AS Oklahoma continues its journey toward improving evaluations for teachers, policymakers should pay attention to the results of a new nationwide study on determining educator effectiveness.
Researchers supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation took a three-year look at 3,000 teachers in school districts across the country, seeking to answer the vexing questions of what effective teaching looks like, how to measure it, and whether effective teaching is a function of improved learning tied to the teacher or merely correlated to student demographic and socioeconomic data.
The researchers concluded their approach did identify teachers who “caused” more (or less) student learning even when accounting for students' prior achievement and demographic differences. They used a combination of student test scores, classroom observations and student surveys. They suggested test scores should count for no less than a third and no more than half of a teacher's evaluation. They also recommended observations on two or more lessons using different observers and using a well-designed student survey.
The report (available at www.metproject.org) should be required reading for all those with responsibility for guiding the state and local school districts through the development and implementation of teacher evaluation systems. No evaluation system fully captures everything a teacher does of value. Nor does it capture every weakness. Intangibles are just that — even though they certainly can affect learning. And there are still some tough questions to answer about the best way to evaluate teachers outside core subject areas. As the report suggests, much work and research remain as more extensive evaluation systems become the norm.
Significant changes to teacher and principal evaluation systems are under way across Oklahoma as schools pilot the new systems. The broad framework is in place; a commission overseeing that work is still working through all of the details. One key for states and school districts isn't just determining which teachers are the most effective. They must figure out how to best use the information once they have it.
How can they move less-effective teachers toward improvement while getting rid of those clearly not up to the task? How should they use that information to assign teachers to individual schools, if at all? How should the information be used at teacher preparation programs?
An earlier study found that elementary and middle school teachers who help raise student test scores have more than a passing impact on students. The difference could be accounted for through lifetime financial earnings, a decreased chance of a student becoming pregnant as a teenager and an increase in a student's likelihood of attending college.
A frustrating reality is that children in classrooms next door to one another can have vastly different educational experiences and that a poor teacher can compromise the work of a prior teacher who was extremely talented. This is true regardless of the overall academic success of a school.
Systemic reform rightly gets the most attention of policymakers. But what gives parents the most painful heartburn isn't a school's overall grade or some statewide policy. It's whether they believe the teacher their child spends day after day with will help their child reach his or her full potential, particularly with regard to academics.
Great teaching doesn't just matter. In the context of education reform and the daily life of inner-school workings, it's what matters most.