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Posted at 12:46 AM ET, 04/08/2013

Hidden power of teacher awards

I used to think student test score gains were a good way to rate teachers. I don’t think that any more. Grading individual teachers with scores is too approximate, too erratic and too destructive of the team spirit that makes great schools. Rating schools, rather than teachers, by test score gains is better, at least until we find a way to measure deeper indicators of learning.

That could take many years. What do we do in the meantime? How can we counteract the growing emphasis on test scores in teacher ratings, salaries and promotions? Perhaps the just-announced winners of The Washington Post’s 2013 Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Awards can provide a clue.

The Agnes Meyer awards are similar to teacher-of-the-year prizes presented all over the country. These ceremonies recognize people who get little attention, which is nice. But think for a moment about the qualities revealed in the citations. The descriptions offer more than just a warm glow. Those who choose the winners are looking for something special. What is it?

What I have read about these educators in the Agnes Meyer award-night program reminds me of the teachers I have written columns and books about, such as Jaime Escalante of Garfield High School in Los Angeles; Phil Restaino of Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y.; Erin McVadon Albright, Bernie Glaze, Betsy Calhoon, Emmet Rosenfeld and Dan Coast of Fairfax County; Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin of the KIPP school network; Rafe Esquith of Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles; Harriet Ball of Houston; and Frazier O’Leary of Cardozo High School in the District. That is just a small sample of the many people who have impressed me with their accomplishments.

What do they have in common with the Agnes Meyer winners? Their salient qualities, at least to me, are creativity and vitality.

They are full of ideas. Most mornings they can’t wait to get to the classroom. They love conferring with colleagues. Students, parents and other educators gravitate to them.

The D.C. schools’ IMPACT teacher assessment process has many good points, but it also puts too much emphasis on student test scores. It rarely mentions creativity and vitality. It makes a big deal out of, to quote its guidelines, “following all school policies and procedures” — one of the biggest innovation killers. The teachers I most admire are not afraid of breaking rules that make no sense to them. Many of the Agnes Meyer winners insist on helping kids even when policy gets in the way.

The Post will give each of the Agnes Meyer winners a check for $3,000. That’s great. But I suspect they would also be pleased if school systems spent less time checking off points on a clipboard when evaluating their work and spent more time looking for ways to back their best ideas and increase the time reserved for conferring with colleagues.

We would be better off rating teachers the old-fashioned way. Let principals do it in the normal course of watching and working with their staff. But be much more careful than we have been in the past about who gets to be principal, and provide much more training. Give them the power to hire, compensate and fire staff members as they see fit. If student achievement lags, the principals should be in the hot seat. Give them warnings. Give them help. But if the school doesn’t improve, remove them.

Both the Agnes Meyer winners and the great teachers I know say principals make all the difference. The better the principal, the more creative and vital the teachers. The best principals I know were great teachers, like the Agnes Meyer winners. They know student test score gains are not the best way to measure what teachers do.

By  |  12:46 AM ET, 04/08/2013

 
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