Are Your Children’s Teachers Effective?

23 Jan

Across America, states are developing elaborate systems to evaluate the performance of teachers. These systems are important— knowing how well teachers do their jobs is a critical step to improving educational outcomes; but, judging the quality of teachers’ performance is difficult —and using the results of teacher evaluation systems effectively may be even tougher.

The development of these systems is spurred by federal funds under Race to the Top. To ensure states prioritize the need to assess teachers, leading advocate StudentsFirst is rating them for their compliance in implementing such systems, among other things. But what do these ratings tell us about the quality of teaching and education in these states? Not much at all.

It is essential to know whether the teachers standing in front of our classrooms are good at their jobs. Every child must have a quality teacher in order to learn and parents shouldn’t be forced to advocate for their child to ensure he is taught by the teacher(s) perceived as the best in that grade or subject. In case anyone’s still on the fence, we need all teachers in our schools to be of the highest quality — to be “best in class”.

Performance evaluation systems are necessary but insufficient. While they provide us with indispensable information about teachers’ effectiveness and identify new skills teachers’ need to respond new teaching challenges arising from poverty and new technologies, the system is missing the mechanism it will use to respond to the deficiencies it identifies. People don’t develop simply from receiving feedback, however meaningful or timely it is received. People grow and develop when they are provided with opportunities to build new skills and acquire new knowledge.

State education and district budgets are shrinking in the face of our commitment to improve the quality of our teaching force. Shrinking budgets notwithstanding, we must realize that spending on new performance systems to tell us how well our teachers are doing without the commensurate spending to help them be their best is short sighted.

Teachers comprise the largest segment of the workforce in our school systems and research finds they contribute 33 percent to learning. Many believe teachers are the single biggest lever to closing the gaps in achievement. If we buy this, it means we need many more great teachers and fast. Nationally, research finds that 31% of teachers change practice as a result of new knowledge and skills, but the changes aren’t sustained. So, in addition to the need to invest in developing new skills in our teachers, we need new approaches for helping them acquire and sustain the knowledge and skills they need to drive us to success.

Upgrading the quality of performance evaluation systems for teachers is a good first step. But absent a more robust approach, we’re left with more questions than answers. Once we learn which teachers are great, what are we doing to ensure they become even greater? What structures and processes do we have in place to leverage their know-how back into the people in our schools and districts? How are we using what we learn from these “best in class” teachers to inform whom we attract and recruit into our schools? For those who aren’t performing to par, what is our commitment to enhance their skills, beyond offering insightful feedback? Lastly, what are doing to retain this top talent?

Mandated policy solutions such as performance evaluation systems aren’t likely to be effective at producing higher quality teachers as discreet, stand alone pieces. Without a commitment to developing people, they become little more than a way to weed people out. These systems can be a key part of a larger system designed to attract, develop and retain quality people in our nations schools that drives us toward a simple truth – it’s the people in an organization that make it successful. Mandating only one of these interrelated pieces does not contribute to a high performing district.

To move from higher teacher quality to higher school performance we need to address the overlooked driver of more effective leadership of our school districts so that well-conceived policy solutions have a better chance of producing the higher performance we’re looking for. But that’s a blog for another day.

In the meantime, since we’re offering feedback, let’s add to the algorithm the percentage of states’ budgets allocated to invest in developing the very people on whom we’re relying to drive us to higher performance for our kids. If we going to keep score, let’s at least include all the things that matter.

Etienne R. LeGrand is president and co-founder of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

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