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The right way to assess teachers' performance

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard -- the so-called value-added assessment.

I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable. Teachers can't be evaluated on students who miss 10 percent of the class or don't have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Yet accepting these reasonable conditions might reveal that common rhetorical goals for education (everyone goes to college, algebra for eighth-graders) are, to put it bluntly, impossible. So we'll either continue the status quo at a stalemate or the states will make the tests so easy that the standards are meaningless.

Yes, some students are doing poorly because their teachers are terrible. Other students are doing poorly because they simply don't care, their parents don't care, their cognitive abilities aren't up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven't figured out -- with no regard to teacher quality. No one is eager to discover the size of that second group, so serious testing with teeth will go nowhere.

That's too bad. We need to know how many students are failing because they don't attend class, how many students score "below basic" on the algebra test three years in a row, how many students fail all tests because they read at a fourth-grade level. We need to know if our education rhetoric is a pipe dream instead of an achievable reality blocked by those nasty teachers unions. And, of course, if it turns out that all our problems can be solved by rooting out bad teachers, we need to find that out, too.

So if we're going to evaluate teachers based on student results, let's negotiate some reasonable terms -- and let's not flinch from whatever reality those terms reveal.

The writer, a Stanford teacher program graduate, taught geometry, algebra and humanities at Oceana High School in Pacifica, Calif.

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