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Forget about rating teachers---rate schools instead.

Those unfortunate people in the District may worry about the quality of their teachers, and wait anxiously for the results of the school system’s controversial new evaluation of classroom techniques and test score improvement. But those of us in the Washington area suburbs don’t have to worry because we already know that close to 100 percent of our teachers are entirely satisfactory. How? Our school districts say so.

I asked suburban school officials to share the latest results from their teacher evaluations, which are usually done by principals and subject specialists. Here are the percentages of teachers rated satisfactory, in some cases called meeting or exceeding the standard: Alexandria 99 percent, Calvert 99.8 percent, Charles 98.4 percent, Culpeper 97 percent, Fairfax 99.1 percent, Falls Church 99.55 percent, Loudoun 99 percent, Montgomery 95 percent, Prince George’s 95.56 percent, and Prince William 98.3 percent.

Anne Arundel, Arlington, Fauquier and Howard, and Manassas City say they don’t collect such data. Carroll says it is doing it for the first time and hasn’t finished yet.
Those numbers in the high 90s sound good, but they don’t impress some advocates of better teaching. Near perfect teacher evaluation passing rates are common throughout the country.

One reason why D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has launched her complex IMPACT evaluation of the District’s teachers is that the research and training organization she founded, the New Teacher Project, is a sworn enemy of those standard evaluation systems. Since teacher ratings in most districts are as discerning as peewee soccer award night, with everyone getting a trophy, why bother?

The standard evaluation system “not only keeps schools from dismissing consistently poor performers, but also prevents them from recognizing excellence among top performers or supporting growth among the broad plurality of hard working teachers who operate in the middle of the performance spectrum,” said a recent New Teacher Project report.

The organization studied 12 districts, including Chicago, Denver, Cincinnati and Little Rock, in four states and found that less than one percent of teachers were rated unsatisfactory. Yet a survey of 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators in those districts found that 59 percent of the teachers and 63 percent of the administrators believe their district was not doing enough to identify, compensate, promote and retain the most effective teachers.

School officials in the Washington suburbs say they don’t have that problem. They are helping teachers build their skills, they say, even if that work is not reflected in their evaluation summaries. “Principals and supervisors work hard with teachers to improve instruction,” said Keith Hettel, assistant superintendent, human resources, in Charles County.

“We have made professional development a priority this year,” said Amy Carlini, spokeswoman for the Alexandria schools.

I would reject such talk as mere public relations, except for the undeniable fact that most Washington area districts--when compared to school performance in the rest of the country--are doing a splendid job. We have an advantage because of our relatively high family incomes, which correlate with academic achievement, but the quality of teachers and administrators I have watched in the last decade is usually high and the results good.

So what to we do? I agree that 99.8 percent satisfactory evaluation rates are ridiculous. Stop wasting time and money on them. Instead, emulate those schools--mostly public charters--that choose principals carefully and let them evaluate, reward, promote or dismiss teachers any way that works for them.

Bonuses should go to the whole school to be divvied up, not to individual teachers. And if student achievement isn’t growing at a healthy rate, or if teachers are fleeing in disgust, get rid of that principal and hire a better one. It will reduce paperwork, and free more time for teaching kids.

By Jay Mathews  | November 8, 2009; 11:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  teacher evaluation  
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Next: Bad eighth grade math placements--an update


It is reasonable to evaluate a school based on overall performance, and hold the principal accountable. The principal will need some fair, consistent, and effective means to evaluate the school's teachers. There is nothing wrong with having a uniform process for all teachers in a district. However, the Impact process, with its 75 densely-packed pages listing rule after rule on which each teacher is to be rated, is extreme. It has turned schools into piece-work factories. It is the product of consultants and HR "professionals" who are far removed from actual classroom experience (despite the supposed "world's greatest" credentials of Impact's alleged creator-in-chief). Impact creates bad behavior among principals. In one NW school is it reported that the principal interrupts Impact observation sessions to ask the students if the teacher is telling the truth about when lesson hand-outs were prepared and distributed. Impact also allows no distinction or variation in classroom practice based on the actual skills and proficiency of the students. Impact once again demonstrates that the Chancellor's own lack of documented classroom success (yes, there is no proof that she achieved anything near the self-reported miracles she performed long ago in a Baltimore classroom) and disdain for teachers has needlessly created an atmosphere of harassment and stress for kids and teachers. Good managers have always known that micro-management and telling employees they are losers is not the path to success. As in that NW school, where over 50% of the excellent, dedicated, and proven successful staff is planning to resign before year end, we are seeing the bitter fruit of another failed DC reform regime. This one treats schools as factories with test results as the product and children and teachers as the disposable machinery of production. When will DC understand that it's schools will not succeed under the current administration and that any gains are ephemeral and will disappear when Impact forces the harassed and distressed faculty of the highly-effective schools to walk away from the profession they have served so well. Why is that a good thing?

Posted by: korm | November 9, 2009 1:13 AM | Report abuse

Jay - as a former teacher in the area, not once have I ever seen you discuss one of the biggest impediments to student success... the students themselves.
What I mean by this is behaviour issues - disruptive students whose behaviour isn't even recognized by their peers as detrimental and is often encouraged by those peers. A teacher only has so much control of a classroom and when there are no consequences for unacceptable behaviour, what is a teacher supposed to do?
Most good teachers are able to contain bad behaviour, and I'm sure that is somewhat in the evaluations, but when do systems rate the students for their actions (which do affect their test scores)? When do we give teachers tools to discourage disruptive behaviour?
When do we teach students to police their peers? When I was in school, we certainly had no problems letting our peers know they were getting in our way of learning... 5 yrs later when I returned to teach, that was not the case and the burden was completely on the teacher, not even the parent.

Posted by: karstrial | November 9, 2009 1:49 AM | Report abuse

This is slightly annoying.
This piece by Jay (in blog form?) was also posted as though it is in today's print edition.

Posted by: edlharris | November 9, 2009 6:18 AM | Report abuse

I too find it hard to believe that 95% of teachers are entirely satisfactory. It implies they aren't normally distributed.

I think the idea of rating schools rather than individuals has merit. It makes the staff of a school more of a team.

Teachers see the results of their school as the years go by. A balanced program of evaluation should not ignore their feedback regarding the effectiveness of instruction.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 9, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse

If the goal of teacher evaluation is to identify those who are not competent and then weed them out, a satisfactory rate in the high 90 percent range is not unusual at all -- unless we believe that our schools are hiring a lot of unqualified people to be teachers. If, however, the purpose of the teacher evaluation is to strive for teaching excellence, then reports of a "pass-fail" nature are useless. It's a real shame that we can't find some way to evaluate teachers that relates to their demonstrating competent knowledge and demonstrated successful behaviors in various teaching contexts. But that's not what the public -- or the author of this article -- seems to want. What a shame ...

Oh, I'm not a teacher, but have a quantitatively-based doctorate and believe that the systems we have in this area are really just pseudo-science.

Posted by: hradvocate | November 9, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

You're essentially arguing that the teachers unions should have no say over hirings and terminations. I tend to agree with you, but I am curious about how it works in school districts that have unions, such as Montgomery County, but also have a strong teachers overall. Is the union there less vested in protecting underperformers that it seems to be in DC?

Posted by: trace1 | November 9, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Jay, I liked the whole article; your last two paragraphs in particular, make so much sense.

The overall rating of a school encompasses so many things that individual teacher evaluations don't address, some of them rather intangible (in addition to the ones you mentioned):

The emotional climate of a school - do people feel comfortable in the overall environment?

Is student work displayed?

Is the physical environment attractive and comfortable to work in?

Is there good communication between admin,,
staff & parents?


Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 9, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

A commenter says " I too find it hard to believe that 95% of teachers are entirely satisfactory. It implies they aren't normally distributed."
No it doesn't. Teacher quality can be normally distributed around a mean that is far better than unsatisfactory. For example, an individual teacher might need to be ~ three standard deviations below the mean in order to fall into an unsatisfactory category.

Besides, why would you expect a normal distribution - why not a bimodal distribution?

And do you really believe 'Teacher Quality" can be quantified like that? Teachers that were good for me weren't good for all the other students in the class, and teachers that bored me to death were great for other students. And teachers that were great in my (Md Catholic suburban) schools would never have done well in a school with discipline problems and violence.

I think the whole quantification/rating of teachers is misguided from the start. Make sure the teachers are pretty good, and then spend your resources creating an environment where students can learn - don't waste your time and money tweaking a judgment about good vs very good vs excellent teaching. A good classroom environment will make a fair teacher a lot more effective, and it will do more for students than any 'merit pay' scheme.

Posted by: msw13 | November 9, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Wow, that was some fancy footwork to get to the point of the story – advocating charter schools where teachers and principals can be fired at will.

Thus there are no unions and no central control, and it’s all government paid. In DC, Chancellor Rhee fulfills her mission by shifting gears. Instead of focusing directly on teacher incompetency and union-busting, she focuses on something teachers agree with - the difficulty of evaluating the mysterious art of teaching. Still, the Chancellor’s solution is the same – firing people.

This leads to the continued need to hire people, something the Chancellor is skilled at from her previous position as the head of a teacher recruitment firm. All these new teachers need professional development, which is eagerly provided by Teach-for-America alums who have received tuition-assisted masters degrees for teaching two years in inner-city schools in Siberias like Washington, DC.

[as posted on the identical print version article]

Posted by: efavorite | November 9, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I agree completely with posters who say it makes sense for most teachers to be rated "satisfactory." Don’t you think most airline pilots are satisfactory? How about department store clerks?
Regarding principal behavior around the new DC evaluation system, I recently heard a story in which an evaluating principal interrupted the class to ask the teacher for a copy of the lesson plan. When the teacher said she’d provide it after class, the principal walked out and wrote up the teacher for insubordination.

I’m guessing principals’ own jobs are dependent on identifying a certain percentage of unsatisfactory teachers in their buildings.

Posted by: efavorite | November 9, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

With respect to airline pilots, my dad was one, and he was later a check pilot. Airline pilots go through complex and strenuous testing every year where they are challenged to deal with cascading problems that could prove fatal if not handled properly. You can flunk those, and those who do aren't put back on the flight line until they're cleared with a retest. Some never clear. You get several check flights a year, and again, your certificate can be pulled. ALPA was not at all tolerant of incompetent pilots.

Our kids in schools would be hugely better off if teachers faced the same kind of high stakes testing as pilots do.

I don't have an issue with most airline pilots being rated "satisfactory", because I believe it to be true. Action against those who violate rules is taken swiftly (the FAA pulled the flight certificates of those two Delta pilots the day after they overflew the airport) and safety lapses are not tolerated.

My own personal experience in schools is that we're a long ways from having 95% or 98% of the teachers as competent, and that the teacher evaluation systems are weak and neither help ok teachers get better nor help bad teachers exit teaching.

Posted by: bk0512 | November 9, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"So what to we do? I agree that 99.8 percent satisfactory evaluation rates are ridiculous. Stop wasting time and money on them. Instead, emulate those schools--mostly public charters--that choose principals carefully and let them evaluate, reward, promote or dismiss teachers any way that works for them."

Give me a break... why in the world would anyone want to emulate charter schools, except maybe to sort and select more able or motivated students as a way to "cook the achievement books"... and even then all credible research says then when comparing "like" students, charter schools students achieve no better than their public school counterparts...

Nice try... but your theory is without merit...

Posted by: hsm123 | November 9, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"I don't have an issue with most airline pilots being rated "satisfactory", because I believe it to be true.”

That is my point. Measures vary from field to field.

Regarding teachers, you might be right that some teachers you deem to be unsatisfactory are indeed unsatisfactory. But teaching is much more subjective that flying a plane. Teachers can be maligned subjectively by certain parents (who don't like the low grades their kids get) and rated down subjectively principals (who don't like being agitated).

Also, as pointed out here, an excellent teacher for one type of student may be not so great for another type.

Pilots have to train and check out for different types of aircraft. Teachers, in contrast, are routinely "thrown in" to new, difficult classroom situations with minimal training to see how they do. Jay Mathews approves of this “toss them in the water approach” as described in a recent column:

Posted by: efavorite | November 9, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Continuing with the airline pilot analogy – when a plane goes down, it’s not always the pilot’s fault is it? No, a thorough evaluation is done, of not just the pilot, but ground crew, maintenance, air traffic control, etc. I’m not an expert on air safety, but I think my point is valid. In education, especially right now in DC, teachers are expected to take full responsibility for educating children and raising their achievement, despite factors affecting their students outside of school. If they as much as comment that there may be other important factors to consider, they are maligned for having a bad attitude. Imagine a pilot being afraid to comment about a dysfunctional air traffic control system.

If people cared as much about educating children as they cared about safe air travel, we wouldn’t be discussing teacher quality in a vacuum.

Posted by: efavorite | November 9, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

This is fascinating.

Look at those satisfactory rates. You couldn't tell to look at them which came from Virginia and which came from Maryland, could you? I mean, if teachers unions are really the culprit here, wouldn't we see the Virginia satisfactory rates -- and remember, Virginia teahers are barred from collective bargaining, so there are no teachers union contracts -- much lower than Maryland's.

But we don't, we do? What does that tell us?


It's quite amazing that Mr. Matthews argues that a organization's branch managers not be help to a standardized tool for evaluating employees. Truly remarkable.

Don't other large organizations insist on standardized tools?

Moreover, if standardized tools are appropriate for assessing students, why wouldn't they be appropriate for assessing teachers? Let's be clear here: Mr. Matthews is *not* calling for improving the standardized tool, but rather dropping the whole idea.

Are there any more educational "reform" ideas that Mr. Matthews want to undermine today?

Posted by: ceolaf | November 9, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

A major problem with learning/teaching is that those who stand to gain the most in a quality classroom are those who are least developmentally ready to seek long term rewards - the students. Learning to learn is absolutely imperative, but many students can't plan/pursue abstract rewards that exist beyond the next 48 hours or whenever the test might be. We train them to manage the upcoming 48 hours really well. But the trees obscure the forest.

Posted by: billq1 | November 9, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

The standard evaluation system “not only keeps schools from dismissing consistently poor performers,
Is the writer talking about the teachers or the school system that continuously send poorly performing students to the next grade?

Based on the 2009 national math tests over 40 percent of students in the 4th grade in DC failed and should be repeating the 4th grade, yet I doubt that there is even one student that is repeating the 4th grade because of failure.

Now all of the 5th grade teachers can be evaluated with over 40 percent of the students that failed in the 4th grade. They are now suppose to work a miracle on these students.

Of course the head of the school system is never evaluated.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 9, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

So what to we do? I agree that 99.8 percent satisfactory evaluation rates are ridiculous. Stop wasting time and money on them. Instead, emulate those schools--mostly public charters--that choose principals carefully and let them evaluate, reward, promote or dismiss teachers any way that works for them.
We should also get rid of government civil service restrictions and allow any new politicians that is elected hire, fire, promote or dismiss any way that works for them.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 9, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

For edlharris and others: In the new era of blogs for aged newspaper writers like me, there are indeed going to be two versions online of anything I write for the paper. This piece did appear in the Post today on page B2 of our Metro section. I write a column for our Metro section every Monday, which you can often find my looking for my hideous picture at the top. I also write a column every Thursday for the Local Living section, also adorned with my photo. (I am campaigning to have the photos removed except for our many younger columnists who aren't so painful to look at.) In each of those cases, the Web site will post those printed columns in the Web sections to which they belong. They are easiest to find just searching for my name. But since we want this blog to be a place readers can find anything I write for the Post, they will be here too, along with all of my blog posts and my Friday column, which has been exclusively for the Web since it began in 2000. I post the Monday and Thursday columns on the Web myself, and occasionally will add something that we did not have room in the paper for, so there can be slight differences. We welcome comments to both versions, and I read the comments on both versions, but it is great if you can post your comments on both versions so that other readers do not miss what you have to say. Will we continue with this system? No one can say. Newspapers are changing fast, but I plan to be on this space for many years to come, mostly because I get to exchange views with the sort of erudite and thoughtful people we see above.
And for kastrial---You have identified a key issue, about which I have written a lot, including a Washington Post magazine piece (Dec. 19, 2000) about my efforts to take a class management course online. I have spent much time in the last few years writing about KIPP and similar public charter and regular schools because they make classroom order and proper behavior their highest priority, since they can't get to the great and imaginative teaching you find in those schools without it. It is created by establishing a team spirit throughout the school in which principal and teachers are disciplining consistently and backing each other up, one of the reasons why I think it is best to have an evaluation system that starts and ends with the principal, and makes the principal accountable if children don't learn in that school.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how many free-market managers rate their units not by their overall performance but instead look only at the ratings of individual workers? In a nut-shell, many in academia have pushed such to use such a system in the schools; they discount the individual performance of the school (eg, graduation) and leap to ideas like merit pay for teachers. Conveniently lost, though, is the responsibility and influence the leader or principal of the school might have. And let me suggest the reason AP's and Principals are not normally held to account: They are often installed to advance political agendas by BOE or other political leaders who've always thought schools existed first to foster social engineering and secondly as institutions for educating students.

Posted by: socks2 | November 9, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Jay Mathews
public charter and regular schools because they make classroom order and proper behavior their highest priority
Allow public schools to start sending the disruptive students to public charter schools and you will see an immediate improvement in the public schools.

One grows tired of hearing the virtues of public charter schools which can easily dump any disruptive students back into the public schools.

Make the credo of public charter schools "give us your disruptive and those yearning to disrupt" and you will improve every public school in the nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | November 9, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

That is why teachers love unions.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | November 9, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Teaching is the only profession I know of (government in general might be the other one) where everyone is good. Based on my working experience, I can tell you that not everyone is good at their job and that bad people get fired all the time (again, except for teachers and governments employees). What is wrong with an individual rating? That is how most employers work. Rating the school is dumb. And just because the schools in this area are doing better than others doesn't mean they can't improve. And to the teacher who says the kids are the problem, you are disgusting. Kids have problems, but those can be overcome and good teachers make all the difference. That you clearly are not.

Posted by: columbiaheights | November 9, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

"I have spent much time in the last few years writing about KIPP and similar public charter and regular schools because they make classroom order and proper behavior their highest priority, since they can't get to the great and imaginative teaching you find in those schools without it. It is created by establishing a team spirit throughout the school in which principal and teachers are disciplining consistently and backing each other up"

There's plenty of research to back up the value of classroom discipline and behavioral standards, but KIPP schools, if I understand it correctly, have very strict admission requirements and can expel any student who does not maintain those high standards. Public schools cannot impose those same admission requirements or expel students in that way, so the comparison is nonsensical. It's surprising that nobody has pointed this out to you before, given your public advocacy of the KIPP program.

Posted by: Trev1 | November 9, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Jay, One of my biggest complaints in the reader comment section is lack of paragraphs breaks. Makes for difficult least for me. Usually I won't even bother. But then there was Jay's additional comments which I see as bonus commentary. But it is a sea of ink 32 lines long with nary a paragraph break in sight. Tell me it was a computer glitch.

Posted by: rjma1 | November 9, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I live in a town with three elementary schools. At one end of town most residents have lower incomes. At the other end most residents are professionals. The residents in the middle are mixed. The state test scores correspond to the income and education levels of the parents. Does this mean that the school department puts the best teachers at one school and deliberately hires poor performers for the others ?

Posted by: Susan50 | November 9, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

for rjma1: What an interesting and original comment. I am experimenting right here.

I am trying to put paragraph breaks in my comment and see if they hold up when I hit the submit button.

Sometimes it is hard to remember to do this when you are in a hurry, or a terrible typist like I am.

If this works, it means the solution is in readers' hands. You have to put them in to help your fellow readers.

If it doesn't work, or even if it does work in this limited way, I will still ask the Web wizards if there is a solution.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

For Trev1: I don't know how or why such myths persist. My favorite theory is that people have trouble believing that all you need is good teaching in a well-run school to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children, so they come up with these visions of a school that only admits the best kids and takes credit for teaching them. It is completely untrue that KIPP schools, and other charters like them, have strict admissions requirements. They have to take everyone who applies, and if there are more applications than spaces, they have to have a random lottery. Some people say that this means only the most motivated families put their kids in KIPP, because they are the only ones with the gumption to apply. There is little data to back this up, and much data casting doubt on it. My reporting on this very interesting issue over the last eight years suggests to me that KIPP parents are in no way significantly different from non-KIPP parents in their neighborhoods. But we do know these schools don't have strict admissions policies. Please tell whoever told you this that they are wrong.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

For bsallamack: bad charters do dump difficult kids back into the system, at least I have heard enough stories of that to suspect it is true, although I have yet to find data confirming it. Good charters do NOT do this. I have visited about 40 KIPP schools so far. I ask the question and check the data every time. On average they dismiss about one or two kids a year for behavior problems that fail to respond to every approach under the sun, and disrupt classes. Talk to some of the teachers in good charters. They feel it is a major defeat whenever they fail to reach such a child, but they dismiss far fewer kids than regular schools in their neighborhoods, who suspend or expel or send the kid to special schools for persistent behavior issues.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 9, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I think the reason the myth persists is that the KIPP system is not adequately explained. People are just told, "no, no you're wrong," but they're not told precisely what the differences are between KIPP and regular schools and they know there are differences. It could be that kids and parents promise to adhere to certain rules and regs upfront. But the PR push is to present KIPP as being NO different from public schools except for having these great teachers and this great administration.

People know that's not true, so they make up a logical answer.

Perhaps sometime Jay, you could give a straight and complete answer to just how KIPP is different from public schools, instead of marveling at how wrong people are about it.

Posted by: efavorite | November 9, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews:

Your repetitive, laudatory comments about charters, I find, is a tad bit unsettling. You argue that charters do not have strict admissions standards. I worked both with DCPS and with a charter school, one of which was invited to take over management of one of D.C.'s high schools.

I am going to take issue with your contention primarily by expanding the notion of "admissions." Sure, the charters might not be turning down parents even as they are filling out the application for admission forms. At the charter school where I worked, this would have been a preferred approach, considering the other approach I witnessed by administrators there. I actually grew weary very quickly of listening to the threats made against students on a daily basis that went something like this, "If you don't stop doing (such and such), you will have to go back to your neighborhood school, because this is a school of choice." I, quite frankly, thought this approach by administrators of the charter in question was unethical, which makes me wonder how that charter is getting by managing a DCPS school. It's not as if its management can threaten the students there to send them back to their neighborhood school. The students already are there.

Therefore, when you speak of the kind of "admissions" policy charters have, the notion of admissions is far more fluid. For instance, if you admit a student in August, then send that student packing by the end of the first quarter in October, one could argue that the school's admissions standards not only are strict, but also allow for an unfair advantage over the public school which must take -- and keep -- every student that walks through the door. That distinction alone between the two entities renders your persistent comparison of them rather tenuous.

Posted by: vscribe | November 9, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

Bonuses should go to the whole school to be divvied up, not to individual teachers. And if student achievement isn’t growing at a healthy rate, or if teachers are fleeing in disgust, get rid of that Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and hire a better one. It will reduce paperwork, and free more time for teaching kids.

Posted by: mamoore1 | November 9, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

Jay--I disagree with you. I do believe that parents who apply to rigourous, college-prep schools like KIPP are different from other parents. They want their kids to go to college and want them prepared. The longer school days and Saturday enrichment days that KIPP requires take commitment, and true college prep programs require a commitment to work hard and to succeed. I believe such schools are self-selecting. Not every parent wants his/her kid to go to college, and parents who don't invest time and energy in raising their kids may feel the failing neighborhood school is just fine. I have often wondered why my neighbors send their kids to the failing schools in my neighborhood when they can apply out-of-boundary or enroll them in a decent charter. The only answer I've come up with is that the parents don't don't think college is necessary or see the value in it, and college is not the appropriate path for everyone.

Posted by: 1950snoopy | November 9, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Regarding KIPP, please remember that the two KIPP schools in Indiana are scoring below the state average.
(search for KIPP at

As for the title, Forget about rating teachers---rate schools instead,
isn't rating the schools what NCLB is all about?

Posted by: edlharris | November 9, 2009 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the pilot analogy:

Imagine if a former bus driver got to evaluate airline pilots on the grounds that the bus driver has "vehicular experience" and that the plane is a vehicle as well. In addition, there are things in common between good bus drivers and good pilots, such as being sober and not smoking crack while on the job. Think we'd have good pilots flying?

Welcome to the world of teaching. My former boss, an ex English teacher who taught middle school, held my future in her hands, even though she knew nothing of the subject. Sure, if I was smoking crack on the job she could point it out, but do you think she's got the ability to improve physics education? No way.

Another place where the pilot analogy breaks down: pilots actually undergo training that means something. My masters in teaching was one big zero. Imagine learning to fly a plane by IMAGINING what it must be like to fly and then writing plans based on your fantasies. That's what teacher training is like.

And Jay. It isn't SCHOOLS that need to be evaluated, but TEACHING PHILOSOPHIES. Project Follow Through discredited "child-centered" methodologies decades ago, yet my former boss continued to babble about the need for child-centeredness as of last year.

Posted by: physicsteacher | November 9, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

but they dismiss far fewer kids than regular schools in their neighborhoods, who suspend or expel or send the kid to special schools for persistent behavior issues.

I'll call BS on this comment. For a regular school to send a kid to a special school it takes serious mental health issues, often along with violent felony level behavior. Jay, where on earth do you get your information<

Posted by: mamoore1 | November 9, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

And one more on that pilot analogy:
Let me say that I am a veteran teacher of first graders. But, I would never presume to imply I am perfect, or perfectly effective all of the time. I do make mistakes, sometimes little minor ones and sometimes big blunders. But I persist and I continuously seek to improve.

However, even my biggest blunders do not result in the fiery, explosive death of my students, which is exactly what might happen when an airline pilot makes such an error. Thus, I would suggest that holding teachers to the same training and evaluation standards as airline pilots is a bit heavy-handed, even if well intentioned.

Posted by: Incidentally | November 9, 2009 10:44 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I have to disagree with your conclusion: "So what to we do? I agree that 99.8 percent satisfactory evaluation rates are ridiculous. Stop wasting time and money on them. Instead, emulate those schools--mostly public charters--that choose principals carefully and let them evaluate, reward, promote or dismiss teachers any way that works for them."

As a former teacher, I've had the experience of being evaluated by several principals (and VP's). Let me just say that principal evaluations are NOT the most impartial and accurate evaluation tool in the world. In my experience, a typical principal watched one or perhaps two classes each year taught by any given teacher. The principal usually didn't have any experience teaching the subject taught by the teacher (at the middle and high school level). In addition, the evaluation is colored by the personal opinions, biases, and perspectives of the principal in question.

Unlike my experience in a typical office setting, a principal is not involved in the teacher's job on a day-to-day basis. In an office, there is usually a ratio of one manager to 5 or 10 employees. In a larger office, there will be department heads overseeing the daily operations. In a school, there is one principal for perhaps 50-70 teachers (and custodial staff, office staff, teachers aides and parent volunteers). The principal rarely sees the teachers in action, and doesn't know if the lessons are generally well prepared and delivered.

In the current school structure (one principal, many teachers), there just isn't enough time or resources for one principal to get a handle on the effectiveness of any given teacher. In my experience, plums like good schedules and favored class assignments are awarded based on how much the principal LIKES the teacher (do they get along, have similar backgrounds, does the teacher support the principal in public) rather than the teacher's teaching ability.

Please realize that principals have too much on their plate (and too many personal biases and feelings, coupled with too little subject matter knowledge) to be awarded all the power to (as you say) "evaluate, reward, promote or dismiss teachers any way that works for them."

Posted by: AttorneyDC | November 10, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

With regard to the comparison between pilots and teachers can we at least agree that pilots have rather more "skin in the game" then do teachers?

Not to say that teachers don't, one and all, care deeply, passionately and continually about each of the precious urchins entrusted to their care but a lousy teacher's not likely to result in a massive fireball and body parts, including their own, strewn about the countryside.

But even with the possibility of personal extinguishment as a penalty for incompetence pilots regularly do stupid things with airplanes that result in their demise. So commercial pilots take drug tests and have their sobriety checked, get regular evalutions of their expertise and their solemn assurance that they're wonderful practioners of the airplane pilots art just isn't good enough. It's important so it gets checked.

Teachers, by contrast, have a teaching certificate. Maybe.

Done. Finished. End of story.

For all practical purposes about the only examination a teacher has to pass is the one in which a nurse presses her fore- and index-fingers against your wrist.

Somehow, that just doesn't seem like enough to me.

Posted by: allenm1 | November 10, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

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