This was written by Roger Tilles, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, which supervises all educational activities within the state. This post refers to action taken on Monday by the boar d, which adopted regulations for a teacher and principal performance evaluation system in which 20 to 40 percent of the evaluation is linked to student standardized test scores. A version of this appeared in Newsday.

By Roger Tilles

The New York State Regents just approved regulations in response to a new law that was based on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and designed to create an accurate system of evaluating teachers and principals, includes the use of test scores.

I support a rigorous system of evaluation. It is imperative that we develop a system that is effective and fair and that will lead to better student learning. Unfortunately, the regulations — which link 20-40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on the results of student standardized test scores — don’t have some of the elements necessary to make them either fair or effective.

I have served on two state Boards of Education; taught at education schools of three universities; worked as a staff director of law and legislation for a state education department; sat on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and, most importantly, am a parent of two children, one graduated and one enrolled in our local Long Island public schools.

After extensive discussions with teachers, parents, administrators, professors and elected officials, I have come to several conclusions about what constitutes an effective teacher and principal evaluation system.

An evaluation system of teacher performance that includes a measure of growth of student learning over time is imperative. But using the student results of New York’s standardized tests to evaluate teachers is not an acceptable measure. A snapshot indicator of a student’s skills, understanding and knowledge of content do not give a true picture of a teacher’s performance. And our present state tests, and the way they are scaled, are not designed to measure growth from year to year. We are years away from actually having in place valid state tests designed to measure growth.

The proposal under consideration applies these test-based value-added techniques to teacher evaluations. If these value-added techniques were applied to other professions as they are being applied to teachers, it would mean that dentists be would evaluated not on their skills but only on how many cavities a dentist’s patients gets in a year or with a doctor on how many times his patients get sick in a year. Similarly, police are not evaluated on the number of crimes committed on their beat, nor fire personnel on number of fires in their jurisdiction. We would all acknowledge that such rating systems are at best incomplete.

A task force created by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards stated in their report: “Much of what is tested does count, but much of what counts cannot be tested.”

The high-stakes consequences contemplated in this regulation, such as teachers losing their jobs, will result in teachers concentrating on the kids who will yield the greatest results in their evaluation. If average student growth is the vital statistic, then the teacher might favor teaching those who might show the largest gain. If achieving a critical standard is the goal, then the teacher might concentrate on those who are closest to that standard and pay less attention to those who may not achieve that standard, as well as those who because of their ability will get there on their own. In short, too many of our students may be shortchanged.

Student learning is complex. It is impacted by many factors which include, but are not limited to, prior learning, family background, level of poverty, classroom and school culture, access to private tutors, learning disabilities, access to adequate resources, and even school district governance. In addition, allocation of all tested learning to a specific teacher is problematic at best. How much does the reading teacher, subject specialist, team approach, prior professionals, pull out aides, etc. contribute to a student’s learning?

There is much that must be settled for this new regulation to work. We need to include a clear appeals process that doesn’t prolong the retention of an ineffective teacher, adequate resources for independent evaluators, and sufficient time for local negotiations and full implementation. The new regulations without amendment do not allow for these. I don’t want to make this program live or die in the courtroom, nor do we want to spend value tax dollars on legal challenges to evaluations.

On a more macro scale, by utilizing student test scores for evaluation and even, ultimately, compensation, we are adding to the corrupting influence of high stakes on the education programs. When money for districts, for salaries and even for hiring and firing stems from these tests, it pushes all involved to do well on the test at all costs (including cheating) without looking at the consequences on the lives of the students and our future citizens.

By emphasizing testing of core subjects in this fashion, we have seen our young people (and by now even older recent graduates) know very little about how our government works and have not even a rudimentary knowledge of how to be a good citizen. We are snuffing out the creative thinking that the arts bring to us by eliminating arts ed in so many schools and replacing the arts with skill and drill test preparation.

We are downplaying foreign languages at a time when we live in a global village and risk excluding our country from the global economy. The emphasis of these tests in the No Child Left Behind era has been a tremendous deterrent to real student learning for the sake of satisfying a political need to explain increasingly poor results in a downward spiral caused by the tests themselves. Adding teacher evaluation to this spiral, will accentuate the decline of an already reeling system.

Publication of the teacher evaluation along with the responsibility of the district to offer greater professional development for the teachers deemed ineffective while leaving them in the classroom, will cause districts to figure out a method of implementing this while parents demand that their children be removed from classrooms of teachers rated as ineffective or developing.

Parents will raise the roof (and so they should) if a district assigns their son or daughter to such a teacher. The stigma attached to a teacher who may be inappropriately labeled based upon invalid tests will be a boon for the legal community. Student learning scores should lead to interventions for students and professional development for teachers. The proposed system is not designed to lead to improved instruction.

I support a great majority of the Race to the Top initiatives: better and richer clinical training for teachers, development of assessment vehicles that can be used diagnostically for students and teachers, Common Core Standards, a more comprehensive data system enabling better identification of learning areas of need, new models for turnaround schools. I believe all of these items above can improve student learning.

Similarly, as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has recognized, valid student learning measures can be made to fit into an overall rigorous evaluation as an indicator of teaching effectiveness, I would consider this when such a measure exists. If, however, we perpetuate and even enable the crushing high stakes nature of student achievement tests, and extend them to include teacher and principal evaluations, the reform train will be derailed.

I worry that all of the above is an attempt to promote charter schools and dismantle the public school system. As more charter schools arise, the non-charter students in public schools will have even fewer resources. In all likelihood more public school failures will occur leading politicians, as they have in several states already, to introduce comprehensive school voucher programs.

If one were cynical, one could look back at the origins of No Child Left Behind and the motives of its initial backers and might conclude that there is a desire to solve the problems associated with the failure of some public schools education in order to promote tax-supported vouchers. These ideas were advanced during the Reagan era, but thankfully did not find a foothold. We seem to certainly be moving toward these expectations. At some point a pushback is necessary. For me the time is now.


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