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Dogs, Ponies and Teacher Evaluation

A couple of years ago, I was on a keynote panel at a regional conference with a high-ranking representative of the USDOE. The conference theme was "Teacher Quality." Ms. DOE noted that NCLB had "solved the problem of highly qualified teachers;" she said the Department was now beginning to address the issue of highly effective teachers--teachers whose work resulted in adequate, measurable student growth. I asked if the Department was looking at scientifically based research on the characteristics of effective teaching--what it is that good teachers do to get that growth. No, she said. We are only interested in results--we are agnostic about teaching strategies.

Note the reduction and dismissal of complex, effective practice as mere "teaching strategies?"

That pedagogy-doesn't-matter principle seems to be the core tenet of the National Center for Teacher Quality's 2009 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which gives Florida its highest grade--a C--and 43 states Ds and Fs on a range of teacher (not teaching) quality issues.

Lots to chew on in the NCTQ's yearbook, including a suggestion that districts are justified in using VAM data to "deselect" teachers if they are not generating a year's worth of standardized test growth by their third or fourth year in the classroom:

Goldhaber and Hansen find that teachers who start out much better than their peers tend to stay much better than their peers in future years. Teachers who are much worse continue to hover at the bottom. If districts held to their guns and cut the bottom performing 25 percent of all teachers up for tenure each year, student achievement could be significantly improved.

Contrast that with Linda Tyler's commentary in EdWeek, Measuring Teacher Effectiveness, where she lays out a clean, detailed template for building an evaluation of teacher effectiveness. Tyler, a VP at Education Testing Service, long considered the gold standard for educational assessment, says: "We can use multiple measures, including student-performance data, classroom observation, feedback from students, and other evidence, to provide well-rounded, fair, and valid input into important decisions."

There is no doubt that we need richer--and more defensible--means of assessing teacher effectiveness, useful for both large-scale policy creation as well as making decisions at the building level. Researchers head directly toward those large, seductive test data sets and write off what happens in the classroom as a dog and pony show. It's easy to diminish the multifaceted toolbag of effective practice, looking for dispositions (such as inherent "grit") instead--especially if the researcher has never been in the classroom, and experienced the utility of having some valuable instructional and management tricks up your sleeve.

Perhaps low-level teaching toward similarly low-level statewide tests is the real dog and pony show?

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