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Some thoughts on teacher effectiveness

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I finished Steven Brill’s popular (infamous?) book about the school reform drama, “Class Struggle,” about a month ago.  No, I don’t plan on offering my take on the narrative.  Enough bytes have already been expended on that.  But even though I finished it and have read several other books since, one small, virtually inconsequential paragraph continues to resonate with me.

Brill describes a major frustration Eva Moskowitz, the brilliant creator of the Success Charter Network in NYC, experienced as a student at Stuyvesant High School:

Stuyvesant is New York’s star high school, from which an outsize portion of students, like Moskowiz, cruise into the Ivy League. But to Moskowitz, many, if not most, of the teachers were anything but stars. She thought half of the teachers were incompetent and vividly remembers math and science classes where the students, who were all gifted, literally carried the class. The teachers were cruising on the students’ talent, she says. I remember one of the kids taught the rest of us physics, while the teacher sat there drunk . . . It was easy to be a teacher there.

This stuck with me because, as a Stuyvesant alum myself (who did not go onto the Ivy Leagues), I totally agree.  I don’t think any of my teachers were drunk in class, but my high school memories are also littered with teacher experiences that demonstrate either severe incompetence or gross neglect.  Either way, I can’t think of any way to justify why these individuals were allowed to be instructing in any classroom.

The not-so-sterling example of “Mr. P.”

Let’s take Mr. P, for example.  I was “lucky” to be assigned to Mr. P’s geometry class both semesters my freshman year. The class format was supposed to consist of sitting down in our seats, solving the warm-up problems already on the board individually, working them out as a class, and then the day’s instruction. Seems straight forward enough. But I say “supposed to” because class rarely proceeded that way.

Typically, the board was blank and Mr. P was in his seat when we walked in. Mr. P would proceed to write a few problems on the board as he chatted with students, after class had started, a process that usually took 15-20 minutes of a 50 minute class. The rest of the class would be engaged in anything but geometry during this time, usually conversing in small groups or catching up on homework from other classes (since homework was virtually non-existent in Mr. P’s class). He would then sit in his chair and continue with student conversations. Maybe we would get to the problems, usually we wouldn’t.  Rarely were we ever actually taught anything geometric. And so went my entire year of high school geometry.

One would think that our lack of learning would be made evident when our test scores on class assessments and the Regents exam (NY’s standardized test) where revealed, but this was Stuyvesant.  Practically every student cared immensely about those Regents scores since these were used for college admissions, so we all independently studied for that exam and most of us aced it.  And I can’t say for sure, but I doubt our classroom assessments were ever reviewed outside of Mr. P’s class.  So, in terms of pure student performance, Mr. P was a star.

The flip-side of weighing test scores too heavily in evaluation

Now this is not to say that every – or even most, as Eva states – teachers at Stuyvesant were bad; the majority of my teachers were actual stars.  But, this blast from my past does offer insight in regard to two aspects of teacher effectiveness that I believe are essential.  The first concerns the accuracy of weighting standardized tests too heavily in effectiveness scores, but not for the reason usually presented by those who oppose that measure.

Beyond the common argument that an effective teacher may get a poor rating due to low student performance on a standardized test for any of the myriad of reasons people cite, we also need to consider the case of a lousy teacher being rated effective when clearly he is not.  If we judged Mr. P’s effectiveness as a teacher either solely or too heavily on his student’s performance, then he would likely be considered highly effective when it is obvious he was not.  Falling into the trap of relying too heavily on student performance to measure teacher effectiveness distorts that effectiveness rating and can quickly lead to an ineffective evaluation system with no buy-in.

That’s why I am glad that a robust evaluation system which takes multiple measures of effectiveness into account is being developed by Colorado. Evaluating teacher performance using multiple measures – along with student performance – will allow for a richer and more accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness.

The key is getting these multiple measures and the structure of the system right.  That means a system that is fair, transparent, timely and, importantly, consistent to allow for comparisons within and across districts. And from the looks of the draft rules, I believe that we are moving firmly in that direction.

Adding sharper teeth to effectiveness-based employment decisions

The second essential component is a little more controversial. Employment decisions should be closely coupled to a teacher’s effectiveness.  In my mind that means more than the potential loss of tenure.  It should have more teeth and also include the gamut of personnel decisions: hiring, assignment, continued employment, transfer and termination.  And with a robust and balanced evaluation system in place, these employment decisions can and should be made in a rapid and timely fashion.

Colorado is not going down that route now, but here’s hoping that one day we will.  Because every school year that an ineffective teacher is allowed to remain in the classroom means another group of kids is cheated out of learning opportunities.

Other than some sour memories, having Mr. P for geometry did not negatively affect me.  But that doesn’t mean we should accept allowing ineffective teachers to continue reaching kids in any classroom.

We as a state and society have to build the collective will to ensure that teacher effectiveness is paramount in public education. That means recognizing and rewarding highly effective teachers, as well as removing chronically ineffective teachers from the classroom.  Doing otherwise is unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong.

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