The Teacher Evaluation Maelstrom

The power brokers? Bill and Melinda. Who knew that when we were buying Microsoft Office (for the Mac of course) every three to five years we were ceding mad educational influence to the Lake Washington power couple. Given their Foundation’s less than impressive record on education reform, their reasonable, respectful, and constructive thoughts on how to improve teacher evaluation surprised me.

This article, “Nearly Half of All States Link Teacher Evaluations to Tests” provides a national snapshot. A few excerpts:

At least 23 states and the District of Columbia now evaluate public-school teachers in part by student standardized tests, while 14 allow districts to use this data to dismiss ineffective teachers, according to the report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group.

Last year, President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative awarded grants to states that adopted policy changes such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. This year, Republican governors in Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and Michigan ushered in overhauls to teacher rating, compensation, bargaining rights and tenure.

Critics, including some teachers unions, say many of the changes are aimed at firing teachers and usurping union power. They say the new evaluations use flawed standardized tests that measure a narrow window of student learning.

In Florida, tenure was eliminated. In Colorado, teachers now must get three positive ratings to earn tenure and can lose it after two bad ones. Several states, including Indiana and Michigan, did away with “last in, first out” union rules that resulted in districts laying off effective new teachers instead of ineffective tenured ones. Indiana and Tennessee passed merit-pay laws that base teacher pay primarily on classroom performance.

California illustrates how important elections are. The new governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction have chosen not to “Race to the Top”, as a result teacher evaluation looks quite different there.

Interesting that no one cared about teacher evaluation policy until a few years ago when we pulled up in the global economic race with a hamstring tear. Nevermind that corporate boards were failing to meet their fiduciary responsibilities; we were fighting two wars; and our government was bailing out major banks and car companies left and right, and looking the other way while investment bankers bought and sold home mortgages that people never should have taken out. Make no mistake about it, the only reason politicians and business leaders care about teacher evaluation is mounting economic anxiety. That utilitarianism breds cynicism among teachers who resent being scapegoated for our country’s economic ills.

Obama, Arne, and a bunch of Republican and Democratic governors believe that improved teacher accountability will solve nearly all of our economic problems. Bad teachers will vanish. Students will learn the four holy subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math. The ice caps will stop melting and we’ll start kicking ass again in the global economy.

At this stage I’m giving the Gates a “B-” for their teaching eval work because, like everyone else, they’re slighting the more important half of the teaching improvement equation—how to attract more socially conscious, culturally diverse, hardworking academic all-stars to one of the more challenging and rewarding forms of community service there is.

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