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The right way to assess teachers' performance

By Michele Kerr
Friday, June 18, 2010; A27

The Obama administration's Race to the Top program demands that teachers be evaluated by student test scores. Florida's legislature passed a bill in April to end teacher tenure and base pay increases on test-score improvement; although Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that attempt, legislatures in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and other states have also modified regulations regarding tenure with an eye toward Race to the Top. Teachers protest, but they are dismissed as union hacks with lousy skills, intent on protecting their cushy tenured jobs because they could never cut it in the real world.

I'm a first-year, second-career high school teacher, a "highly qualified" teacher of math, English and social science, a standing I achieved by passing rigorous tests. I'm not a union fan, nor am I in favor of pay increases based on seniority or added education. Like many new teachers throughout the country, I was pink-slipped and am looking for work, so I don't have a cushy job to protect.

I'm not your typical teacher. But I believe I speak for many teachers when I say I'm willing to be tested on student performance, provided certain conditions are met. So let's negotiate.

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.

Without the missing students, the tests won't yield a complete picture of learning. But the tests' purpose is to yield a picture of teaching, which isn't the same thing as learning. Teachers can't teach children who aren't there.

Results will reveal that many students miss this attendance requirement. Put that problem on the parents' plates. Leave it out of the teaching assessment.

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.

Two to three students who just don't care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up -- sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Yes, teachers could misuse this authority. But if teachers are evaluated by student learning, they must have control over classroom conditions. Then the administration can separately decide what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them. But keep the issue away from measuring student performance; leave it as a personnel call.

(3) Students who don't achieve "basic" proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

Students who can't prove they know algebra can't take geometry. If they can't read at a ninth-grade level, they can't take sophomore English -- or, for that matter, sophomore-level history or science, which presumes sophomore-level reading ability.

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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