Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Should Our Teachers be Graded on Student Achievement?

There was much discussion about public education reform during Governor Tom Corbett’s campaign and this week the Governor offered four broad proposals for reform (however, the specifics are limited).

(1) Charter school reform — Give the process of approving charter schools to a new state commission rather than to local school districts;

(2) Expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program — The program offers businesses tax credits for providing funding for scholarships or other educational improvement organizations;

(3) Voucher program — Create ‘opportunity scholarships’ that would allow low-income students in poor-performing schools to attend a different school;

(4) Grading teachers — Review and beef-up the teacher evaluation system in Pennsylvania’s schools.

As Tredyffrin Easttown School District candidates prepare for the League of Women Voters debate on Tuesday (7-9 PM at the Tredyffrin Township building), it was Corbett’s fourth initiative on public education reform that caught my attention. I wonder what school board candidates think about Corbett’s proposed teacher grading system. And how, if any, would a grading system challenge the TESD teacher contract negotiations of 2012?

My understanding is that Corbett is proposing a grading system for teachers much like the way students are graded. Currently teachers are graded ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ and 99.4 percent of teachers in public school in Pennsylvania receive an ‘A’ . . . satisfactory rating. However, counter to the teacher’s ratings, some school systems in the state have barely 50 percent of their students performing at grade level. The new proposed multiple-point grading system for teachers would include “distinguished”, “proficient,” “needs improvement” or “failing.”

We know that most local school teachers are good, but are there not any bad ones? Is it accurate that less than 1 percent of teachers in Pennsylvania are unsatisfactory? Especially in light of the number of failing students and Pennsylvania’s ever-increasing high school drop out rate. Is there any correlation between the quality of teaching (performance of teachers) and the performance levels of students? Corbett’s is suggesting a reform of the teacher evaluation system that combines classroom observations and student performances . . . linking student achievement to teacher performance.

Is it possible that a single, statewide pay-for-performance model will work in each of the state’s 500 school districts? Should the grading of teachers take into account a teachers’ longevity?

I believe that the most important school-based factor in children’s success is good-quality teachers. Isn’t there a real possibility if we tie the merit pay of teachers performance to student achievement, this will discourage teachers from taking on the needier students and push the educators to ‘teach to the test’?

Most of us would probably agree that students with experienced, highly skilled teachers tend to do better academically. And that poorer schools have a more difficult time in attracting and keeping those teachers. The real challenge is what is the solution?

Taking that logic a step further . . . if vouchers and charter schools remove the highest-performing students from the poor school districts, isn’t there a real risk that the failing school districts will not be fixed by Corbett’s proposed public education reform?

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  1. The irony is that some of Corbett’s proposals were first introduced by PSEA-the state teacher’s union. PSEA came out last year with “Solutions that Work” a blueprint for reform. I know this because I was arguing with my sister about teacher evaluations and as a teacher, she informed me that they want it changed since right now it is easier for administrators not to do the job of proving a teacher is inadequate, so everyone is satisfactory then. This hurts all teachers then. Below is the excerpt from PSEA’s website.

    “Creating a culture of teaching excellence: There is a significant body of research that
    defines the professional supports that help new educators build the knowledge, skills, and
    confidence needed to meet the increasing demands of their professions. Those findings are
    an essential part of our plan—as are our proposals for reinventing evaluation systems, multiple
    performance measures, and streamlining dismissal procedures.
    A special focus on struggling schools: While the goal of establishing higher professional
    standards applies to all districts, “Solutions that Work” provides a wealth of concrete
    and evidence-based strategies that can be put into action where the need is greatest.
    The Commonwealth must prioritize its resources and human capital in a fiscally

    Reinvent the teacher and principal evaluation system to support high standards and
    promote great teaching. Create a more effective process that includes a shared vision of
    excellence, multiple objective measures of performance, and well-trained evaluators.
    Provide high quality mentoring for new teachers and principals. Implement appropriate
    professional supports that have been shown to significantly reduce educator attrition and
    have a greater impact on student achievement.
    Streamline dismissal procedures for teachers and principals. To ensure ongoing
    excellence for all students, there must be efficient, fair, and objective procedures in place for
    removing teachers and principals who fail to meet performance standards. While guaranteeing
    due process, we must also ensure that the dismissal procedure is completed during a specific,
    yet reasonable timeframe.”

  2. An interesting topic. The PSEA wants evaluations…..

    here is a link to the “evaluation process” in TESD….negotiated continuously based on the contract (see page 29 — / human resources / TEEA employment agreement)…..
    For the most part, the evaluation process outlined is for a tenured employee. What constitutes satisfactory, who may evaluate, and the process for addressing “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” is quite extensive. I would seriously recommend those interested in this topic to read it. Remembering — whatever you conclude — that teachers are by and large tenured….

    Waiting for Superman\ has a great assessment of how this can and doesn’t work around the country, with a special emphasis on NYC and the money spent letting “unsatisfactory” teachers spend every day in a building where they read and hang out….on the clock but not in a classroom.

    Do rent or buy Waiting for Superman….idealistic and far from what we face, but that’s the part of education that needs addressing.

  3. The truth is that student achievement should be part of the evaluation of teachers, but only part.

    We all know from personal experience there are some teachers better than others. Studies have also shown that some older teachers who have been in the system for a long time tend to lose interest and effectiveness as a result.

    Achievement should not be the entire evaluation though, as there are multiple factors involved in a student’s education, including socieo-economic factors, home life, etc.

    Building a fair evaluation system will take some time and some changes over time as it is implemented, but it should include student achievement as part of it.

  4. Unless a teacher can control everything that contributes to student behavior – what a kid has for breakfast, what his/her neighborhood is like (is the kid ducking bullets on the way to school?) and aspects of the child’s home life, most importantly, is the parent caring and involved? – student achievement should only be a part of what gets looked at in evaluations. Teachers aren’t social workers and can’t fix all the ills that lead to academic failure. NCLB gets it backwards: fix poverty and voilence and you fix the schools, not the other way around.

  5. Additionally I propose an evaluation model similar to what many businesses use: evaluations use a composite score of your boss’s assessment, feedback from colleagues (other teachers, staff) and constituent/”Clients” (both student achievement AND feedback, as well as parents’). Surprising how revealing these type of composites can be.

  6. The Gates Foundation is attacking this issue very scientifically. Here’s an update posted on Saturday:

    Here are a few extracts:

    “It turns out [from a teacher survey] that teachers don’t like their no-support/low-expectations working conditions any better than we do.”

    “Another key finding was that teachers are open to being evaluated in a comprehensive way. Eighty-five percent said that “student growth over the course of the academic year” should be a factor in how their performance is measured.”

    “For the last several years, our foundation has been working with more than 3,000 teachers on a large research project called Measures of Effective Teaching. (MET)”

    “Because we have been unable to define effective teaching, we now reward teachers for easy-to-measure proxies like master’s degrees and seniority, even though there is no evidence that these things help students learn.”

    “Once the MET research is completed, we hope that school districts will work with teachers and their unions to create fair and reliable evaluations that reward teachers who are effective and identify and help those who need to improve. ”

    I wonder if TESD/TEEA can take any steps in a positive direction with the next contract, even before this analysis is complete?

  7. Good comments Ray. My experience with this subject, however, is that the NEA and PSEA are the driving force behind the limited reviews. Anything that puts tenure in play is a non-starter.

    We all need to remember that the local unions are getting as much if not more pressure from the state and federal sides as they are internally and within the district. That’s why I suggest voters talk personally with candidates — I know that I felt very vulnerable for my kids when I did contracts, and at one point retained legal counsel for advice. It’s not even that it’s heavily adversarial — it’s just that what seems right for TESD is often non-negotiable from the state perspective.

    1. That sounds too “broad” as a characterization. Let me give you an example:
      Our contract calls for a 7:35 minute work day. (At least it did then — I haven’t confirmed for today). At any rate, any good teacher goes well beyond that, and I made the case that an “8 hour day” would be a public relations win for the teachers, and would not extend anyone’s work in any meaningful way. We explored all kinds of options…

      Response: “We have the longest day in Chester County. We will not expand it.”

      It was cordial, it was simply not negotiable. There were many issues that were far more direct, and we were able to reach agreement on many of them in give and take (we took the starting salary off the schedule — and we added “steps” to max), and we were able to find compromise to do that. But an 8 hour day….not negotiable. For someone in business — especially considering the “work day” includes preparation periods and lunch within the time period, it seemed unreasonable. But it wasn’t a wall to die on. Good teachers go well beyond it — so why wouldn’t the union simply allow the language to validate it.
      That’s why the current teachers are grieving the additional period of teaching….it is within their work day, but it is not what the “customary” work day is.
      There was a comment made by one of the candidates about the mandatory study halls. The ONLY way to reduce the costs of teachers is to have them teach more periods and have the students take fewer classes. In an 8 period day, with a 6 day week, a mandatory study hall still means they can take 6 or 7 major classes…the mandatory study hall reduces the access to classes, but it also normalizes a course load that had gotten excessive. If you teach it, some kids will take it….and feel pressured to fill their schedule.

      Anyway — it’s why negotiations are complicated. Nothing is obvious. And IF we got an 8 hour day, they would want to be paid for the additional 25 minutes — which to them represents 6% more work. It’s the conflict between being a “professional” and wanting to be compensated hourly.

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