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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Assessing teachers without fetishizing test-based reforms

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Kevin Welner, a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center. He can be reached at

By Kevin G. Welner
Remember how “the soft bigotry of low expectations” beautifully encapsulated a serious equity issue and then led to a destructive No Child Left Behind law that has narrowed the curriculum and forced educators to over-test students and teach to tests?

We are, I fear, now at the same point with teacher quality.

Lost within the ongoing craziness of leaders using teacher and principal dismissal as a primary strategy to fix public schools (along with the echo chamber of irresponsible punditry and filmmaking) are some important truths about teacher quality.

Teachers are indeed the most important element of formal schooling, and the current system does disproportionately burden low-income communities of color with teachers who are less experienced, less supported, less prepared, and less credentialed. This is an important equity issue, and it should be addressed in a serious way.

The problem, of course, is that it’s being addressed in a foolish way. The New York City data dispute is only the latest example, joining the Los Angeles Times’ decision to misuse and publicly release teacher performance data; the Klein, Rhee, et al. “Manifesto”; the Race to the Top push for the disproportionate use of student data in teacher evaluations; and various state-level measures that will likely in fact require student test data to be used for half of teacher evaluations.

After almost a decade of NCLB, our policymakers are still fetishizing student scores on standardized tests, using them as a crutch instead of turning to balanced, sensible solutions. But there is an alternative.

A new policy brief released today by the National Education Policy Center describes authoritative research documenting a wide range of useful criteria for assessing teacher quality and effectiveness.

The brief, prepared by Penn State professor of education Patricia Hinchey, concludes that there’s a role to be played by value-added models based on student standardized test scores but stresses that this role must be de-emphasized and balanced with other policy and management tools to support and sustain high-quality teaching.

These include classroom observations and evaluations by administrators and others, as well as portfolios prepared by teachers that document a range of teaching behaviors and responsibilities, and other sources of information.

The brief, called "Getting Teacher Assessment Right: What Policymakers Can Learn from Research," is one of a series of briefs supported in part by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, and it suggests that policymakers carefully think through the purposes and available methods of teacher assessment before settling on one particular solution to the exclusion of others.

As Hinchey observes, “Since any teacher assessment system must address multiple goals, it should rely on multiple sources of information.”

Fostering high-quality teaching is a central goal of education reform. Yet the overuse and misuse of test-score data, much in vogue now among government policymakers and district leaders, is not supported by the research. We are wise to embrace teacher quality as a goal; we are also wise to demand research-based policies that will accomplish that goal.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 7, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner, Teacher assessment  | Tags:  assessing teachers, los angeles times, no child left behind, race to the top, standardized tests, teacher assessment, teacher evaluation, test scores, value added  
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The entire process needs to be "rethunk." The idea that a test is used as a hangman's noose in front of people is not productive. The idea that tests are used as disguise to employing test makes is just as productive.

Kevin uses the word leader in his article. I hesitate, in fact step away from using that term if used to decide nothing more than a teacher's longevity. A leader would see testing for what it is. It is a measure of correction. I can find tons of material about test scores but not test results. To say the test scores ARE results completes only half the mission of the test.

When will the public request results? What is projected from the scores? How will the scores be used in future education? Headlines read "New test procedures will be used next year.", "Testing is expected to be tougher next year." What is being done to correct the results of THIS year? What education programs will results in better test results NEXT year?

Posted by: educ8er | December 7, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

We are always wise to "embrace teacher quality as a goal" in general, but the current obsession with teacher quality is misguided. The intensive focus on teacher quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher education confirms the false assumption that there is something seriously wrong with teachers in the US today. There is no evidence this is so. In fact, there is strong evidence suggesting that our teachers are doing a very good job: When we control for poverty, our students score at the top of the world on international tests.

The claim that teacher quality is the main determinant of student success is based on extrapolations from Hanushek's data, not from real teachers in real classrooms. In contrast, there is overwhelming evidence that poverty IS the problem. Our major financial efforts now should go toward protecting children from the effects of poverty.

The empirical evidence on the huge impact of poverty on achievement is very real and strong. If we spend as much on protecting children from poverty as we are willing to spend on testing children and evaluating teachers, we can reduce the problem considerably. (The NY Times recently promoted the Gates-inspired idea of video-taping teachers for evaluation. If schools do this, the expense, I estimate, would be between 6 to 10 billion per year. Spending this much on nutrition, health care, and school libraries makes more sense than spending it on video-taping teachers.)

The DOE and Bill Gates have managed to convince everybody that teacher evaluation is the most serious issue today. This is a red herring that diverts our money and time from the real issue.

Posted by: skrashen | December 7, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to know what ever happened to the concept of a body of evidence to determine educational success. If a doctor, after taking your temperature on a given day and time, declared the patient to have cancer based solely on this one parameter or indicator, we would claim medical malpractice or loco-ville precisely because a thermometer can only measure a single aspect of how the full system is operating. And yet, when education deformers such as Rhee, Klein, Gates and Duncan mandate a single parameter such as a standardized test as the golden measure of educational success i.e. teacher quality, the American public buy it hook, line and sinker.
Children are much more than test scores and teacher quality cannot be measured by a lone standardized number pulled from a particular day or time within the school year. Parents must join the national dialogue and INSIST that assessments utilized to determine educational success be multi-faceted and provide a true picture of the whole child.
The only people benefitting from the current testing mania trend are the publishers of said tests, the publishers of the test-prep materials, and the publishers of curriculum materials that focus on what is tested.

Posted by: PGutierrez1 | December 7, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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