Surveys show not all teachers oppose use of test scores to rate teaching

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A spate of teacher surveys is giving policymakers a clearer picture of what frontline educators think of emerging school reforms. But as Learning Point researchers Ellen Behrstock and Jane Coggshell point out: educators are often at odds with researchers and policymakers over how to evaluate learning and spark effective teaching.

This disconnect is poised to heat up as Illinois districts forge ahead with changes in teacher evaluations. By law, student performance data must become a “significant” factor for teacher ratings in Chicago by 2013 and all districts by 2016. Yet teachers have said loudly and clearly in two recent national surveys—one conducted by Learning Point and Public Agenda—that standardized tests are an inferior way to evaluate them.

Taking teachers’ views seriously could make or break the effort. Says Coggshell, “It’s not just listening to teachers…but really educating them on what are the benefits [of better evaluations] and what is involved and how much more work will it be for them. It’s a two-way conversation that needs to occur, and occur often.”

A spate of teacher surveys is giving policymakers a clearer picture of what frontline educators think of emerging school reforms. But as Learning Point researchers Ellen Behrstock and Jane Coggshell point out: educators are often at odds with researchers and policymakers over how to evaluate learning and spark effective teaching.

This disconnect is poised to heat up as Illinois districts forge ahead with changes in teacher evaluations. By law, student performance data must become a “significant” factor for teacher ratings in Chicago by 2013 and all districts by 2016. Yet teachers have said loudly and clearly in two recent national surveys—one conducted by Learning Point and Public Agenda—that standardized tests are an inferior way to evaluate them.

Taking teachers’ views seriously could make or break the effort. Says Coggshell, “It’s not just listening to teachers…but really educating them on what are the benefits [of better evaluations] and what is involved and how much more work will it be for them. It’s a two-way conversation that needs to occur, and occur often.”

Local union leaders will have some say over the exact mix of data—from interim assessments to grades—that will be used to measure student performance. But test scores are sure to be part of the mix, although only 12 percent of teachers rated scores as an excellent indicator in the Learning Point survey, which included teachers from Illinois.

Another survey by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in which nearly 40,000 teachers were polled, found that 92 percent of teachers say regular in-classroom assessments are either very important or essential in measuring student performance. Only 27 percent of those polled said the same about standardized tests.

Teachers will need to work fast to have their voices heard on evaluation changes in Illinois. Lawmakers granted state administrators the power to design “model evaluation plans” that districts must use if union negotiations do not produce an alternative within 180 days.

Gail Purkey, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, expects district leaders to negotiate in good faith.

“It’s impossible to listen to teachers too much,” Purkey says. “Teachers are in contact with the students the most. So, they have real knowledge of the challenges students face and how to effectively meet those needs.”

In Chicago, where time pressure is even greater, union officials are hopeful that stalled negotiations over evaluations will resume in the coming weeks. The city’s teachers have experienced a number of controversial changes to their profession, from a boom in charters and turnaround schools to performance pay pilots.

“I think policymakers are listening to teachers, but I also think they are listening a whole lot more to each other and trying to please the business community,” says Connee Fitch-Blanks, coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center.

Still, she says joint union-board initiatives like Fresh Start and the Teacher Advancement Program are proof that administrators and teachers can listen to each other and hammer out school improvement plans. Moreover, Fitch-Blanks says the district’s Teacher Excellence pilot project, which has introduced a new tool to help principals and teachers dive deeper into the evaluation of classroom teaching, is off to a good start.

But much of the heavy lifting on Chicago’s evaluation changes is yet to come, from negotiating changes in how remediation will work for teachers with poor ratings, to settling on a mix of other factors that will impact ratings.

In that work, the role of test scores could offer a stark indicator for how seriously teachers’ opinions are taken.

To be sure, teachers do not entirely discount the value of state tests. Some 44 percent in the Learning Point survey rated tests as a good measure of their success. Three-fourths also rated “how much their students learn compared to students in other schools” as a good marker, suggesting further support for some sort of competitive, objective appraisal.

But few teachers, especially younger ones, rated test scores as an excellent indicator of good instruction.

According to Learning Point, new teachers are particularly wary of having test scores used in their evaluation. Half of those with less than five years of experience say scores are fair, at best, or poor measures, compared to about 30 percent for instructors with 20 years of experience.

Surveyed teachers were somewhat mixed in what they think are good indicators of skill. But nearly all agreed that student engagement is a good sign—albeit a tough one to measure.

“We have successfully shifted from the attitude of ‘I did my job and therefore I am a good teacher’ to ‘it’s not just that I taught but did my students learn,’” says Coggshell from Learning Point. “But teachers also understand that the devil is in the details.”

She says students learn not just in the classroom but from parents, friends and others outside of the school—factors that teachers expect their evaluators to consider.

“It’s important to understand the impediments to learning,” she says. “As states sort out [teacher evaluations] it will take some convincing that it’s being done fairly.”

Support not pay

In general, surveyed teachers downplay the role of financial incentives and emphasize support structures for improving instruction. Only half of the teachers surveyed by Learning Point say increasing their salaries would lead to stronger schools. On the other hand, researchers found:

  • About 60 percent say they would improve if they had more opportunities to master the art of differentiating classroom instruction.
  • Roughly 70 percent said that if they were transferring to another school they would prefer to take a job at one where instructional planning took place in tight collaboration with colleagues.
  • Another 70 percent—especially new instructors—say they want regular, detailed feedback on their teaching from principals.

Behrstock notes, however, that a third of teachers are leery of the ratings principals and other administrators would give them. Purkey from the IFT says the desire for principal support, coupled with the suspicion of principal ratings, only show how important it is for the state to also beef up evaluation and training for school administrators and instructional leaders.

While teachers were generally indifferent when asked about pay, many did indicate at least some interest in performance-based pay. About 70 percent of new teachers and 63 percent of veterans said they favored, at least somewhat, paying teachers more for “consistently working harder and putting in more time and effort than others.”

More specifically, nearly half of new teachers believe their instruction could improve if pay were based partly on test scores. (Just a third of their more seasoned colleagues agree.)

Again, Coggshell stresses that the way districts rollout such changes greatly affects the way teachers adopt them. She notes that a focus group with Chicago teachers involved in the Teacher Advancement Program—the district’s pilot program in merit pay—suggests the program has created at least some jealousy and animosity among participants.

Limits on listening

As Education Week recently pointed out, President Obama has signaled interest in hearing from teachers on a regular basis. His blueprint for a revamped Elementary and Secondary Education Act calls on states to report on teachers’ satisfaction with working conditions.

Purkey says that only makes sense. “Going forward, I think it’s good to be taking the temperature of teachers regularly. Not just to survey them, but to use the information to come up with school improvement strategies based on [the knowledge of] people in the field.”

But even if policymakers begin taking teachers’ concerns to heart, many issues will rest solely on the ability of districts to find funding.  Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed by Learning Point say reducing class sizes by 5 would be very effective at improving instruction.

That’s an expensive prospect, and Chicago teachers are barred from bargaining over class size. Research shows clear learning gains for K-3 grades when class sizes are reduced. But the impact on upper grades is less pronounced, notes Behrstock.

“But it’s about workloads and morale for teachers, not necessarily their instructional effectiveness,” she adds.

On this front, there may be non-monetary ways to ameliorate the effects of larger classes. Teachers emphasize that their effectiveness is not only impacted by how many students are in class, but also who is in the class. About 68 percent of teachers say they believe their ability to teach would be greatly enhanced if troublesome kids are removed from their classrooms.

Also, Behrstock says new teachers are more likely to struggle with teaching students of different abilities.

If districts are forced to hike class sizes, she adds, administrators can take a variety of steps to soften the blow—from hiring less-expensive teacher aides to cutting down on the number of papers teachers are asked to grade.

Regardless of the pressure—financial or instructional—Behrstock and Coggshell say policymakers need to at least improve their dialog with teachers.

To read the Scholastic-Gates and Learning Point-Public Agenda reports entirely, click here and here.