By Alvin Crawford, CEO of Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS)
Are evaluation systems the answer to poor academic achievement in the classroom?
For the past two years, the Department of Education, state departments of education and education foundations have proffered “teacher effectiveness” initiatives focused on evaluation systems, but none has truly moved the needle when it comes to closing the student achievement gap.
This effort was sparked by the New Teacher Projects’ 2009 report on the Widget Effect, which highlighted how inadequate most teacher evaluation systems were in acknowledging any difference in teacher performance. Old systems were based on a pass/fail rating, in which as many as 99 percent of teachers were rated as passing despite the lack of student achievement gains or relative progress towards that goal. In fact, in the study, both teachers and principals acknowledged that the system doesn’t reflect the actual number of effective teachers.
There is no question that there are problems with current teacher evaluation systems. U.S. mathematics and English scores fall to number twenty-two behind other developed nations, such as Canada, China and Japan. It’s clear that we are in need of solutions now to improve our school systems, but are our evaluation systems the symptom or the cause of our lagging educational performance?
I would suggest it’s a symptom of larger problem: the development of people. Why is the U.S. woefully behind our peers in math and science, critical thinking and other fundamental skills needed to earn jobs in a knowledge-based economy? Why do we continue to grow rather than shrink the achievement gap? It’s related to developing teachers and principals that can effectively teach and manage in this newly competitive 21st century learning environment.
The current approach to “teacher effectiveness” is too narrowly focused on a new system of measure. We’ve seen this before. No Child Left Behind had the same measurement challenge as the teacher effectiveness fad. When No Child Left Behind was introduced it moved the conversation from aggregate average test scores to the exposure of results that made it clear that we were failing our poor, minority and other disadvantaged students, but it didn’t provide a framework for changing the results. Instead it focused on the measure. All districts had to report and had to adopt a series of new assessments to support the reporting mandates of No Child Left Behind. Critics and advocates alike will agree that it changed the culture from proudly pointing at ill-defined averages to accepting that the needs of all children weren’t being addressed, but it hasn’t significantly improved student achievement.
It’s time to move away from education fads and develop a mass system that focuses on developing and supporting teachers. Better teachers garner better results, thus helping to bridge the achievement gap.
It’s not that we’re not spending money on helping teachers perform better in the classroom; we’re doing it ineffectively. Much of the investment in the current teacher effectiveness drive is focused on one of three things: 1) establishing a new system of measuring teachers, 2) training principals to measure teachers in the new way, and 3) identifying ways of tying the new evaluation to student achievement results.
There are inherent challenges that this presents, however.
First, we’re not strategic in how we’re spending money to train teachers. If there are going to be new systems in place, we need to support teachers so that they can meet the expectations of these evaluation systems.
Harvard Professor Tom Kane suggests that 25 percent of teachers are excellent, 5-10 percent should be fired and that the majority of teachers (65-70 percent) are average. We can’t fire our way out of this problem. Cutting the bottom 5-10 percent isn’t going to help fix the middle 65-70 percent. New teacher attrition is 30 percent in the first three years, 50 percent in next five and another 50 percent in ten years, and these numbers will only continue to increase. It’s time to start focusing on fixing the middle and raising them up through effective training and support.
Finally, only 30 percent of teachers are in grades or subjects that are tested annually, and often the systems in place don’t accurately tie the teacher to a particulate test and student. For example, most districts test third, fifth, eighth and tenth grades, or the assessments are only in math and English language arts, which means that science, health, physical education, social studies and other subjects to require an exam. So what happens to the other 70 percent of teachers not covered by assessment tests?
We have a long way to go in reforming education. The Obama administration has started to define what works with his Race to the Top initiative to encourage reform in state and local district education.
Unfortunately, the key initiative that isn’t getting addressed with Race to the Top is that talent matters.
Most deans of education and superintendents alike agree that it takes three to five years after certification for teachers to hit their stride. With that in mind, it’s time to start talking about “teacher effectiveness” in a different way. To truly transform teaching and teacher effectiveness, it’s time to focus on developing systems that continue to train teachers in districts and build valuable leaders to support them.
A renewed focus on helping educators manage their classrooms and meet the needs of all of their students would help lower teacher attrition, increase their knowledge and skills, elevate the status of the profession and allow teachers that aren’t up for the training to quietly leave the profession. Good corporations believe that human capital development is central to their success. In education, where 70-80 percent of budgets are spent on people, this approach should be even more important. It’s also the only way we’re going to see a change in student achievement results.