly resign.

Only those who have not taught in public schools will buy into that argument.  First, teacher effectiveness as measured by academic growth and classroom observations is largely determined by the students that teachers happen to inherit.  If ents were randomly assigned to teachers, then a different case could be made.  Second, there is no assurance whatsoever that replacement teachers will be any better.  So much depends on factors that cannot be predicted during the hiring process.  Finally, the turnover rate can be misleading, since the best teachers often put in for transfers to escape harassment from vindictive principals.

I submit that if the best teachers in the nation's best public schools were placed in the worst public schools, they would not be able to post anywhere near the same impressive results.  Consider the situation at Urban Scholars Community School in the New York City system ("Hoping, and Waiting, for a Bronx School's Fresh Start to Pay Off, The New York Times, Feb. 9).  Despite its name, only two percent of the school's students passed the state English test, and only four percent passed in math.  Students are drawn from the poorest congressional district in the entire nation.  Do the authors of the study cited above genuinely believe that teachers at Urban Scholars are to blame?  If so, how will tougher evaluations turn the school around?

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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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