I sometimes think that good teaching is a bit like Potter Stewart’s description of hard-core pornography. The late Supreme Court justice said he wasn’t sure he could define it but he knew it when he saw it.
Most of us could probably describe a great teacher we had with adjectives that are hard to quantify: creative, motivating, innovative, passionate, tough but fair, funny, dedicated and interesting. But how do you gauge those qualities in an evaluation system for teachers?
Pennsylvania is moving toward replacing its antiquated system that deems teachers either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Under the state’s proposal, teachers would be rated distinguished, proficient, needs improvement or failing. State House Bill 1980, introduced by state Rep. Ryan Aument, R-41st, would put revised evaluations in place by the 2013-2014 school year.
Parkland School District is taking part in the pilot project for the new evaluations and School Board member Roberta Marcus said the assessment looks at different aspects of teaching to allow for more nuanced conclusions aimed at making all teachers better. “Our goal is how do we improve teacher effectiveness in the classroom?” she said.
That’s all to the good. But while half of a teacher’s rating would rely on classroom observations of such skills as preparedness, classroom management and interaction, the other half depends on students’ test scores.
The trouble with that is it’s difficult to isolate the cause of a student’s success or failure on a subject, according to Parkland School Board member Bob Bold. Suppose a third grade teacher gets a good evaluation because her students did well on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA.) What if much of their success was largely due to the excellent second grade teacher who had taught them the year before? “What happened in previous grades affects how kids test,” Bold said.
The new evaluations would also incorporate what’s called value-added models into teacher evaluations. Such models essentially look at a student’s past test scores to predict how he or she might score in the future. To the extent a student scores better than predicted, that’s considered “value-added” for which the teacher gets credit. If a student does worse than expected, it’s value-subtracted.
While that’s better than simply comparing test scores across the board, education experts such as John Ewing, president of the nonprofit group Math for America, see serious flaws in the value-added model.
An Economic Policy Institute report cites a study that found “across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20 percent of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40 percent.” So a third of effective teachers became ineffective in one year?
Meanwhile, the evaluations would create even more incentive for teachers to teach to the PSSA.
An area high school teacher told me he knows teachers whose students do well on standardized tests but the kids hate their classes because they are mind-numbingly boring and generate no discussion or critical thinking. Link job security to such assessments and “teachers will teach to the test because it’s the safest thing they can do,” he said.
“If you want your school system to be innovative and teach critical thought, the last thing you want to do is limit risk-taking,” he said.
A final thought: My older son has had teachers who changed the direction of his life – giving him a passion and a goal for his future. Where on the new evaluation form will that kind of priceless gift be noted?