Saturday, January 29, 2011

Teacher Quality, No Easy Solution.

In his State of the Union Speech on Tuesday President Obama said the following: "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.” I like the idea of money but am not solely driven by it. I chose to be a teacher after all. Education reform seems increasingly motivated by the idea that incentives will improve teaching and ultimately student performance. The logic goes if you pay teachers based on how their kids do, teaching and learning will improve. Perhaps they will...but I have my doubts.

One frightening prospect educators are facing in my state is the implementation of the "growth model" for teacher evaluation(more frightening than the included graphic which is meant to clarify the plan). It really is not that innovative and that's what concerns me. This is presented by policymakers as a simple way to judge teachers and implement merit pay and it is hard to argue against.  It even sounds good. But beware the obvious or easy solutions in education. This model looks at student achievement between grades and measures growth rather than looking only at whether a student is proficient on certain standards. ( See Developing a Growth Measure in Virginia ) If your students do better, you get paid more.

This effort to evaluate and reward teachers oversimplifies what we do. To attempt to implement a fair system is almost impossible and all those involved should face this reality instead of doing something for the sake of doing something. UVA Psychologist Daniel Willingham briefly explains this here. So besides not being fair I am also concerned about this reliance on a single indicator.

Public perception of these tests and the perceptions by those who deal directly with them might differ more than just a little. I spent the last 48 hours questioning the validity of my recent SOL results. It has in fact made me rethink whether I should trust these tests at all. It is after all only 1 test. As a tennis coach if I made decisions about my roster solely on how fast athletes were or whether they had a good serve some of the most successful tennis players I coached would never have made the team. Further, some players on my team might not have improved but instead gained a great deal more from competing. Why can't we see similar flaws with high stakes testing? Education seems one of the few places this is acceptable.

Much good has come from the SOLs my state uses but the impact on the school and classroom is not all good. Yes we are accountable but now we may focus too much on these tests. Schools often consume vast resources to just to give these tests. We teach to them, develop remediation plans, give thousands at each school, bring in extra staff, reshape our schedule, all for these tests. Right after the results come back schools shift gears into remediation mode in the name of meeting AYP. We might get these kids past the test but are we really serving them long term? Some research suggests simply taking the test again might yield the desired outcome and that perhaps remediation might not be as worthwhile. Too bad in my subject area they have only released 1 test. SOLS are good but should only be part of any plans for improvement.

Kids should be tested and held accountable. I think a better measure of accountability is called a grade. A more global measure of achievement, knowledge, skills, and effort. I reflect often on whether my grades are valid and SOLs in fact have helped with this. But grades rarely even come up when talking about my class and my evaluation. Talk is about SOL results and what I am doing to improve them. Actually it would be fair to say all schools worry about is pass rate. So in theory a teacher's class average could fall but they have fewer kids fail and they would be seen as a success. So SOL results should only be one part of the way we measure and evaluate teachers.

Teacher quality in my opinion(and some research agrees) is probably the single biggest factor in outcomes. That's simple. But finding a way to make us all better teachers is not as simple. I am wary of politicians that develop simple ways to make us better. I am also wary of whether current plans and money will really improve teacher quality overall and especially in at risk schools. We need to strengthen our current compensation practices in education and some level of incentives may be part of a more comprehensive approach. But alone I am skeptical they will fix what need fixing. I welcome positive change and know we can come up with something better. As we seek to recruit quality teachers for the future will they be ready for the new way they will be judged? Or will they seek other employment when they encounter some of the current reforms and solutions.

1 comment:

  1. As with so many reforms, the value-added (or growth model as Virginia is calling it) will cost so much money to implement that we really need to question its value even if it were a proven fix. It will manage to give companies like Pearson even more business when the data-tracking systems are required of localities to carry out the mandate.

    This could be done more effectively if as you suggest we use more than a single measure of teacher effectiveness and invest in the human resources to evaluate rather than turning everything into binary.