Sunday, October 9, 2011

Teacher Effectiveness Measures - What's the problem?

Below are the remarks I was privileged to share before a full room on the VCU campus in Richmond on Saturday, October 1. The topic was "Merit Pay and Teacher Evaluation."  

   I have been a teacher since 1978, and have been in the classroom since the beginning of No Child Left Behind.  Even prior to that, when the Standards of Learning first went into effect in Virginia, I commented to my colleagues that we already knew who was behind and did not need a measuring tool for that.  But removing our ability to evaluate our own students through outside testing was the first step in a campaign to de-professionalize every teacher in America and a clear signal that we would no longer be trusted to perform our jobs.
  What we need, and have needed for the past thirty or more years, are the tools, resources, professional training, and time to educate all children to high levels of performance.  Recently, the lion’s share of resources have been spent in “raising test scores” and not in improving effective practice.  And for that reason, I consider the past decade a complete stagnation, and in some places a reversal, of what teaching professionals consider best practice.
   I would like to state clearly that I am opposed to any merit pay system that is attached to student achievement connected to testing.  There are a number of reasons for my opposition, but the primary one is that it will fundamentally distort the relationship between the teacher and student in potentially damaging ways.
   We should not tie an adult’s livelihood to the performance of vulnerable children.  This immediately shifts our view of our work.  Suddenly children become potential commodities to be exploited or weak performers to be avoided.  This is fundamentally dangerous.  Those who need us most will be least served.
   As the stakes connected to testing have been increasingly raised over the years of NCLB there has been a steady increase in cheating scandals.  We can be assured that these scandals will find their way into individual classrooms and have a profound effect on student learning if teacher performance is measured against these narrow tools.
   The current plan in Virginia, to tie teacher evaluation to student growth causes me a great deal of concern.  To begin with, I do not understand what tools will be used to measure this growth and how they will be untangled from all the factors that affect student achievement.
   To my knowledge there is no reliable tool available for measuring a teacher’s effectiveness within a school year.  The psychometricians have repeatedly argued that Value Added Measures are extremely unreliable.  In addition, the experts clearly state that current criterion referenced tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness and is a misuse of their purpose.  In their own words these tools are “highly unstable” and correlate well only to the students in the classroom and not to the work of the teacher in the classroom.  And yet, federal, and now state, policy is being formulated around what amounts to a huge experiment in defining our work.
   One thing that is clear from the Race to the Top plan, which holds all teachers accountable and uses standardized tests as a large percentage of that measuring tool, is that taxpayer dollars will be diverted from the classroom to create and monitor the testing.  This is certain to build more of the downward pressure on teachers that has already proven to have a limited effect on student achievement . It will create a top-heavy bureaucracy that adds nothing to the quality of instruction and student learning.   It is, however, certain to benefit the test makers and the huge testing industry that has thrived during the last decade and has even continued to show rocketing profits in spite of the current economic downturn.
   It has already begun.  In my small district a testing program was purchased over the summer to begin tracking student reading levels, potentially as a measure of teacher effectiveness. Again, a tool never designed for this purpose.  If we are to track “teacher effectiveness” in every subject and grade, there will need to be more tools, some of which are yet to be brought into existence. Imagine what a juggernaut of testing all of our students, even the youngest will face.  Concurrently, our district has had a reduction in force, no salary increases, and cuts to professional development over the past four years.
   Over the past ten years, a the domain of a classroom teacher—evaluating student achievement—has  been “outsourced” to testing companies that produce measurements that are removed in both time and distance from the classroom and are limited in their effectiveness to improve instruction.  Testing programs have systematically stripped teachers of our decision-making abilities while simultaneously holding us accountable for the less-than stellar results. Teachers are frustrated with the decisions made at a distance that ultimately underserve student needs in the classroom.
   Teachers should not be the subjects of experiments in effective teaching.  Teachers must be partners in the study of effective practice.  Studies of effective practice should ultimately result in improved practice, not managerial, personnel decision-making. Is the real goal of the measurement process to pressure school administrators into removing some teachers?  If so, are they also not being trusted to do their jobs?
   We should be celebrating and sharing teacher knowledge, not creating an adversarial relationship with our students and our colleagues as this program promises to do.  Studying our own work, sharing best practice, and developing local, formative assessments will benefit every child and restore teachers to their role as coach, guide and evaluator.
   The current argument to measure teaching effectiveness is, in my opinion, a distraction from what needs to be done to reform our public schools that will create and maintain a robust teaching force ready to prepare our young people for an uncertain but rapidly changing future.

Other panelists were: Kitty Boitnott, President, Virginia Education Association; Tichi Pinkney Eppes of the Greater Richmond Education Reform Alliance; Stephanie Hooks of Richmond Public Schools; Martin Reardon, VCU Education Professor; and Gabriel Reich, VCU Education Professor.