The debate on tying test scores to evaluations: teachers vs. policy analysts

The New York Times did a “room for debate” feature this week on the growing practice of using student test scores to evaluate teachers. And it included a couple of teachers among the eight people selected to debate the issue – something that seems to almost never happen when education policy is discussed.

Not surprisingly, the teachers weren’t exactly crazy about the idea.

“This testing-students-to-grade-teachers initiative is not coming out of what people who actually work with children in schools know,” writes New York City teacher Francesa Burns. “It is not even research-based … Instead, the plans are based on politics and sound bites, corporate sleight of hand … and high talk. In short: nothing.”

Molly Putnam, a high-school teacher in Brooklyn, says the money going to develop more tests should instead “be spent on methods that have been proven to improve teacher quality and retention rates — like intensive student teaching and training in lesson planning, instruction and classroom management. A culture change would also mean having principals and senior teachers become even more engaged in mentoring and guiding younger teachers.”

A couple of policy analysts, Kevin Carey of Education Sector and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute, argue that it only makes sense to use test scores to gauge how well teachers do their job. Carey approvingly cites a recent National Education Association policy statement that allows for using “valid, reliable, high quality standardized tests” to help evaluate teachers.

But another analyst, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says using centralized, bureaucratic tests to evaluate teachers is like “attacking a fly with a sledgehammer.” His alternative: Give principals the power to fire bad teachers and increase pay for good teachers. “If we can’t trust school leaders to identify their best and worst teachers, then the whole project of school reform is sunk,” he says.

Indiana will use test results as a “significant” part of teacher evaluations beginning with the 2012-13 school year. But the state has a long way to go to figure out how this will work. To that end, the Department of Education chose six school districts – Bloomfield, Greensburg, Fort Wayne, Beech Grove, Bremen and Warren Township (Indianapolis) – to test out the new evaluation systems in 2011-12.

“Things are changing in Indiana in education,” Bloomfield superintendent Dan Sichting tells Bethany Nolan of the Bloomington Herald-Times. “Some people would argue it’s changing for the better, others not for the better. But if we sit back and don’t participate, we’re not going to have any kind of input in what the final product will be.”

Note to journalists: It could make an interesting project to follow one of those districts over the next year and track the results, good or bad, of changing how teachers are evaluated.

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