By Bruce Torff
Are new teacher evaluation policies backfiring? Educational reformers have hurried to implement policies that pave the way for underperforming teachers to lose their jobs, even when tenured. However, in at least some states, these policies do quite the opposite.
Teacher evaluations inevitably establish some sort of numerical scheme for rating teacher performance. In New York, for example, teachers are evaluated with supervisor observations (60%), state tests (20%), and district-chosen assessments (20%). Teachers are ranked on four levels, two of which could lead to dismissal.
So far, so good. But look closely: Dismissing a teacher involves an appeal process and a “teacher improvement plan” that are, by all accounts, byzantine, laborious, expensive, and fraught with legal entanglements. Already overloaded and cash-strapped administrators are loathe to initiate a dismissal except in the most egregious cases (read: nodding off mid-lesson, teaching armpit flatulence).
And the data are not always trustworthy. For instance, about 60% of teachers have no state test scores; they teach in untested grades such as kindergarten or untested subjects such as art. These teachers are asked to design and implement “student learning objectives” — research projects that attempt to assess student learning. But teachers and administrators are seldom trained in measurement and statistics, and the results are not always pretty. The assessment numbers are not good enough for job-jeopardizing teacher evaluations.
It gets worse. With the state’s blessing, many teachers in untested subjects and grades are evaluated using the English language arts scores of teachers in their buildings, even though they teach some other subject. You read that right: Music teachers are on the hook for test scores in English. Seems worthy of “Saturday Night Live” or The Onion. Administrators, already among the most lawsuit-averse people on Earth, know they’d be handed their hats if a fired teacher sued. I’d like to see the look on the judge’s face when he/she finds out that a teacher was fired in part because of the scores of teachers of a different subject.
Add it up: The assessment numbers are suspect and legally questionable, and firing a teacher is colossally time-consuming and costly — when administrators are already beleaguered and the budget is tight. The incentive is to hunker down with existing staff, not fire people.
The teacher evaluation system in New York, and likely elsewhere, does not enhance teacher quality by making it easier to dismiss underperforming teachers.
This failure comes at an enormous cost. Too many teachers are traumatized, demoralized, and worse, under the gun as never before. And pity the poor administrators, whose workload has been effectively doubled with time-wasting evaluation tasks, many of which rubber-stamp teachers known for years to be above reproach.
All this for a teacher evaluation system that actually makes it harder to dismiss underperforming teachers. Maybe the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.