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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Heated Debate Over Grading Teacher Performance

A large group of public school teachers marches past John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday in West Chicago. (AP)

Chicago teachers are still on the picket line, leaving 350,000 students out of class this week.

Negotiators hope to have students back in school by Monday, but to get there, they’ll have to resolve one of the  key sticking points: teacher evaluations. Chicago educators object to using student test scores to rate teachers, even though teachers in other cities have recently agreed to that sort of deal.

Teachers in Los Angeles and Boston have just signed new contracts tying their evaluations to student performance.

But Erin Searles, a striking teacher at Lloyd Elementary School on the west side of  Chicago, said standardized tests need to be improved, which may be one reason teachers are resistant to include them in their performance evaluations. However, Searles does think that teachers need to be held more accountable.

“Anyone could stand up in front of a class and teach a lesson and implement it, but what matters is if those kids are walking out learning something new,” she said.

Race To The Top

The push to judge teachers in part by their student’s work, stems from the reform efforts of the Obama administration, which has used its $4 billion Race to the Top competition and waivers to the federal No Child Left Behind law to encourage states to change how teachers are assessed.

Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality said Race to the Top money only went to a dozen states, but more than 33 states have changed their teacher evaluation systems.

“Research is so strong and clear about just how much teachers matter. And because we know that, we are putting much more emphasis on whether teachers are effective,” Jacobs told Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer.

While there’s widespread agreement that the teacher evaluation system needs to change, figuring out what comes next isn’t as clear cut.

Delaware Takes The Lead

Jacobs says that Delaware is ahead of the game, because it already had a statewide evaluation system in place. But there were some hiccups.

For example, in the first year of a new teacher evaluation system, music, art and technology teachers were being graded based on how well students performed on standardized English and math tests.

The state revamped the system by bringing together teachers and administrators to come up with new standards, and that’s serving as a model for the rest of the country.

Jacobs says most states are now using a combination of student test scores and more rigorous classroom observations to rate teachers. Some things to consider include:

  • Does the teacher have good questioning techniques?
  • Is the teacher able to keep all students focused?
  • Does the teacher know how to help the kids who don’t grasp the material so quickly, while also helping the kids who do get it?

Jacobs said the days of giving teachers a passing grade based on how nice their classroom looks are long gone.

But she notes that the debate over teacher performance can be volatile and occasionally nasty, which can be frustrating to the majority of teachers who are doing a good job.

“We’ve been too tolerant for too long of the small percentage of teachers who consistently don’t get the job done. And we haven’t been helpful enough to help our teachers grow and develop and improve,” Jacobs said.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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