Monday, July 14, 2014

Assessing Teacher Performance: Certification, Merit Pay, and Tenure

Teachers believe they are under attack by a collection of would-be “reformers” who claim that our schools are failing their students and the teachers are to blame.  It is assumed that if we would only fire the bad teachers and replace them with good ones all our problems would go away.  The absurdity of such a simplistic argument does not prevent it from winning in the court of public opinion.  Many people have been convinced that teachers and their unions are protecting unworthy teachers.  The teachers have probably hurt themselves by resisting so strenuously the attempts to impose a mechanism for assessing their performance.

Diane Ravitch addresses this issue at length in her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools.  She claims over and over again that the “reformers” wish to judge teachers’ competence solely by the performance of their students on standardized tests.  Ravitch is correct in arguing against such a procedure.  Tests of students test student performance directly.  Teacher performance is a much more complicated issue that cannot be deduced from a simple comparison of year-to-year results.

One has to wonder if the teachers wouldn’t be in a much better position today if they had accepted the threat of externally imposed assessment as a challenge and devised a credible mechanism for assessment of their own in response.  Consider what Ravitch describes as the process teachers go through in order to obtain tenure.

“After a teacher has been on the job for three or four years, depending on state law, the principal decides whether he or she qualifies for tenure.  By that time, the principal and her assistants or department chairs are supposed to have observed the teacher repeatedly, seen the conduct of the classroom, reviewed the kinds of assignments the teacher’s classes were turning in.  By that time, the teacher should have gotten support and help to improve at the job.  Only after observation and positive evaluation by supervisors—and sometimes peers—do teachers receive tenure.  When the principal awards tenure, he or she has determined that the teacher is well qualified to teach and deserves the protection of due process.”

This is a reasonable approach to assessing the capabilities of a teacher.  Now consider a description of teacher evaluation provided by one of the reformers that who receives so much criticism from Ravitch: Bill Gates.

“A new system requires more than just taking the test scores of the students and seeing how they improve after a year with a teacher.  It involves things like feedback from students, parents and peer teachers and an investment of time in reviewing actual teaching.  Tools like video can be used so that a teacher can send peers a video showing him trying to do something hard, like keeping a class focused, and ask for advice.  Instead of people coming into the classroom, which is quite invasive, a webcam can be used to gather samples for evaluation.”

Is the process Gates describes much different than that which Ravitch described?  Gates makes the reasonable suggestion that feedback from students and parents be a formal part of the evaluation, but of most significance is that Gates describes a continual process while Ravitch describes a once-in-a-career evaluation.  Gates’ approach can be used to compare one teacher with another and can serve as the basis for paying one teacher more than another—merit pay.  Ravitch claims that merit pay does not provide a proper incentive to teachers and cannot be done fairly.  Why would this be true?

Ravitch provides this background:

“Merit pay is not an innovative idea.  It has been tried in school districts across the nation for the past century.  Richard J. Murnane and David K. Cohen surveyed the history of merit pay in the mid 1980s and concluded that it ‘does not provide a solution to the problem of how to motivate teachers’.”

Ravitch claims that two approaches were tried and both failed.

“One offered bonuses to teachers if their students got higher test scores.  The other offered bonuses to teachers who got superior evaluations from their principals.”

It is not surprising that such simple approaches would fail, but that is not the approach being suggested by sincere people like Bill Gates.  Ravitch wishes to associate the practice of merit pay with businesses who wish to hire and fire without any impediments.  She implies that such a practice is inconsistent with an organization of professionals such as a school staff.  Indiscriminate hiring and firing is inappropriate, but merit pay is the norm for professionals, not the exception.  Why would teachers be an exception?

Ravitch makes this claim about teachers:

“They don’t like merit pay, because they know it will destroy the collaboration that is necessary for a healthy school climate.”

So, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, accountants, etc. can collaborate, but teachers can’t?

Ravitch provides this insight into the teaching profession.

“About 40 percent of those who enter teaching leave the profession within the first five years.  In some urban districts, where class sizes are larger and teaching conditions are more difficult than in suburban schools, the attrition rate is even higher.  Some leave because they are asked to leave.  Some leave for easier jobs in the suburbs; some quit because the job was too hard for them, they didn’t like their assignments, or they didn’t get the resources and help they needed.”

This certainly provides the image of teaching as being a difficult profession.  There is no argument there.  However, it also suggests schools that graduate students with an education degree and declare them ready to teach are doing a miserable job.  Ravitch’s data indicates that people are showing up at schools with little training and little knowledge about what it means to be a teacher.

Doesn’t this high attrition rate suggest that formal evaluation—and assistance—should begin immediately and that new teachers be regularly reevaluated?  The high early attrition rate also suggests that it is likely that some of those not destined to be successful teachers could make it past the tenure evaluation.  Wouldn’t it be valuable to have a mechanism whereby unsuccessful teachers can be identified at any point of service?

Ravitch admits there are problems with tenure for teachers.

“Traditionally teachers are laid off based on seniority: the teacher with the least seniority gets the first pink slip.  There should be a better way to do it, but it is not obvious what the better way is.”

She also admits that it is useful to continue to reevaluate tenured teachers.

“Even tenured teachers should be regularly evaluated by their supervisors.  The principal and the assistant principal should regularly observe teachers, not to judge them, but to provide them with useful feedback about how to improve their lessons.”

But not to judge them?  How can an evaluation not involve judgment?  How can such a process not arrive at the conclusion that some teachers are more effective than others?  And why shouldn’t these evaluations be recorded and be available when staff reduction becomes an issue? Is it because they are subjective?  All professionals receive subjective evaluations.  It goes with the territory.

Consider an engineering firm that assigns its staff to work for a variety of customers as analysts, designers, researchers, and consultants.  The engineers will have a wide variety of skills and experiences.  Some will be assigned easy tasks, some difficult tasks, and some impossible tasks.  Some will perform well on simple tasks, and some fail on difficult tasks.  The problem is to rank performance of all the engineers when a failure on a difficult project could be deemed higher performance than success on a simple project.  It can be done.  It is done all the time.  It is not easy, but it is important that it be done, both for salary determination and for drawing conclusions about future assignments.

Schools and teachers are in an analogous situation.  All classes provide unique sets of challenges to teachers.  Some subjects are more difficult to teach than others.  Some classes have students who are difficult to teach, others are an assembly of eager learners; this becomes a factor in assessing the teacher’s performance.  Feedback from test scores is equivalent to feedback from a customer—it should be noted and considered, but not depended upon entirely.  These are subjective evaluations; they can and should be performed.  Merit pay works when the differences are not too extreme and when the process is transparent.  Teachers must know what the ground rules are, and those ranking teachers must be able and willing to explain and defend all such decisions on the basis of those ground rules.

All of this suggests that teachers, and the teaching profession, would be better off if they had embraced regular assessment of performance rather than fighting against it.  Such a tactic would have provided them the opportunity to produce a viable approach rather than having a nonviable one imposed upon them.

Most professions demand a demonstration of competency from those who would enter the profession.  Teaching in the US apparently does not.  On the assumption that education schools cannot easily be upgraded, teachers could improve their standing as professionals by applying strict standards to beginning teachers: helping those who need and want help and eliminating those who do not belong in the profession.  The ground rules for performance assessment would make clear to new teachers what is expected of them and provide a mechanism for grading their performance as they acquire experience.

Performance evaluation should take place at regular intervals; preferably every year or every other year.  There are valid reasons for maintaining tenure, but it can become time consuming and effort intensive to terminate a tenured teacher for cause.  If performed with due diligence, these regular evaluations will have created a record of poor performance that can be helpful in justifying any termination.  Teachers must create the impression that they are capable of managing their profession.

The mechanism used for assessing teacher performance is also available for use in salary or bonus decisions and provides a basis for defending any decisions.  If staff reductions must be made, the assessments provide a better approach to deciding who should leave than last-in-first-out.

Teachers wish, and deserve, to be treated as professionals.  They can help their cause by assuming more of the trappings of professionalism.

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