Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Testing Students to Grade Teachers

The NYT organized a debate among eight people to answer the questions, "What have we learned about tests as accountability tools for teacher performance? Why do school systems believe that tests are the answer to reforming education?"  Linda Darling-Hammond (and others) repeat their usual anti-testing mantra:

There is a saying that U.S. students are the most tested, and the least examined, of any in the world. American policymakers are quick to turn to testing to cure whatever problems they think exist in schools. Because teachers' judgment is mistrusted, we test students in the United States more than any other nation, in the mistaken belief that testing produces greater learning.

…At the end of the day, stronger learning will result from better teaching, not more testing, as leading nations have long understood.

Marcus Winters with spot-on points:

What percentage of New York City's teachers are performing at an unsatisfactory level? Did anyone guess 2.3 percent? That's how many were rated unsatisfactory by the school system in 2009-201 0— and it actually represents an enormous uptick (up from 0.89 percent) in "unsatisfactory" ratings because of the city's emphasis on improving the system.

How do we square such low rates of teacher failure with the fact that, despite real improvements to the system, students in New York City's public schools perform poorly in large numbers? Simple. The current evaluation system depends very little on answering the one question we care about most: Are students learning in a teacher's classroom? Incorporating analysis of student test scores helps focus evaluations on answering that essential question.

…Standardized tests are imperfect measures of student achievement, and the statistical analyses that utilize such tests are imperfect tools for evaluating teachers. But despite their limitations, standardized tests provide important information about teacher quality that we should use to improve our terribly flawed system for evaluating teachers. New York City's movement toward increased use of test scores to evaluate teachers is a step in the right direction.

I like Mike Petrilli's idea the best – empower and trust principals (but also hold them accountable):

There's already a ton of testing in our schools. Isn't there another alternative?

There is an option that neither reformers nor the unions want to consider: trust the principal. In most of American life, individuals are evaluated by their managers, who have a lot of discretion over their employment, their salaries, and any bonuses they might receive. In the best organizations, those managers collect plenty of data before making their decisions — peer reviews, outcome data, etc.— but none of this is meant to substitute for human judgment. It's not a perfect system, and without safeguards it can be open to abuse, but if you believe in matching authority with accountability, it's the least worst alternative.

If you trust the principal, then there's no need for new citywide tests. Good administrators that want to evaluate their social studies teachers, for example, might spend more time in their classrooms. They might look at the quality of student work, or get feedback from peers and parents. Maybe they'd want an objective assessment of student growth in the subject over the course of the year; give them the option. But don't make it mandatory.

And if administrators actually have the authority to link their evaluation decisions to something meaningful — firing bad teachers, bumping the salaries of their superstars — they will have reason to take the evaluation process more seriously.

Reformers who are pushing for statewide or even district-wide evaluation systems are saying out loud: we can't trust principals to make these decisions on their own. And they are creating pressure for districts like New York's to spend countless hours and dollars trying to gather data. If we can't trust school leaders 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.

If you think about it, this is sort of obvious.  Let's run our schools like EVERY other successful organization on the planet, in which the leader has ultimate control over the staff in the organization (with some, limited restrictions regarding racial discrimination, etc.), but is also held accountable for results.  This is what KIPP and other high performing schools all do. 


Or, to use another analogy, can you imagine if the soldiers in Seal Team 6 decided they didn't like the plan of attack on Osama's compound so refused orders and filed a grievance against their commanding officer?!?!  Or imagine (as I've written in the past: if we trained, evaluated, promoted and fired our fighter pilots the way we do teachers.  I think there are a lot of lessons from the U.S. military for our schools – both are enormously large, sprawling bureaucracies, but one is, by far, the best in the world, while the other is, at best, middle of the pack.  And the U.S. military wasn't always this way – after Vietnam, it was a broken, demoralized institution, just like our schools today.  How did it turn itself around?  What are the lessons we can apply to our schools?  If someone reading this wants to research this and write up something on it, I'll fund it!


Testing Students to Grade Teachers

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