Thursday, May 26, 2011

Teacher Evaluations and New York State Tests

The Albany school budget has passed. The people who run the charter schools in Albany have revealed themselves as unethical rascals. What’s next on the education horizon? New teacher evaluation reforms. As we look more closely at education, the teacher is increasingly getting the brunt of the blame for poor student behavior.

It would be naive to say there weren't any bad teachers out there, because there are. It would also be short sighted to downplay the importance on a child’s life of having a good teacher, because everyone knows that an amazing teacher can literally change a child’s life. (Click here to listen to Planet Money’s podcast on the economics of a good teacher). But when it comes to education, it seems like our eggs are all in one basket. The basket of: if you have a good teacher, they will produce high test scores in a child and then and only then will we have a well educated population.

Most likely driven by the above theory, Governor Cuomo pushed State Ed and the Legislature to have the New York State test be 40% of the new evaluation for teachers. But how valuable are these tests? A standardized test can be a useful tool to assess a large body of students. Having a national or even state-wide benchmark to ensure students are achieving at a certain level seems very logical. However, would that test still be logical if there was no benefit to the individual student? The New York State tests that students take are presented and graded in such a way that they are not reasonably able to be used for individual student assessment. They are used only to judge the schools and teachers. So, where is the incentive for the actual student to do well? Realistically, there isn't one. The NYS test results come out too late in the following school year for the schools to use them to assess the students, schools need to use other means for actual student assessment. For parents, it’s also an afterthought. We get the results even later than the schools and we just look at them. There is nothing in-depth about the scores, it’s just a rating. We don’t know what areas our child did well on or what areas they didn't do well on. So, the real question is, why would a useless assessment tool be used to judge all teachers and schools to such a dramatic degree? And, why do people keep pushing them?

It would be most sensible to me to involve teachers and schools in the process of creating tests so that the tests could be a useful tool for them as well. Instead of looking at people who decided to dedicate their lives to educating children as the enemy, look at them as partners in educating our children. There isn't a teacher out there, good or bad, who doesn't want their students to shine.

Any test that is given to students should first have the goal of being a real assessment tool for that individual child. If the test doesn't meet that vital need then why would it be used to assess our teachers and schools? Reforming teacher evaluations is important. Our children need and deserve good teachers. Good teachers deserve praise and to work with equally good colleagues. However, putting the emphasis on a bad assessment tool will never help educate the individual child, which should be the ultimate goal of the tests.

Here are some more interesting things to ponder in education:

Should parents be held accountable for children failing? If so, to what degree? NY Times

It's often a top-down view of teachers, but what do teachers want to empower themselves to let them be the great teachers they know they can be despite the many pressures put on them? Washington Post

1 comment:

  1. I suspect a lot of people agree that teachers, like many other professionals, should have their performance evaluations tied to some measure of productivity.

    The problem here, of course, is that there is no simple or cheap way to measure teacher productivity. Standardized tests are most certainly not the answer; there is enough random variation in the results that we could easily end up rating teachers wrongly simply due to chance. It is also rather well-known that standardized test results, like so much in education, depend on variables not under the control of the school system at all.

    The concept of "value added", that is, how much did each student improve during a period with a particular teacher, is perhaps on the right track but, again, this is an extraordinarily difficult thing to measure.

    What I find noteworthy is that many of those with the loudest voices calling for a teacher performance-measurement system are silent on the complexities of actually implementing it in any rigorous way. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what some of these folks want is not actual rigor but the theatre of rigor, that is, the appearance but not the substance.

    To put this more bluntly, it seems to me that some people are far more interested in punishing public school teachers for their imagined failures than in doing anything that would actually improve education. We know this because they have no time to spare for developing a measurement system that works; they also show no interest in all the other things that would imporve educational outcomes, such as decent housing, safe neighborhoods, access to medical care and decent jobs.

    When educational "reformers" show an interest in the hard stuff, then I will take then seriously and regard them as colleagues.