Policymakers have perverted teaching, and reduced the evaluation of teachers to a number based on questionable and unreliable data. Not only do researchers at major universities caution policymakers about using Value-Added Models (VAMs), but using such a system that is based on student test scores will destroy the central character of teaching.
As a teacher I have always been guided by several core principles to help my students learn. I believed that my role was to facilitate learning and to help students understand science that would be meaningful to their own lives. Long ago, I realized that as teachers we need to treat students with respect and communicate genuinely as in person-to-person encounters. This was crucial if I wanted to create a classroom where students would feel free to collaborate with each other and me. Secondly I realized that it was important to prize my students, which led to a more trusting environment. And I learned early in my career that the best teachers in my departments were empathic toward their students. Trying to understand students from their point of view is an important core condition in my classroom. Respect, prizing, and empathizing were three core conditions that I found were essential to my own approach to teaching. The teacher is one that helps lead students to their understandings. These understanding can not be poured from the teacher’s head to the head’s of the students. Student needs to construct their own learning. As the poet Kahlil Gibran says in the Wordle shown here, we can can not give our understanding directly to others.
…because much more weight is given to student achievement test scores, we have to wonder how communication between students and teachers will change? How will the bond of trust between students and teachers be affected? If one’s evaluation is based on student test scores, won’t this narrow the curriculum to “teach to the test,” and wouldn’t it be smart for teachers to find out which standards (they can’t test them all) are emphasized on high-stakes tests, and center teaching in on these standards? And wouldn’t it be more likely that teachers would prefer not to teach special education, English language learners, and students with behavioral problems?
Evaluating teachers using VAMs isolates teachers, one from another, and further distances teachers from their students. This is a a perversion.
If you read the USA Today editorial, Teacher Evaluations, once a joke, hold a key to better schools, the editors showed their ignorance and shallow understanding of how schools work, and their depraved support of policy makers’ contempt of teachers, and the hard-ball tactics to make teachers the enemy of education. Here is one of their distorted views:
Better evaluations are meaningless unless they are used effectively. Until recently, 2% or fewer teachers were ever fired because of poor performance. To make a difference, evaluation have to be tied to merit pay, tenure decisions, and dismissals. That, too, is starting to happen. There is no shortage of excuses for failing to use test scores.
They shouldn’t obscure the main event: ensuring that teacher evaluations are meaningful, and that they are used to improve schools by rewarding the good teachers and replacing the bad ones.
However, the research that has been completed at universities does not support any of these contentions. Rewarding teachers, firing the bad ones, removing tenure—none of these will lead to any form of sustainable school improvement.
In a recent blog post at The Answer Sheet by Valerie Strauss, a large number of professors and researchers from 16 universities in the Chicago area blasted the Chicago teacher evaluation reform system. They sent an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools and School Board identifying three major concerns based on research findings.
Of particular relevance here, given the quote from USA Today, is that educational research strongly suggests caution using teacher-evaluation systems that use Value-Added Models (VAMs). VAMs are going to be used in most states to evaluate teacher performance. But as the researchers point out their open letter in Chicago,
- Value-added models (VAMs) of teacher effectiveness do not produce stable ratings of teachers. For example, different statistical models (all based on reasonable assumptions) can yield different effectiveness scores. (Papay, 2011) Researchers have found that how a teacher is rated changes from class to class, from year to year, and even from test to test. (McCaffrey, 2004)
- There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement. In order to determine if there is a relationship, researchers recommend small-scale pilot testing of such systems. Student test scores have not been found to be a strong predictor of the quality of teaching as measured by other instruments or approaches. (Burris & Welner, 2011)
- Assessments designed to evaluate student learning are not necessarily valid for measuring teacher effectiveness or student learning growth. (Goe & Holdeide, 2011) Using them to measure the latter is akin to using a meter stick to weigh a person: you might be able to develop a formula that links height and weight, but there will be plenty of error in your calculations.
In order to improve schools that will promote learning among all students, the effort has be driven by teachers working collaboratively with their administration. If teachers are isolated from each other, and realize that they are in competition for the prize of being labeled a “good” teacher, then collaboration will be null and void.
School improvement needs to a be bottom up system, not the top-down, authoritarian system that has penetrated all schools, K-12.
To show how this works in practice, lets look at a couple of examples.
Anthony Cody over at Living in Dialog describes his experience as a science teacher and department chair while teaching in Oakland, California. His approach to school improvement is quite the opposite of what the current reformers want to do, and that is get rid of teachers. He and his colleagues at an Oakland middle school set as a goal the retention of all teachers in their department. Cody reported that they were losing two to three teachers per year, and hiring new teachers each year put a huge strain on all of the faculty. He describes their project this way:
Each experienced teacher became a mentor to a newer teacher. They met weekly, and shared management strategies and curriculum. We collaborated as a department to share ideas and resources, and went on several team-building retreats. When the next year began we had retained everyone.
The following year we were able to raise the level of our work, and we expanded to the math department – so now there were about 16 of us working together. While in the first year, our meetings were focused more on supporting the new teachers, in the second year we shifted to take on deeper strategies. We engaged in lesson study, and worked together on our assessment practices. The school saw its math scores improve every year, and we hosted a successful Family Science and Math event. The 6th graders arrived at our school performing at around the 33rd percentile, and by the 8th grade were past the 50th percentile. A few years later, we spread this model to a district-wide program, called TeamScience, which has worked for the past four years to pair novice science teachers with experienced mentors.
We found that we did NOT need to fire anyone in order to improve. Instead, of trying to ferret out the weakest links, we sought to RETAIN everyone. Can “old dogs learn new tricks”? Yes. And old dogs KNOW a lot of valuable tricks, and if they are honored for this knowledge, and engaged in rich processes like Lesson Study and teacher research, they can build on what they know, and share it as well.
Anthony reports, however, that the NCLB act came along during this time, and after the law was implemented their school failed to meet AYP several times, which he said “broke the school’s spirit.” He wrote that only one teacher in the science department remains there from the team that he built.
In today’s post, Anthony Cody reports on the Priority Schools Campaign, an NEA initiative to help struggling schools. The heart of the Priority School Campaign is the notion of family-school-community partnerships. According to Ellen Holmes, who was interviewed on Anthony Cody’s blog today, these schools sever poor students, as well as English language learners. According to Holmes, the NEA project is bring key constituents of a school together to obtain local resources, experience and expertise. You can read the full interview here on the Living in Dialog blog. The NEA project is working within the context of schools that received government School Improvement Grants. Through school wide staff development efforts and training, and the development of professional learning communities, the NEA project hopes to offset the top-down approach to school improvement by involving teachers and community members working together.
Teacher evaluation needs to be related to school improvement, not by using student test scores as the achievement barometer, but by a process of collaboration among teachers and administrators. Teachers need to be in the center of school improvement by collaborating on the goals of schooling, and how their work will contribute to improvement of learning of all students.
The issue of course is what is student learning. We need to throw out the notion that standardized, high stakes tests written by outsiders is the way to “measure” student learning. It doen’t do the job. In fact, these tests measure a very low level of thinking, and do not really help students to attain their goals of understanding mathematics, or science, or social studies. Teachers already are implementing evaluation techniques that are based on cognitive science and that get us closer to painting a picture of student learning that is rich, diversified, related to the students’ world, and relevant to their lives. Using diagnostic tools, and formative assessments is known to impact student learning.
Teachers working in collaboration with each other can explore teaching methods and assessments that really help their students understand science, or mathematics. Collaborative work among teachers is an evaluation process in its own right, and as Anthony Cody suggests, can actually lead to a more stable and effective staff.
What do you think about moving evaluation into the hands of teachers and administrators directly? Will the use of VAMs contribute to weakening the profession of teaching, and to erosion of a stable and sustaining teaching force?
Papay, J. (2011). Different tests, different answers: The stability of teacher value-added estimates across outcome measures. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 163-193.
McCaffrey, D., et al. (2004). Evaluating value-added models of teacher accountability.Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
See Burris, C., & Welner, K. (2011). Conversations with Arne Duncan: Offering advice on educator evaluations. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(2), 38-41.
Goe, L., & Holdheide, L. (2011). Measuring teachers’ contributions to student learning growth for nontested grades and subjects. Retrieved February 2, 2012 fromhttp://www.tqsource.org/publications/MeasuringTeachersContributions.pdf.