Teacher performance is very much in the news as governors and legislatures grapple with underperforming schools, test score scandals and federal initiatives such as Race to the Top – which reward schools for innovations in education and improving educational outcomes. Experts, students and parents alike recognize that a good teacher has a direct and profound impact on student performance, but they often disagree about what makes a good teacher, and what steps can be taken to make a mediocre teacher better.
What is an objective measure of a teacher's performance? Is it how well his students perform on standardized tests? Is it how well she creates an environment for learning through her enthusiasm and classroom management techniques? Should teachers be evaluated on working well with peers?
New Jersey is piloting a new teacher evaluation model in several districts this fall, and these evaluations consider teacher practice and test scores equally. Rosemary Knab, Ph.D., associate director of Research and Economic Services for the New Jersey Education Association, has some reservations about that. "We are concerned that it places too much weight on one test," she says, adding, "If you ask experts, these tests were never meant to be used in this way." While she agrees that standardized tests have a role in evaluating teachers, she says that there are so many variables which affect student test scores that "you would have to do this many years in a row to get an accurate picture."
So, if we know what evaluations shouldn't be, what should we as parents, voters and taxpayers, know about the best ways to evaluate teachers and ensure that every child gets the excellent teachers that they deserve? In conversations with many teachers, I found that there no simple answer to that question.
At the heart of the current controversy over teacher evaluation is the question of whether teachers' unions aren't more interested in protecting their member's jobs through tenure, thought to be an onerous process in which it becomes difficult to fire poorly performing professionals. This is not the case, says Knab. "Non-tenured teachers are evaluated three times a year, and tenured teachers are evaluated once a year," she says, adding that "the NJEA is on the record as saying the evaluation process should be changed because current regulations are over 35 years old and modern practice is different." She adds that since the 1980s, districts have had the opportunity to the use test scores as one of their evaluation methods, if they choose to do so.
Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers (Kaplan Publishing, 2009), says that people who don't work in schools don't understand how much informal coaching currently goes on, so the issue of not being properly evaluated gets blown out of proportion. "I've been lucky to work for two principals in a row whose opinion of me I respect and who have visited my classroom regularly enough to know what kind of teacher I am," she says. "I take suggestions from these administrators seriously, whether made formally or informally."
Some tenured teachers say that they would like even more evaluations, perhaps from a variety of sources.
Alyse Battaglia, who now teaches chemistry at Fair Lawn High School, after an engineering career, says, "I do not feel that observing a teacher for two hours of a school year is a fair way to judge them. So although it was fine for me, I don't think it works very well for everyone." She adds, "I think there is room for student, parent or peer evaluation if it is done in a constructive way." Peggy Stewart, who has taught social studies for decades, was the New Jersey Teacher of the Year in 2005 and chairs the New Jersey Professional Teaching Standards Board, adds that hearing from her fellow teachers is most important. "The best evaluations I have had have come from my peers," she says. "Collaboration is the key to improving education."
While some say that teachers should be judged by outcomes regardless of how they are achieved, veteran educators caution against placing too much emphasis in one test taken on one day. Jane, a South Bergen County teacher who requested anonymity, says that in the same way that a child is more than a test score, so is a teacher.
"It is only one way of assessing a student, so why should a teacher be assessed on that score for an entire class?" she says. "As teachers, we are taught that every child learns differently so maybe a teacher has a class that doesn't perform well on standardized tests. That shouldn't bear weight on a teacher's performance." Adds Battaglia, the chemistry teacher, "For many subjects, standardized tests do not exist, and so this isn't a relevant measure to the majority of teachers in my school."
And while it seems there is another test-cheating scandal in the news every week, the fact is that whether tests are being altered or not, a system of education where students are taught how to score well on a test is not the kind of education most people want for their kids. "Preparing students for multiple choice tests doesn't align with the kind of education most parents want their children to have," says Elden. "This is especially true in language arts, in which high quality literature is often sacrificed in favor of test-aligned materials."
Whatever tools are used to evaluate teachers, Knab says it's important for the public to recognize that contrary to what they may hear on the news, schools – even underperforming ones – are not overrun with people who shouldn't be in a classroom.
"About 50 percent of the people who get into teaching are out of it in five years," she says. "Even the old evaluation system is more rigorous than people recognize and parents should know that now that there is a spotlight on it, it will become more rigorous."
Effective evaluation tools are a reflection of what a community deems valuable in its schools, says Stewart, who adds, "We need to hear from all stakeholders. I've seen evaluations tools that were designed to make sure that everyone was on task and organized – this did not lead to improving practice. A community needs to understand what does improve practice."
She adds that what this entails is that the community understands and values the criteria in any evaluation tool. "Most important is that there is a process to drive school improvement, impact teaching and learning, support educators in professional growth and focus on curriculum, instruction and assessment."