Education: Evaluating Teachers

Gov. Jindal’s sweeping education reform package attacks every sacred cow in the educational establishment, and strikes at the heart of the teaching core especially. Considering the lackluster performance of Louisiana’s kindergarten through 12th grade students, a shakeup of some kind is justified; but until state officials devise a fair process for identifying and removing ineffective teachers his administration could end up doing as much harm as good.

The detailed version of his proposed plan remained unpublished in February, the time this column was written, but the plan outlined in January included tying pay and job security to a consistent pattern of exceptional annual teacher evaluations. This idea seems logical.
Teachers, however, are not the only people evolved in this equation. G + L+ S+ B + L + A + T + P + U = educational quality. “G” stands for governor. “L” stands for legislators. S stands for state superintendent. “B” stands for Board of Elementary and Secondary education members. The second “L” stands for local control, such as school board members and local superintendents. A stands for administration, such as principals. “T” stands for teachers. “P” stands for parents. “U” stands for unknown factors, such as learning disorders, movement between schools, late enrollment, student motivation and societal and media influences.

Notice that “T” is one of nine.

Good teachers are a vital part of the equation, but productive state policy is also as well. Jindal’s plan is intended to change some of the bad policies, especially the ones that obstruct dismissing ineffective teachers. The intent is good, but the process of determining “effective” and “ineffective” may need some tweaking.

Under the broadly stated plan, teachers are expected to perform somewhere between God and Mother Teresa and, if they don’t, within two years they could be lining up for the soup kitchen. The governor’s plan would lead to the beginning of dismissal proceedings for any teacher who doesn’t measure up according to the state’s new evaluation formula after two years. That means the evaluation formula should be a fair process, one that doesn’t prematurely toss out a perfectly good teacher. Problem is, some researchers say there isn’t a perfect way to evaluate teachers, and that the method Louisiana plans to use is somewhat flawed.

The plan is to muscle out “ineffective” teachers based on an annual “value added” evaluation formula scheduled to go into effect this year. Under this method, 50 percent of a teacher’s job performance rating is based on scores on standardized tests. A complicated formula attempts to gauge student “growth” while under a teacher’s supervision. This approach seems reasonable, even a terrific advancement, but here’s where the slope gets slippery.

Some education researchers warn against overdoing the use of the “value added” model for evaluation. The 50-percent model, which has been adopted in other states as well, draws special concern because of the higher probability of unfairness.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a report in 2010, for example, recommending that states avoid the value-added model of evaluation, often referred to as VAM. A team of 10 professors of education and public policy experts connected to institutions as varied as Stanford University and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management studied the issue and determined that VAM is “a flawed system.”

The researchers considered the results of several studies that had been done in the past to determine the reliability of VAM. One of the studies the report cites covered five urban school districts, and it found that “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.”

These fluctuations mean that a teacher marked as “effective” could be marked “ineffective” the following year for no apparent reason. “This runs counter to most people’s notions that the true quality of a teacher is likely to change very little over time and raises questions about whether what is measured is largely a ‘teacher effect’ or the effect of a wide variety of other factors,” says the EPI report.

In addition to its concern about the statistical methods used to make judgments about teachers, the EPI team cautioned that such policies are in some ways counterproductive. The report says that surveys show the demoralization of teachers leads to higher teacher attrition, “particularly in high-need schools.”

According to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, nearly half of all teachers quit before they earn tenure. If they feel bullied by overly aggressive state policies, that 50-percent attrition rate could climb much higher, leaving thousands of students to be instructed by a revolving door of inexperienced teachers.

The governor said in his address to LABI that he wants to “professionalize” teaching so that teachers get the respect they deserve. That goal is laudable, but policy makers and administrators must take into consideration that teachers can’t be mechanized and children aren’t made of a material that’s easily forced into submission.

If these researchers are correct about VAM, this part of the reform plan could drive large numbers of the instructional herd off the cliff – the good along with the bad. At the very least, there need to be some safety nets put in place to ensure that teachers aren’t unfairly labeled. Surely two years of data aren’t enough to make reliable judgments.

Education: Evaluating Teachers

“No matter if you do a good job or a poor job, teach English or music, teach high-poverty or middle-class students, we treat everyone the same. No wonder half of our new teachers are not teaching in our public schools five years after graduating.” Gov. Jindal, speaking to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Jan. 17, 2012.

“We conclude that value-added data has an important role to play in teacher evaluation systems, but that there is much to be learned about how best to use value-added information in human resource decisions.” Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, Nov. 2010

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