One of the Biggest Dangers in the Teachers’ Strike

Posted on October 2, 2012

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With a district near Chicago striking this week, and with continuing reports of impending strikes, one of my biggest worries about the education landscape has been over the representation of teacher evaluations.

If you recall, teacher evaluations were at the center of union/district tensions in Chicago, where they were touted by the city leaders and maligned by teachers.

While teacher evaluations certainly aren’t new to education, it concerns me that millions of Americans are learning about them for the first time from a highly biased, highly politicized media. Most of the coverage that teacher evaluations are receiving is marginally accurate, and far from complete. Groups who support Chicago Public Schools misrepresent the initiative as a mechanism to simply punish bad teachers and reward good ones, while those who side with the unions depict evaluations as a plague, sent to pick away the last remaining morsels of job security in schools.

To those willing to reassess their opinions on teacher evaluations, I ask you to consider the following:

There is a reason that many of the most talented, experienced educators in the country are getting behind teacher evaluations—and it’s not simply because of Race to the Top mandates or waivers. Research from groups like the Gates Foundation and the Manhattan Institute are showing us that assessment-informed, growth-focused teacher evaluations, when combined with things like classroom observations and surveys, can be strikingly accurate measurements of educator effectiveness.

But beyond that, the most important thing to know about newly mandated teacher evaluations is that for the vast majority of teachers, they aren’t meant to be punitive at all. To the contrary, if they’re designed and implemented correctly, teacher evaluations function a lot more like a classroom than a courtroom. They exist not to punish or reward, but to stimulate learning and growth in teachers.

How does this look in a school’s day to day? Ideally, a principal or instructional leader observes a teacher, diagnoses strengths and challenges, and then proceeds to assist with improvements. Most of the time this takes place over the course of weeks and months, through further observations; collaborations with colleagues; immediate, on-demand classroom data; training in the skills teachers need to reach today’s learners; and a multitude of personalized professional development resources.

This is why I cringe when I see “teacher evaluation” and “assessments” used interchangeably, like they have been in much of the Chicago strike media coverage. There’s so much more to it than that. Student assessment data, viewed through the lens of value-added growth, is just one portion of the teacher evaluation picture. Using it as the only indicator of teacher effectiveness would be like talking about your car exclusively in terms of how quickly it gets you from point A to point B. What about performance? What about safety? What about the thousand other things that contribute to quality?

Measurements have their place, but the heart and soul of teacher evaluation is in the sum of all measurements—the improvements that teachers make in their practice that allow students to progress. The Chicago strike has reminded us that students are what education is all about, and teacher improvement is the best thing we can do for them.

I hope that once the battle over how to balance our teacher evaluation systems has subsided, educators can come together to make those systems work, shifting the conversation from punishment to progress. The Chicago Teachers Union is responding to its members’ concerns, and is saying loud and clear that they do not have the proper tools to succeed under the current system. In the thousands of districts beginning to implement teacher evaluation programs, leaders would be well advised to keep this in mind. Quantifying teacher effectiveness through high-stakes assessment data and value-added measures is certainly important, but teachers need more than evaluation and judgment. They need support, and that ought be the reason evaluations exist.

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