Three experts weigh in on how to improve teacher evaluation

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Value-added test scores are an unreliable measure of individual student
performance that fails to capture the entirety of what teachers are
expected to do, says Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard University
Graduate School of Education. Johnson was the keynote speaker for Monday’s Chicago Schools Policy
Luncheon, the first of two policy luncheons on the topic of teacher
quality. The series is co-sponsored by Business and Professional People
in the Public Interest and Catalyst Chicago.

Value-added test scores are an unreliable measure of individual student performance that fails to capture the entirety of what teachers are expected to do, says Susan Moore Johnson of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Johnson was the keynote speaker for Monday’s Chicago Schools Policy Luncheon, the first of two policy luncheons on the topic of teacher quality. The series is co-sponsored by Business and Professional People in the Public Interest and Catalyst Chicago.

Some education reformers are pushing for the use of value-added scores as a way to bring student achievement into the mix when assessing individual teacher performance. The idea is controversial. New York City’s teacher union has sued to prevent the city from publicly releasing value-added scores for individual teachers, a move that angered the Los Angeles union when the Los Angeles Times published scores for teachers there.

Johnson noted research on the drawbacks of using value-added scores, which attempt to measure student growth on tests and gauge how well individual teachers are teaching.

“Value-added provides teachers with no information about how to improve,” Johnson said.  “It’s just a score, and it creates disincentives for teachers to work in low-performing schools or teach low-performing students.  It interferes with team teaching and collaboration, because if it’s going to be high-stakes, you’re going to worry about your own kids.”

Value-added scores can be influenced by several factors, including student assignment and tracking and shared teaching responsibility for the same group of students, she noted. In the end, they are not a reliable measure of teacher quality, she said.

Peer evaluation is one of the most promising teacher assessment strategies, Johnson pointed out, and ideally, consulting teachers would be hired to intensively assist and eventually evaluate teachers. (Under a new state law, half of school districts in Illinois must have new evaluations in place by 2012.)

Johnson’s presentation focused on the demographics of the new generation of teachers. In general, these newcomers envision a shorter-term commitment to classroom teaching than the generation now moving into retirement. They also include more career-changers, and tend to value teamwork and flexibility on the job.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Peter Martinez, head of the Urban Education Leadership program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also spoke at the luncheon.

Martinez emphasized that a top-notch principal is an essential part of a reliable teacher evaluation process.

“If that principal is not a highly qualified and trustworthy instructional leader, the evaluation will lack credibility and ethics,” said Martinez, whose program prepares new principals for urban schools. “Teachers have the right to a highly-qualified evaluator.” (Gov. Pat Quinn recently signed new legislation making it tougher to become a principal.)

Martinez also said that while individual teacher evaluations are necessary, teachers should also be sharing ideas on how to improve instruction and enable students to learn. Having peers work together, he said, will improve teaching practice and raise student achievement more quickly than individual evaluations and training alone.

Ticking off a list of the assessments and standardized tests given in Chicago schools, Lewis decried what she and many teachers consider to be excessive testing, saying that it hinders student learning and limits the creative experiences they can have in school.

“Students and teachers are bored to death,” Lewis said.  “Most kids don’t even read novels anymore – they read passages.  There’s no time for science labs or library research.  Most elementary students have just one art class a week, and no recess.  And now some want to tie teacher pay to these politically influenced, invalid and unreliable tests.” 

Lewis also called for more mentoring for new teachers, and for more collaboration among school faculties. But she noted the union’s disapproval of merit pay, saying that while teachers are ready to improve instruction as an expected part of their jobs, they will not compete with one another in the classroom. 

“A thousand or two more a year [in salary] won’t make us work harder, because we already do,” Lewis said. “Merit pay will ultimately harm students, because teachers will avoid our more challenging schools altogether, and teachers and principals will start horse-trading for the best test-takers.”

The luncheon was the first of a two-part series entitled “Teacher Evaluation and Compensation: Getting It Right.”  The second luncheon will also take place at the Union League Club on Dec. 1. For more information and to register, go to BPI.