Media outlets in New York have recently published data about teachers based on their students’ test scores, after a court forced the school system to release the information. I’m all for public access to information and the smart use of data, but I also know that numbers can be misinterpreted and misread. In this case, there’s a risk not only to teachers but also to students if we draw the wrong conclusions from these test results.
The emphasis on standardized testing, which has increased in the decade since No Child Left Behind was enacted, has already distorted public education. Parents have realized that the time spent preparing students for these tests, subjecting them to rote drills on a narrow curriculum, would be better used engaging students in a broader range of subjects. When the only thing that matters is a multiple choice test on math and reading, subjects like civics, foreign languages, art and sometimes even science get short shrift, and many students lose interest.
If teachers believe that they’ll be publicly judged on the basis of these tests and nothing else, we will only be upping the ante. Instead, we need to shuffle the deck and rethink how we evaluate teachers.
The old system of occasional classroom visits by a principal is clearly not working. Teachers want and need more feedback about what they are doing well, and where they can improve their practice. But test scores alone don’t provide that information, either.
A good teacher evaluation system might begin by examining evidence of a teacher's preparation, including lesson plans, class assignments and scoring protocols. Teachers might be asked to assemble a portfolio - including videos of classroom discussion and notes or messages from parents.
There could be frequent, independent and thorough observations to determine whether the teacher is meeting high standards for teaching the subject. Finally, we could look at evidence of student learning, including homework assignments, classroom tests, essays and projects.
Taken together, these elements would provide a far more detailed - and accurate - picture of teacher effectiveness than scores on a standardized test.
Teachers already give their best effort every day, often under extremely challenging circumstances. Those who have room for improvement would love to do so, but as Bill Gates recently pointed out, publicly shaming them “will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning.”
NYC parents have even spoken out, in one case calling the release of the teacher rankings “a form of intimidation at its best, and disrespectful treatment of dedicated professionals — many of whom are performing in difficult situations — at its worst.”
The fact is, there’s no easy solution that will help teachers develop in this complex profession. The work of a teacher involves many different tasks, from explaining content and inspiring students, to maintaining order in class.
Only an evaluation system that considers all these factors – as well as the diverse backgrounds of students – can provide teachers with the feedback they want and need to improve.
The good news is, a number of local teachers unions across the nation are collaborating with their districts to create such systems. It’s hard work, but our students deserve no less, because simplified and misleading rankings of teachers don’t serve their needs at all.
Dennis Van Roekel is President of the National Education Association and a 23-year teaching veteran. He is a longtime activist for children and public education. You can follow him on Twitter @NEAMedia and read his views on education issues of the day on his blog Angles on Education.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.