Indiana’s teacher evaluation law: some promise, lots of peril

A policy brief released last week by the Center on Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University spells out a number of reasons to be concerned about Indiana’s new teacher-evaluation law.

The law, Senate Enrolled Act 1, requires annual teacher evaluations that rely significantly on student test results. All teachers will be put in one of four categories: highly effective, effective, improvement needed and ineffective. Compensation and tenure will be tied to the evaluations, and teachers in the two lower categories won’t get raises and may be at risk of losing their jobs.

The law requires schools to start implementing the new evaluation and merit-pay system in 2012-13. But as the authors of the CEEP report, Rodney Whiteman, Dingjing Shi and Jonathan Plucker, point out, this won’t be easy, and there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Here are a few of the issues that they highlight:

— Tying teacher evaluations to student performance may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, there’s not much evidence that you can accurately attribute student test scores, or even improvement in test scores, to the effect of a single teacher. Standardized tests are designed to measure whether students meet grade-level standards, not how much they improve from year to year. And can schools develop tests that measure teacher effectiveness in subjects like art, music and physical education?

Research has shown that students learn best when teachers collaborate and share expertise. But most schools will have a limited amount of money available for raises, and it must all go to teachers rated effective and highly effective. “This creates an indirect competition for compensation and an incentive to out-perform colleagues,” the brief says. “Teachers may begin viewing their materials and techniques as proprietary intellectual property and elect to not share that property with their competitors.”

— Finally – and this may be the biggest issue – where will schools will find the time, resources and expertise to design and implement annual evaluations that are fair and meaningful? SEA 1 is an “unfunded mandate,” the authors say. At a time when most Indiana school districts are pinched for money, they may have pull some of their best teachers out of the classroom to develop and carry out evaluations; either that or hire outside experts, at considerable cost.

The brief concludes, “If done correctly, with sufficient time, finances, and people, changing teacher evaluation can be a powerful reform in public education.”

That’s a mighty big if.

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Putting a good face on NAEP results

It was refreshing to see Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett taking a glass-is-half-full approach to reporting Indiana’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A state Department of Education news release pointed out that Indiana students continued to score above the national average on NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card. “Our educators, students and parents should be encouraged by these results,” Bennett said.

Of course this year’s results are little different from the previous NAEP scores for 2009. And Gov. Mitch Daniels, in his 2011 State of the State address, used those scores to argue that Indiana schools were failing and in need of drastic reform. Daniels claimed that “only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam” and that Hoosier students “trail far behind most states and even more foreign countries on measures like excellence in math …”

About one-third of Indiana students score “proficient” on NAEP, but that doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t pass. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, a former member of the NAEP board, proficient is equivalent to an A or a strong B+ on the exam.

NAEP tests a representative sample of fourth-graders and eighth-graders in math and reading. Indiana fourth-graders did pretty well in math: Their average score was 4 points higher than the national average, they significantly trailed students in only six states, and fully 87 percent scored at the “basic” or higher level – essentially a passing score.

In the other areas, fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math and reading, Indiana was right in the middle –- we trail many, but not most, of the other states.

There are some reasons for seeing the glass as half empty, however. Average scores for black and Hispanic students continued to be significantly lower than those for non-Hispanic whites. Only 44 percent of black fourth-graders, for example, scored at basic or higher in reading, compared to 74 percent of white fourth-graders. Most discouraging, the test-score gaps between whites and minorities, and between middle-class and poor, have changed little since the 1990s.