This is a letter that was sent by two educators to Education Secretary Arne Duncan after Duncan called one of them, Principal Carol Corbett Burris of South Side High School in New York, to talk about school reform. You can read about the Duncan-Burris discussion here, and the open letter, here, that Burris had written to Duncan before his call.

In her retelling of the conversation with Duncan, Burris wrote:

“We spoke about the evaluation of teachers by test scores, and he listened to my concerns. He recognized the problems inherent in test-score based evaluation systems, especially when year to year comparisons are made. We agreed that evaluation is important. However, the devil is always in the details. He asked me to email him my ideas. I believe it was a sincere offer, and after I think about it, do some research, and speak with wise colleagues, I will.”

The following is her response to Duncan. Burris was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Kevin G. Welner is a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of its National Education Policy Center.

By Carol Corbett Burris and Kevin G. Welner

A few days ago, we sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The letter was invited by Secretary Duncan during a phone conversation with Dr. Burris.

Our letter is summarized briefly below, with the full text of the letter available here on the website of the National Education Policy Center. It offers concrete guiding principles for evaluation of educators and suggestions for a way forward.

The telephone call from Secretary Duncan to Dr. Burris was apparently prompted by Dr. Burris’ public response to New York State’s new policy, forcing schools to use student test scores as part of a mandated evaluation process aimed at both teachers and principals. Similar policies have been adopted in Colorado and other states.

The letter begins with an agreement that high-quality evaluation of educators is important and should be pursued, even while we also stress the obvious: “If we fail to invest in our schools and communities, even the highest-quality educator evaluation will lead to little success.”

Here, we want to simply quote the final page of the (6 page) letter, which focuses on our recommendations:

Just as no pharmaceutical would be brought to market without first being tested for effectiveness and for adverse reactions, neither should a practice with the potential to profoundly impact the lives of the nation’s students and their teachers. Considering both the cost and the high-stakes nature of mandated evaluation systems, we offer the following interrelated recommendations.

1. Put on hold the policy push to use student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals, unless and until data demonstrate the likelihood that such an evaluation approach will positively, not negatively, affect student learning. Existing systems, such as [Washington DC’s] IMPACT, that use student scores for educator evaluation are already in place. These should be treated as pilots and should be used to understand the systems and their results, including effects on student achievement.

2. More broadly, call upon the National Research Council or the National Academy of Education to document teacher- and principal-evaluation approaches that are proven to successfully meet all four criteria for sound evaluation practices listed above. [We contend earlier in the letter that an evaluation system should be evaluated by its overall effect on student learning. Such an overall effect implicates at least four overlapping areas, each of which is explained: (a) summative, (b) formative, (c) working conditions, and (d) incentives.] Such a report might also identify and describe promising additional approaches and recommend pilot programs and evaluations of those approaches. Based on this report, the U.S. Department of Education could embark on an evidence-based policy that would continue the existing push for high-quality educator evaluation while ensuring that the specific push will be beneficial for the nation’s students.

3. While awaiting evidentiary guidance from the work of the National Research Council or National Academy of Education, focus the federal push on rigor and balance. Educator evaluation systems should pursue the four criteria for sound evaluation practices, recognizing also that multiple measures, pursued diligently and conscientiously, will allow weaknesses in any given measure to be compensated for by others. In lieu of obliging states to impose a non-evidence-based evaluation approach, the federal government should encourage the use of well-designed and well-executed locally appropriate strategies. In this regard, one of the most long-standing and promising teacher evaluation approaches relies on peer assistance and review (PAR) programs, such as those in Toledo, Ohio and Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. We note with alarm the likelihood that current policies are not just failing to promote such programs with apparently successful track records--the new wave of evaluation policies are actually having the effect of discouraging and terminating these success.

4. Whatever system is used, insist that it be subject to rigorous outcome monitoring; that is, locally designed review and evaluation.

5. Insist that all evaluation systems enhance the professionalism of teaching and the principalship. [The] New York APPR [Annual Professional Performance Review system] policy will almost surely undermine that professionalism. Similarly, public dissemination of teacher- and principal-level value-added data will undermine attempts to improve performance. For example, given the different degrees of efficacy among parents, it is likely that demand for highly rated teachers will result in students with the greatest need being assigned to the lowest-rated teachers.

Evaluations can be powerful interventions. While high-quality, thoughtful evaluation undoubtedly carries the potential to improve schooling, misguided evaluation approaches have a corresponding potential to harm our schools. Like most policy tools, evaluation can be used soundly and beneficially, or it can be abused. We fear that the current policy push does the latter.

You can read the entire letter here.


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