Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Deborah Kenny, Others on Rating Teachers

My friend Deborah Kenny, founder of the Harlem Village Academies network of charter schools, wrote a provocative op ed in the NYT a week ago entitled, Want to Ruin Teaching? Give Ratings. She writes:

There has been much discussion of the question of how to evaluate teachers; it was one of the biggest sticking points in the recent teachers’ strike in Chicago. For more than a decade I’ve been a strong proponent of teacher accountability. I’ve advocated for ending tenure and other rules that get in the way of holding educators responsible for the achievement of their students. Indeed, the teachers in my schools — Harlem Village Academies — all work with employment-at-will contracts because we believe accountability is an underlying prerequisite to running an effective school. The problem is that, unlike charters, most schools are prohibited by law from holding teachers accountable at all.

But the solution being considered by many states — having the government evaluate individual teachers — is a terrible idea that undermines principals and is demeaning to teachers. If our schools had been required to use a state-run teacher evaluation system, the teacher we let go would have been rated at the top of the scale.

Education and political leaders across the country are currently trying to decide how to evaluate teachers. Some states are pushing for legislation to sort teachers into categories using unreliable mathematical calculations based on student test scores. Others have hired external evaluators who pop into classrooms with checklists to monitor and rate teachers. In all these scenarios, principals have only partial authority, with their judgments factored into a formula.

This type of system shows a profound lack of understanding of leadership. Principals need to create a culture of trust, teamwork and candid feedback that is essential to running an excellent school. Leadership is about hiring great people and empowering them, and requires a delicate balance of evaluation and encouragement.

Before I comment, I want to share these three letters to the editor:

1) To the Editor:

Re “Want to Ruin Teaching? Give Ratings” (Op-Ed, Oct. 15):

I couldn’t agree more with Deborah Kenny that evaluating teachers with high-stakes tests is a dreadful idea. However, her use of hearsay and anecdote to fire the teacher whose students “performed exceptionally well on the state exam” but whose attitude was viewed as negative demonstrates why the answer to teacher accountability does not lie at the opposite extreme of employment-at-will contracts that undermine due process. Who holds principals accountable?

Ms. Kenny’s anti-union approach sidesteps the hard work of documenting teachers over time and helping them improve, even if that improvement may involve an attitude adjustment. Districts that use peer-assisted review use master teachers to evaluate peers, and the results are taken before a panel that includes union leaders and district supervisors. This approach allows for rigorous and authentic evaluation, honors due process and gets rid of teachers who do not improve.

New York, Oct. 15, 2012
The writer is a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University.

2) To the Editor:

Deborah Kenny speculates that rating teachers will ruin teaching. But we have good evidence that not rating teachers accurately is already doing incredible damage. In 2009, my organization showed how existing evaluation systems label virtually all teachers “good” or “great,” rendering such ratings meaningless and preventing schools from recognizing excellence, helping teachers reach their full potential or addressing poor performance.

The effects on the teaching profession are devastating. Teachers end up being treated like widgets rather than professionals, and school districts end up without the information they need to improve teacher quality, which has a greater impact on student achievement than any other factor they can control.

Getting teacher evaluation right is tough, but states like New York are on the right path by insisting on multiple assessment methods — such as classroom observations and measures of student learning — that don’t eliminate principal judgment, but give principals a fuller picture of teacher performance.

Indeed, the teacher whom Ms. Kenny uses as an example would not fare well under such a system; despite his students’ success on tests, his rating would be pulled down by low classroom practice scores from his principal. A better approach for rating teachers is not enough, by itself. But without addressing evaluation, we have little hope of improving education quality or strengthening the teaching profession.

Brooklyn, Oct. 15, 2012
The writer is president of TNTP, a national organization working to ensure effective teaching.

3) To the Editor:

Deborah Kenny discusses how parents, students, administrators and teachers know who the good and underperforming teachers are without ratings. That is true. The problem is that it is almost impossible to remove the poor teachers, and they know that.

Have ratings or don’t have ratings. That is not the salient point. It is employment-at-will contracts that will improve teaching. Let schools decide on the teachers they wish to hire, retain and dismiss based on the criteria they think best. Tenure is the real problem.

Washington, Oct. 15, 2012 

While anti-testing folks might love Deborah’s opposition to using tests to evaluate teachers, they shouldn’t because what she’s really saying is something completely anathema to them (though completely obvious and correct): principals should have complete power to hire (and fire) every adult in the building (of course with basic job protections. Where I find her column problematic is that I don’t think we’re ever going to achieve this utopia in most regular public schools, so there needs to be a realistic Plan B, a fair and rigorous evaluation system that can be included in legislation/negotiations. As Timothy Daly points out in his letter to the editor, this is FAR superior to the current status quo, whereby “existing evaluation systems label virtually all teachers “good” or “great,” rendering such ratings meaningless and preventing schools from recognizing excellence, helping teachers reach their full potential or addressing poor performance.” It’s important not to let perfection be the enemy of the good (Common Core opponents, take note!). That said, Deborah is right that we need to work hard to improve teacher evaluation systems, which in general are pretty lousy right now from what I can gather. My concern is that defenders of the status quo will twist her words and use them to stop ALL evaluation efforts – for example, this paragraph:

A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy will make it impossible to attract great teachers and will diminish the motivation of the ones we have. It will make teaching so scripted and controlled that we won’t be able to attract smart, passionate people. Everyone says we should treat teachers as professionals, but then they promote top-down policies that are insulting to serious educators.

PS—Deborah is also the author of a great book, Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching Their Highest Potential (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062106201/tilsoncapitalpar

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