How to grade a teacher
We’re teachers who believe that teacher evaluation, including the use of reliable test data, can be good for students and for teachers. Yes, yes, we know we’re not supposed to exist. But we do, and there are a lot more of us.
In February the membership of United Teachers Los Angeles will vote on a teacher-led initiative urging union leaders to negotiate a new teacher evaluation system for L.A. Unified. The vote will allow teachers’ voices to be heard above the din of warring political figures.
Although LAUSD and UTLA reached a contract agreement in December that embraced important school reforms, they haven’t yet addressed teacher evaluation. Good teaching is enormously complex, and no evaluation system will capture it perfectly. But a substantive teacher-led evaluation system will be far better for students and teachers than what we have now, a system in which virtually all teachers receive merely “satisfactory” ratings from administrators.
The accountability movement in education — which was inaugurated by teachers unions, a fact nearly always overlooked by critics — has led to greater understanding of the power of teaching to change students’ lives and the power of teachers to become more effective in response to feedback from peers and administrators. An evaluation system for L.A. Unified must take advantage of all that has been learned; it should use multiple measures, including classroom observations by competent, trained administrators; classroom visits by content-area experts; carefully designed student input; and test data.
The use of test data is the most contentious aspect of teacher evaluation. UTLA leadership has opposed any use of test data in evaluations, while the district and many parent and community groups strongly support its use as a major component in evaluation.
This stand-off is not good for teachers or students. We believe that educators can ensure that test data are used fairly and meaningfully by taking an active role in developing and monitoring the conditions attached to its use.
Although the initiative that all union-member teachers will be voting on in February simply urges UTLA to take an active role in the creation of teacher evaluations, we want to propose that a new evaluation system take into account the following elements:
Reliability of data: For the purposes of an evaluation, there should be at least three years of test data with adequate sample sizes and individual student data from previous years. Tests used for teacher evaluation should be subject to stringent integrity procedures. Until test reliability is greatly improved, test data should count for a minimal percentage of teacher evaluations. Moreover, under no conditions should test data count for more than 20% of a teacher’s evaluation.
Methodology: Teachers should be assessed based on an analysis that relies on student progress, not absolute scores.
Student accountability: Although teachers obviously have enormous influence on student learning, teachers cannot succeed without students being held accountable. Students must meet minimum attendance requirements in order for their individual test scores to be counted. Additionally, students must have something at stake in taking tests used for teacher evaluation.
Support: The evaluation results must be tied to meaningful professional development. Test data should only be used in evaluations provided that the district and administrators at each school adequately support teachers’ professional growth in those areas identified as “needing improvement.” Test data should not be used in formal evaluations during a teacher’s probationary period, the first two years he or she teaches.
Confidentiality: Test data shouldn’t be part of a public “gotcha” campaign. Publication of test data — isolated from other evaluation measures — can be highly misleading.
It should be used only by teachers and their supervisors.
Teachers in Los Angeles cannot and should not wait for others to design a new teacher evaluation system. As the expert educators, we must take the lead in pushing for a system that ensures teacher quality and reflects the enormous challenges of teaching in Los Angeles.
James Encinas teaches fourth grade at Westminster Avenue Elementary School; Kyle Hunsberger teaches math at Cochran Middle School; Michael Stryer, a former Fairfax High School social studies teacher, leads teacher union reform efforts at Future is Now Schools.
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