Reasons for caution on performance-based evaluation of teachers

If only we could give assigned reading to state legislators. At the very least, Indiana lawmakers should read these brief articles as they consider Senate Bill 1, which mandates performance-based pay for educators and makes it easier to fire teachers who get bad evaluations.

Start with this column by Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker. He explains the drawbacks of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test-score improvements, and why “getting a good rating is a statistical crap shoot” with value-added formulas for measuring teacher effectiveness.

“We may be able to estimate a statistical model that suggests that teacher effects vary widely across the education system – that teachers matter,” Baker writes. “But we would be hard-pressed to use that model to identify with any degree of certainty which individual teachers are good teachers and which are bad.”

Michael Winerip, in his “On Education” series in the New York Times, shows what happens when the dice come up snake-eyes. He writes about Stacey Isaacson, by all accounts a dedicated, hard-working English and social-studies teacher at a selective public middle school in Manhattan. Almost all her students scored proficient on state tests; her supervisors and students say she’s a wonderful teacher.

But according to the complex formula used by the New York Department of Education to measure student learning gains, Isaacson is one of the city’s worst teachers. That alone means she likely won’t get tenure in her third year of teaching.

“I love teaching,” she tells the Times. “I love my principal, I feel so lucky to work for her. But the people at the Department of Education — you feel demoralized.”

Finally, Esther Quintero writes on the blog of the Albert Shanker Institute that tenure and seniority-based salaries have been effective in protecting teachers from subjective evaluations, including discrimination by supervisors who unconsciously see women and minorities as less competent.

She concedes that tenure and pay schedules may have become overly rigid. But she argues that “we should only move toward ‘performance-based’ evaluations with caution and a clear understanding of the complexity and subjectivity built in our assessments of others.”

Indiana’s Senate Bill 1 is a centerpiece of the education agenda of Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett. It has well-funded supporters. With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate, it seems very likely that some version of the bill will become law.

Let’s just hope lawmakers give honest consideration to all the pros and cons.

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