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Rod Watson: Students an afterthought when it comes to teacher evaluation

Rod Watson

What we need is another Sputnik moment – especially in New York.

The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first space satellite scared the United States into overhauling its education system.

Apparently it will take something similarly cataclysmic to overcome New York teachers’ opposition to another overhaul that would have them evaluated in part on how their students fare on state tests. More importantly, it will take something equally calamitous to have politicians overcome their fear of teacher unions enough to implement such a system.

Absent such an impetus, we have New York’s delay – again – in coming up with a plan to have students’ state test scores play a role in teacher evaluations.

Ostensibly, the Board of Regents vote this month extending the moratorium is to give New York more time to get it right. But New York already is falling behind the curve, and it will never get it right until it at least takes the first steps.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, reported in 2015 that 43 other states required that objective measures of student growth be included in teacher evaluations. Some have either abandoned or scaled back their efforts, such as reducing how much weight to give student performance or letting districts decide. The number now incorporating objective measures of student growth is 39 – with 38 of them using state assessments – according to the council.

That’s still nearly four out of five states, meaning New York is clearly a laggard. And despite all of the hemming and hawing by politicians and the Regents, there already are road maps out there that can guide the state.

In a report issued this fall, the NCTQ spotlighted four cities and two states that are leading the way, helping teachers improve, weeding out the ones who can’t and, significantly in most cases, showing improved student achievement at the same time.

"Making a difference: Six places where teacher evaluation systems are getting results" looked at Dallas, Denver, the District of Columbia, Newark, Tennessee and New Mexico. All use multiple measures of teacher performance, which is one of the keys to a good evaluation system, said Hannah Putman, the council’s director of research and a co-author of the report.

But all also make objective measures of student growth – some type of test score – a part of that system. Typically, it’s some type of "value-added" measurement that takes into account where students start rather than just their raw scores in assessing whether a teacher helped them or not.

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Critics complain that such systems can’t be precise enough to account for all of the other factors – in and out of school – that can affect student achievement beyond teacher effectiveness. But that’s why backers say good evaluation systems rely on multiple factors, of which student scores are just one, along with assessment tools like classroom observation and student surveys.

And Putman said that, while no system is perfect, the value-added model is a strong measure because it accounts for a lot of the factors that account for student learning.

All six of the school systems also tie teacher compensation to the evaluations, and use the evaluations to tailor professional development so that it is not just punitive. The results in the six school systems have been "higher-performing teachers staying longer and weaker teachers, who previously might never have even known they were weak, choosing to leave," according to the analysis.

That means students in those school systems get stuck with fewer poor teachers.

Such outcomes contrast with an Education Week report last year that found that principals tend to rate almost all teachers as "effective," for a variety of reasons ranging from wanting to maintain good relationships to not wanting to cost someone their job. Yet it also cited studies that found principals were much more likely to give teachers low ratings in confidential surveys or interviews with researchers than they were in the formal evaluations that districts use.

Incorporating state test scores into the evaluation matrix can help overcome this Lake Wobegon effect in which all teachers are deemed good – at least in formal observations – despite student performance that says otherwise.

Yet New York continues to sell students down the river by stalling inclusion of test scores into the evaluation matrix until the idea fades away – just like too many students’ chances of getting a good education.

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