Thursday, January 19, 2012

Opportunity to Evaluate Teachers

Welcome to Part IV of my response to Governor McDonnell's "Opportunity to Learn" education agenda--we're almost to Friday, folks! On Monday, you read about advancing literacy. On Tuesday, you read about extending the school day/ year. Yesterday, you read my thoughts on expanding school choice in Virginia. Today, I'll share my thoughts about McDonnell's ideas for evaluating, retaining, and recruiting teachers.

The "Enhancing Teacher Quality, Strengthening Teacher and Administrator Contracts, Evaluation Policies and Streamline Grievance Process" section proposes to establish annual contracts and evaluations for teachers and principals. This, the McDonnell administration says will, "allow for a new evaluation system to work by attracting and retaining the top-tier educators in our K-12 public schools." The agenda also calls to streamline the grievance process. As long as due process is built in (and no, merely saying, "don't worry there will be plenty of due process" is not sufficient) no one I've heard of disagrees with streamlining the grievance process. However, McDonnell's ideas to "enhance" teacher quality and "strengthen" contracts are more controversial.

First of all, teachers and principals should be evaluated yearly and observed and given feedback even more often. The biggest question, though, is how this will be done, based on what, and with what consequences. Will teachers be evaluated with an eye on craft and content or with an eye on test scores? Will the goal be to improve practice and strengthen curriculum? Will the goal be to support teachers? Or will the eye be on standardized test scores parading as real achievement and learning, de-selection, and playing gotcha? If the eye is narrowly focused on boosting test scores and de-selection, we're going to lose good teachers and fail to attract new ones.

Another problem is that this walks and talks like yet another unfunded mandate. Virginia principals barely have enough time to do the evaluations they have. Furthermore, while there are certainly incompetent principals out there, at least one reason that incompetent teachers aren't removed faster is because principals have so much to do. Has Governor McDonnell ever been inside a public school principal's office and seen the students waiting outside, the stacks of unfinished paperwork, and heard the phone ringing off the hook? Has he ever tried to schedule an evaluation? Or how about re-schedule an evaluation?

Streamlining the grievance process may eliminate some paperwork, but mandating yearly high-stakes evaluations without making other changes will merely replace it, and then some. Tennessee recently changed their teacher evaluation process without thinking it through and it's been a nightmare for principals and a largely useless, bordering on absurd, process for many teachers. If we want all principals and teachers to be evaluated once a year, we had better fund it, staff it, and make sure the process is fair and that the tool itself is useful.

I would add a peer evaluation component to the evaluation process. I'm not quite comfortable with students doing high-stakes evaluations but I certainly think collecting and implementing feedback from students should be a required part of a teacher's evaluation process. I'd like to see master educators in each school who evaluate and mentor other teachers while still teaching some courses of their own. Also, we need to diversify evaluations: What a first-year teacher needs is different from what a veteran needs and what a math teacher needs is different from what an art teacher needs. For ideas about where Virginia districts might go, this Massachusetts teacher, who has published a book on the subject, has some great ideas for better evaluationsMontgomery County, Maryland, has had great success with their peer-review teacher evaluation process. Finally, two districts in California have done well revamping their teacher evaluation systems by integrating support and evaluation. Finally, Accomplished California  Teachers put together an important report about improving teacher evaluations, with one of the authors, NBCT David Cohen, offering some further insights on the process here.

As for one-year contracts, I don't see how using them (which by the way will not be a big change in some Virginia districts as budget woes have forced many principals in recent years to offer one-year contacts) strengthens contracts. In fact, it sounds more like weakening contracts (and like spinning one's education agenda). I also don't see how offering them exclusively will attract top-tier educators. Here's a job. Please leave the one you have or give up other opportunities for this one-year contract. Now run along and get those test scores up. I don't see that as a winning recruitment strategy. Moreover, as Chad Sansing pointed out, it's not really going to grow the profession as much as it will offer "jobs."

One-year contracts will also undermine stability and continuity in communities. Of course I want my children to have the best teachers possible, but the fact that the educators at the schools my kids attend have gotten to know our community, our family, and my children as learners, facilitates that. Most of them and most of the educators I have worked with work long hours with too much to do. I, for one, don't want to reward them with the prospect of one-year contracts and I don't want the uncertainty of not knowing which educators will be back each year. In these hard economic times, Virginia's families have enough uncertainty already.

I've also heard McDonnell wants to use merit pay. I was glad that his administration took a more cautious route and merely piloted merit pay before going all out with it. And as I explained here, I think we need to raise salaries across the board, as well as differentiate pay more than we do currently, based on a combination of  responsibility and experience. Educators who lead extra-curriculars, or who take on mentoring, peer evaluating, or more responsibilities should be paid more. Also, we should pay teachers more who work in hard to staff schools with more challenging populations. They have to work harder and have more difficult jobs. Also, it is harder to attract STEM people. It just is. I am not a STEM person and I don't like that they would get paid more, but I understand we can't ignore labor market forces. Nevertheless, merit pay should not be based on a boost in test scores and nor has such merit pay proven to raise achievement in other places. As it has in DC, such an approach easily turns into: Here, you teach the more affluent kids who score higher on standardized tests. Congratulations! Here's some extra money.

By all means, let's re-imagine and then revamp our evaluation tools and processes in Virginia. Let's pay educators more and let's attract the best ones we can to our state. But let's do so in ways that are fair, meaningful, and cognizant of the unique roles educators play. A hasty switch to annual high-stakes evaluations, one-year contracts, and merit pay based on standardized test scores will increase paperwork and teacher turnover and lower morale without growing the profession or improving the quality of teaching. We can do better by our educators and by our students.

cross-posted at the Virginia Education Report

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