Sunday, January 17, 2010

Evaluating Teachers

California has just signed on to compete for Obama's "Race to the Top" federal grant money. The "Race to the Top" program is a part of the stimulus bill that awards education grants to schools that agree to certain terms. One such term-- and a huge point of contention for many-- is tying teacher pay and evaluation to student performance.

Any kind of massive education reform needs to deal with teacher evaluation. This is always where people of good will-- from all political perspectives-- tend to get bogged down. The situation has become so toxic that teacher's unions tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of evaluative process. This is, of course, not without good reason, especially when tracking evaluation to test scores. Raw test scores don't take into account differences in resources, differences in local economic factors, etc. A bad teacher can get good results out of well-prepared students with a lot of parental help; similarly, a great teacher can produce middling results if the deck is stacked against her or him. I won't go so far as to say that test scores shouldn't be used at all, but this data must be used carefully, judiciously, and metered against a host of other factors.

So what, then, do we do to evaluate teachers? This isn't just about pay and performance, it is about weeding out ineffective teachers. If we could establish a fair metric by which to evaluate teachers, I have no problem terminating said teacher, regardless of the situation. However, my feelings on this are complicated by the fact that we don't have a fair way to evaluate teachers. I'm not sure what that would look like, but something involving several tiers of review would be necessary-- peer review, administrative, maybe some testing information, perhaps student evaluation, etc. Pardon the problematic metaphor, but this is similar to how I feel about the death penalty. I have no moral or philosophical qualms with executing people for the most heinous crimes in society; however, clearly the criminal justice system cannot assure its infallibility, so I politically oppose capital punishment on procedural grounds.

The clearest way to fix this problem is to have better, more qualified, better prepared people in the classrooms. So much money is spent on pilot programs, technology, and other ancillary items in primary and secondary education. I think spending more money to pay teachers is the first step. With this increase in pay, the district can ask for more from its applicants. I would support the massive changes to the process of getting a teaching credential. First of all, I would require a subject-area masters degree as a way of weeding out academically less-prepared applicants. If someone is bright enough to complete an MA program, I have a little more confidence that the person has some requisite skills academically. If one looks at subject area course work requirements for most education degrees or credential programs, often it is a very small portion of the program. Does one really get an understanding of the discipline from some intro classes and a few upper-division electives? I don't think so, and I would argue that understanding and being engaged with the subject area is important (though an administrative / political initiative, see the recent proposed/approved changes to the Texas history curriculum for an example of what happens when one doesn't have a clue about the area or how disciplinary knowledge is manufactured). I like the idea of getting a solid basic education in the undergrad, taking some education classes and getting some student teaching experience, then completing a subject-area masters in order to get the credential. Ensuring that teachers have mastery over their subject area is vital-- I don't buy the argument that it isn't relevant.

I would also allow for a process for people holding PhDs to get a teaching credential without further coursework. Experience teaching at the college level could be counted as practical experience (I understand that teaching high school and college are infinitely different, but there's nothing in most education curricula that convinces me that college teaching experience is completely useless, either). Because of the academic job market for new and recent PhD's, I have a feeling that some really brilliant teachers are sitting on the sidelines without the opportunity to teach in the public schools (even with a PhD, there is often a year or more of full-time coursework and student teaching that must be done to get a credential in most states).

This is all to say that, at least in my experience working around a few high schools and the one that I attended, there are too many people in the profession that do not have an acceptable level of academic skills to be effective. I think it is damn-near impossible to fairly evaluate teachers if the goal is to remove ineffective teachers, and as such, front-end structures should be used to attract better people to the profession and be rigorous enough to keep the less-able applicants away. Investing more money in compensation is the first step; pilot programs and wired campuses be damned-- we need the very brightest people doing some of the most important work in society, and we need to pay them handsomely for doing it.