DCPS Should Focus on Teacher Evaluations

Testimony before the Council of the District of Columbia, Committee of the Whole

Also from ES | | January 16, 2009

Good morning, my name is Thomas Toch. I am co-director of Education Sector, a national, non-partisan think tank that works extensively on teacher-quality issues. We don't take institutional positions, so I am speaking for myself. And in the name of full disclosure, my sister-in-law is an aide in a DCPS elementary school.

The October 2008 draft of Chancellor Rhee's five-year "action plan" for DCPS is an impressive document-ambitious, coherent, and articulate. And I applaud the Chancellor's commitment to strengthening the District's teaching profession by recruiting top talent, hiring instructional coaches, revamping teacher evaluation, enhancing special education training for all teachers, building a teacher career ladder, rewarding results, and removing poor performers. Change is certainly needed when 149 of the city's 191 schools fail to meet proficiency standards and only one teacher is removed for poor performance, as was the case two years ago.

I would urge DCPS to focus attention on the issue of teacher evaluations. Removing weak teachers, performance-based pay systems, career ladders, and effective professional development all depend on fair and effective teacher-evaluation systems, which DCPS lacks.

The Chancellor has recognized the failings of the current evaluation system and has proposed to replace it with a model that focuses on teachers' ability to raise their students' test scores.

There is a clear logic in giving student test scores a role in teacher evaluations: It's inexpensive and easy to administer and seemingly measures what matters most-student achievement.

But standardized-test scores aren't the simple solution they seem to be. For one thing, only about half of public school teachers teach subjects or at grade levels where students are tested, eliminating the prospect of a system that's applied fairly to all teachers.

A second problem is that most standardized tests in use today measure only a narrow band of mostly low-level skills such as recalling or restating facts, rather than the ability to analyze information and other advanced skills. As a result, the tests tend to privilege low-level pedagogy, leaving the best teachers, those with wider teaching repertoires and the ability to move students beyond the basics, at a disadvantage, while putting pressure on the entire school system to focus on low-level skills.

And then there's the daunting challenge of separating out individual teachers' impact on their students' reading and math scores from the myriad other influences on student achievement, and the difficulty of drawing the right conclusions about teacher performance from very small numbers of student test scores, a particular challenge in elementary schools, where teachers work with a single classroom's worth of students most of the day. New studies suggest these are significant problems.

For these reasons, test scores should play a supporting rather than a lead role in teacher evaluations, and school systems should use school-wide scores in their evaluation calculations, rather than individual teachers' scores, a strategy that would also encourage staff members to collaborate rather than compete. The New York City school system uses this model.

To get a fuller and fairer sense of teachers' performance, evaluations must also focus on teachers' instruction-the way they plan, teach, test, manage, and motivate. DCPS-and most schools systems in the nation-do this poorly.

Evaluations should be based on clear, comprehensive standards of strong teaching practice that have emerged in recent years. And they should encompass multiple observations by multiple evaluators, with a substantial role going to teams of trained school system evaluators free of the inclinations to favoritism and conflicts of interest that have plagued evaluations by principals-and that led to the rise of credential- and seniority-based pay scales in public education 80 years ago.

Comprehensive evaluations of this sort surface weak performers who should be counseled out of the classroom. But at least as importantly, they also serve as the basis for improving teachers' performance. Most school systems waste millions of dollars on random workshops rather that focusing on improving teachers' specific strengths and weaknesses, because they evaluate teachers so superficially that it's nearly impossible to learn what teachers are good at and what they need to improve.

Comprehensive evaluation systems signal to teachers that they are professionals doing important work, and in so doing help make public school teaching more attractive to the sort of talent that the occupation has struggled to recruit and retain.

As one measure of the importance of creating a more professional working environment in teaching, Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found in a national survey of public school teachers last year that, if given a choice between two otherwise identical schools, 76 percent of secondary teachers and 81 percent of elementary teachers would rather be at a school where administrators supported teachers strongly than at one that paid significantly higher salaries.

Not surprisingly, studies have found that teachers are much more likely to buy into performance-based pay plans if they trust the plans' evaluation systems. In DC, teachers might be more willing to support the Chancellor's proposal to relinquish tenure in exchange for significantly higher salaries if they had a clear sense that they would be evaluated under a fair and effective system (and if they knew the money for the higher salaries would be available every year). Developing a new, rigorous and comprehensive evaluation system that stresses teachers' classroom performance is critical to improving the District's teaching force, and to the success of the Chancellor's ambitious and much-needed reform agenda.

Thank you.

More in K-12 Education