The Train Has Left the Station: More on Teacher Pay-4-Performance

Close-up of fruit salad

Image via Wikipedia

Knowledge, someone said, is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not making a fruit salad out of it.

And that difference between knowledge and wisdom is how I feel about those state- and district-approved schemes that lean heavily upon “value-added” measures for a substantial portion of the judgment that a teacher is highly effective, marginally effective, or ineffective. Sure, I know that eager policymakers push value-added measures, flawed as they are, to evaluate and pay teachers; but it is unwise, even foolish, to make it the central measurement.  Tomatoes in a fruit salad? Better in a pasta sauce.

I say that even though that policy train filled with tomatoes has left the station. But down the track, the train might slow to a crawl as the engineers decide what to do with all that fruit, continue on the journey, or even return to the station. I offer three pieces of data that feel like a few tomatoes blown off the train.

Listen to a blogger for “Flypaper” who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a top official of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Rather than devising new tests students take that will measure teacher effectiveness–the route that New York City is taking–he asks: why not trust principals to judge teachers? “If we can’t trust school leaders,” Mike Petrilli says, “to identify their best and worst teachers then the whole project of school reform is sunk. Not all the additional tests or teacher evaluations in the world can change that.”

The issue, of course, is not whether principals will evaluate teachers under any new evaluation process because their observations and their judgment do matter. The issue is how much weight among other factors should be given to principals’ informed opinions. As a gadfly, Petrilli advocates 100 percent, particularly  if principals have the authority “to link their evaluation decisions to … firing bad teachers, bumping salaries of their superstars–they will have reason to take the evaluation process more seriously.” Many of the comments to the post came from teachers who expressed outrage at principals having full sway over teachers’ future pay and status because of their biases, subjectivity, and–at the high school level–insufficient subject matter expertise. So “trust the principal” goes a mile too far but does underscore the importance of administrator observations. Just how much weight should be given to principals’ judgments?

That is guesswork since factors in the equation for evaluating and paying teachers get added and subtracted weekly. Public Agenda just published a poll of young teachers (“Generation Y”) that surprised me. I had expected that young teachers who resent being given pink slips on the basis of seniority–last in, first out–would welcome the use of “value added measures” to determine effectiveness.  According to this poll, I was wrong. Only 10 percent of the teachers said students’ test scores were “very effective” in judging their performance.

Then, I saw that a New York City organization of young teachers called “Educators for Excellence,” established in 2010 to lobby against seniority-based layoffs, had published its “ideal” evaluation system. Again, I had expected the plan to be heavily dependent upon student test scores because the state in its desperate search for federal dollars through Race to the Top funds had already stated that 20 percent of an evaluation would be based on test scores (subsequently changed by the Board of Regents to 40 percent). I was wrong again. Of the six factors in the proposed system, “value added measures” would be 25 percent of the score. But here is what surprised me. Administrator observations would be 30 percent–exceeding test scores and the highest percentage among factors in the “ideal” plan.

Finally, there is the evidence that teachers and their unions can work together with school administrators to hammer out agreements to evaluate teachers fairly even reaching decisions to terminate their peers. So many examples ranging from Toledo (OH) to Denver (CO) to Montgomery County (MD) demonstrate the simple fact that where trust has developed between teachers and district managers, fairness and decisiveness can govern evaluation and salary decisions.

That policy train that left the station carried tomatoes; the engineers driving that train need to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom; they must decide whether  to put them into fruit salads or make a rich pasta sauce. Perhaps, they will make the right decision.

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

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