By Tom King
Updated: 03/26/2011 04:04:31 PM CDT
Count me among your readers who value measured opinions, such as yours in "Evaluating teachers: a moderate proposal" (March 20). But, as Paul Harvey might have said, here's "the rest of the story."
I, like you, "cherish" our teachers (having been one and worked with hundreds in my career). "Cherish" is not an emotion widely tied to teachers these days. More and more, it's become like the zany sports world where coaches are blamed, fired and changed at whim if the players don't perform. If students aren't doing well, just fire the teacher.
Teachers are broadly blamed for the ills in K-12 education, guilty or not. The inherently faulted "No Child Left Behind" legislation has gotten so twisted that districts are now using their students' standardized test scores to measure teacher performance, somewhat akin to evaluating the physician with patient blood-sugar tests. Changing the acronym for NCLB to something different, as the current administration recently proposed, won't change the faulted nonsense of standardized testing, for either students or teachers.
Even if there were high, positive correlations between student tests and teacher performance (there aren't) in today's classroom it rarely applies. Consider that, in many of our inner-city schools, in the classrooms of greatest concern, students enrolled with a teacher and tested in the fall are not the same students who are tested in the spring. The kids have moved on ... somewhere else. No teacher effect.
It doesn't make sense to measure a student who hasn't been with that teacher over time. Nor does it address the issue of students enrolled but rarely present. Or those enrolled who can't speak or understand English. Or those with special needs. The classroom is a volatile environment for a controlled study. The variables keep changing.
Sensible proposals to evaluate teachers can be a good and needed tool for improving teacher performance. We all need to get better at what we do in life. So, it makes sense to call teaching a practice, just as we do for doctors and lawyers. But with continued declining budgets, fewer school district dollars have gone into professional development, continuing education and programs to improve teacher performance. Fewer teachers are seeking advanced degrees in their fields, one measure of advancing teacher competence.
Teacher seniority is not a good answer for evaluation, or making changes. But it's no worse than picking just another number just because it's easily measured, like a standardized test score. In both instances, neither measure correlates highly with teacher performance.
The best way to improve teacher performance is for skilled teachers and trained administrators to more frequently observe teachers, followed by helpful discussion and an improvement plan. Simply videotaping teachers can be a big help, too, enabling teachers to help themselves improve.
Teachers could use a lot more help in the classrooms helping students, and fewer critics. Volunteer to help your teachers by spending some time working with kids who need help. Mentors make a big difference. So do involved parents. We don't need a controlled study or more standardized tests to know that more helpers make the bigger difference to improve students' learning and teachers' performance.
Tom King of West St. Paul is a retired teacher and administrator from the St. Paul Public Schools. He founded the reform-based Saturn School of Tomorrow in 1987. He has taught grad-ed courses at the University of St. Thomas, since 1974.