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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 05/11/2010

Horse, then cart, on teacher evaluation -- Hess

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

By Frederick M. Hess
Colorado is currently debating a path-breaking teacher-quality bill. It’s a terrific proposal in many ways: It would dismantle teacher tenure, a hyper-rigid, industrial-era policy; require that teachers and schools mutually consent before a teacher can be placed in a specific school; establish procedures for handling teachers who aren’t placed; specify that teacher evaluations can be considered when layoffs are made; and mandate that schools hire and compensate teachers based on performance.

However, the legislation goes too far when it comes to value-added metrics — that is, the measurement of teachers’ performance by the effect they have on their students’ test scores.

Teacher evaluations must be based 50 percent on student growth and principal evaluations, with value-added calculations accounting for at least two-thirds of that 50 percent. Teachers can earn tenure only after three consecutive years of effective performance on this evaluation scheme, and tenured teachers can lose that status after two years of poor results. This plan is itself hyper-rigid, and it entails the use of metrics that have yet to be fully developed.

So, while the bill is a giant step forward, the impatient rush to “fix” teacher quality in one furious burst of legislating amounts to troubling overreach; it is a case of putting the cart before the horse.

The result: Hugely promising efforts to uproot outdated and stifling arrangements get enveloped in crudely drawn, sketchily considered, and potentially self-destructive efforts to mandate a heavy reliance upon value-added assessment.

Education reformers, especially impassioned progressives frustrated with stagnant results and teachers’-union obstruction, have trouble accepting that unwinding a century’s worth of accumulated detritus and replacing it with a functioning system will take a little time.

They fail to realize that uprooting the old, intrusive superstructure, not imposing a new one, is what matters most. Only after a few years of stripped-down tenure and evaluations focused on performance — and after a few locales craft some promising approaches — will it make sense for state legislatures to wade in more aggressively.

There are at least two big problems with a “fix it now” approach that uses value-added measurements — even if one simply stipulates that all of the technical challenges can be resolved (a pretty big stipulation).

First, systems built around individual value-added calculations can stifle the kind of smart use of personnel that reformers are trying to encourage. Principals who rotate their faculty by strength during the year, or who augment classroom teachers with guest instructors or online lessons, are going to clash with a system predicated on linking each student’s annual test scores to a single teacher. If teachers are sharing kids or kids are being served by other providers, the results will be muddy.

Second, none of this matters yet. Florida’s SB6, a similar measure, went down over resistance to value-added calculations based on tests that weren’t going to exist until the middle of the next decade. Colorado’s system won’t be functional for years, given the need to create assessments and build the data systems.

The best move for states is to insist that districts base a substantial part of teacher evaluation and pay on outcomes, flag sensible indicators (including principal evaluations, value-added calculations, and classroom observation), and give districts and providers leeway to develop and employ their own metrics.

This will begin to shift norms, allow value-added systems and evaluation models to develop, and set the table for adoption when proven value-added metrics are more readily available. If advocates are nervous that their window of opportunity will pass, they should write a trigger into the statute that will force the legislature or state board to revisit the question in 2013 or 2014.

The frustration with the status quo and union resistance that has fueled this “fix it now” thinking is eminently understandable. But K–12 schooling is a sprawling, complex exercise. Big, hurried solutions have a way of working less well than hoped. Impatience and lashing out in frustration can lead to flawed policy — as with No Child Left Behind, which overreached in ways that helped undercut public support and the law’s more sensible provisions.

The more promising path is the patient course that lawmakers followed when they pursued welfare reform: Create opportunities, nurture and monitor successful efforts, and then talk about new policy requirements.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 11, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  Colorado and teachers, Colorado school reform, Frederick Hess, Rick Hess, standardized tests, teacher assessment, teachers  
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You gotta love it! Self-appointed authorities working for big-name institutes getting media space to pontificate on subjects most of them have never experienced. They use denigrating terms like "accumulated detritus" and "teachers'-union obstruction" to clarify their attack mode. Then come vague, "I'm the expert" vocabularies of "value-added calculations" and "old, intrusive superstructure" that really mean nothing to substantive discussion.

At least the writer calls for much more time and study before Colorado politicians rush in to quick-fix a situation which they know nothing about.

I urge Mr. Hess and anyone else to research the reality of the so-called merit pay systems attempted in the past. If you don't learn the lessons of history you are condemned to repeat them. It has never worked for a variwety of reasons, the principle one being the abuse and disempowerment of the very teachers it is supposed to help. In addition, there is no significant and thorough data to denote any improvement of learning in the classroom where merit pay was attempted. None! Just convenient, cherry-picked anecdotes! And don't use KIPP schools like Jay Mathews does as the best cure-all.

Take the example of Fairfax County, Virginia in the 80's. Merit pay was imposed with evaluations for those who chose and extra money for those deemed worthy. The ensuing disaster among teacher performance and collegial relationships has never been forgotten. The program limped along for 3-4 years until, of course, the money ran out.
Oh, and student scores did not signicantly improve, at least not because of financial reward to the "winners" of the evaluations.

Try contacting older members of the Fairfax County School Board who were around then and see what they have to say. Better yet contact the two teacher unions, the AFT and NEA affiliates. They remember only too vividly. This is not hard to do except to admit you never tried.

This means getting down with the people in the classroom to find out the reality of what works and what doesn't. The ivory towers of academia and think-tanks know almost nothing because they don't do their work from start to finish with the real experts, classroom teachers.

Mr. Hess, keep at it but expand your information-gathering systems to rely mainly on the classromm reality of teachers' esperience. Stay out of the office and hang with those doing the actual work. It's the only way to gather correct data.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | May 11, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Why is it that those who have never been in the classroom get to have all the input regarding classroom teachers? This doesn't happen in any other profession. We have a Surgeon General who is an actual doctor and a
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who is a military officer yet our Secretary of Education has never been a teacher. Are teachers really regarded so low that they can't be trusted to have any input on their working conditions? There seems to be a belief that teaching requires no particular expertise and that anyone can do it. I really believe that those making the rules should be required to spend a year in a classroom. I suspect their views will change substantially!

Posted by: musiclady | May 11, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

I agree, musiclady. However, despite his "outsider" status, I thought Hess did a nice job of highlighting the good (or potentially good) in Colorado's plan, and raising some valid concerns. Maybe I'm just so used to reading about how experts want to immediately base everything off test scores, that I was thankful to see that that particular aspect gave him pause.

Posted by: uva007 | May 11, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Check out this link. Diane Ravitch was in Colorade recently discussing this bill with the creator of it!!

And how come the legislation in Colorado isn't making more waves on this blog?

Posted by: tutucker | May 11, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps those who see teacher tenure as a " hyper-rigid, industrial-era policy" need to be reminded of a few other bogey men from the past: firing teachers because they taught too much science, or the wrong kind of science, or not enough science, or because they were married, or because they were not married, or because they were the wrong sex, or belonged to the wrong political party, or because they were too old, or too young, or they were the wrong race or religion, or spoke with an accent. It is too easy to forget how precarious the teaching profession was before tenure. Sure, if you went to the right church and had the right sexuality and the correct views on the subjects you were teaching, you had job security. Tenure arose for all the right reasons. The tenure system is not to blame for bad teaching.

Posted by: shakespearebro | May 11, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

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