Teacher evaluation: It’s a race, but to where?

New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip visited Tennessee recently to check on that state’s implementation of performance-based evaluations of teachers. What he found wasn’t pretty.

Principals bogged down by non-stop evaluations, paperwork and micro-managing by the state. Teachers judged on student test results in subjects they don’t teach. Lousy morale all around.

“I’ve never seen such nonsense,” Will Shelton, principal of Blackman Middle School in Murfreesboro, told Winerip. “In the five years I’ve been principal here, I’ve never known so little about what’s going on in my own building.”

After winning a half billion dollars in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition last year, Tennessee rushed to implement a system that bases 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations on student test scores. It’s apparently easier said than done.

“Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers — kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers — the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules,” Winerip writes. “Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.”

After recounting several examples that sound flat-out absurd, he adds, “This would all be hilarious, except these evaluations can cost people their jobs.”

Probably Winerip could have found some principals – and maybe even some teachers – who like what Tennessee is doing. A New York Times editorial, also last week, insisted that Tennessee officials “must resist any backsliding” on teacher evaluation. And business leaders have come out strongly against tweaking the law to make it more workable, according to the Nashville Tennessean.

Tennessee may be leading the race to test-based teacher evaluation, but many other states are following close behind – including Indiana with its implementation of Senate Enrolled Act 1. So it makes sense to follow what’s going on in Tennessee, good or bad.

The Indiana State Department of Education’s teacher evaluation model, called RISE, says 35 percent of some teachers’ evaluations will be based on improvement in their students’ scores on standardized tests. Teachers in subject areas that aren’t covered by state tests will have 20 percent of their evaluation based on meeting “student learning outcomes” and 5 percent based on school-wide success.

Six Indiana school districts are piloting RISE and other teacher evaluation models this school year. Other districts will have to start implementing new teacher-evaluation schemes in 2012-13.

RISE may sound reasonable, except that 1) Research casts doubt on whether tests scores can be reliably used to make high-stakes decisions about teachers (The august National Research Council says don’t do it); and 2) it seems questionable that Indiana school principals, or their designees, will have the time and resources necessary to carry out the extensive teacher evaluations called for by the system.

And as teacher-evaluation guru Charlotte Danielson warned at a school-reform conference this week in Indianapolis, teachers who are penalized as the result of unfair evaluations are likely to sue. “And they’ll probably win,” she said, according to the Indianapolis Star.

‘Edujobs’ or Race to the Top?

Congress is debating legislation that would provide $10 billion to the states to avoid layoffs for an estimated 140,000 teachers next year. The measure is worth $207 million to Indiana, according to the Education Commission of the States.

But media coverage has focused almost entirely on the standoff between the Obama Administration and House Democrats over where money should come from to pay for the “Edujobs” bill.

The administration threatened a veto because, to help pay for the jobs measure, the House voted to cut spending for some of the administration’s signature education initiatives, including $500 million from the Race to the Top program and lesser amounts from federal Teacher Incentive Fund and Charter Schools programs.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been lobbying for the $10 billion teacher-jobs package, but not at the expense of Race to the Top. But House Democrats, especially Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, say cuts have to be made Continue reading