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Education reform: Can poor test scores get a teacher fired?

In Houston, a controversial education reform measure allows teachers to be fired based on their students' test scores. Some parents back the policy, but teachers unions have reservations.

By / Staff writer / March 17, 2010

At Houston’s Garden Oaks Elementary School earlier this month, teacher Edson Muraira watched third-graders take a ‘benchmark’ test in preparation for the yearly Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Education reform measures may allow schools to let teachers go based on their students' test scores.

Johnny Hanson/Special to the Christian Science Monitor


Imagine if a computer could identify the weakest-link teachers – the ones who should be told it's time to get out of the classroom.

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It's not quite so simple, but a new policy in Houston allows teachers to be fired based on data that some experts say isolates a teacher's effect on his or her students' test-score gains.

Reform advocates say school districts should improve teacher quality in part by using such "value added" data. Dozens of districts, including Houston's, have already incorporated the concept into "pay for performance" systems. Education leaders in New York City and the District of Columbia are moving toward linking it to tenure or dismissals. But none has gone ahead as boldly as the Texas district.

"The worst teachers in a school really drag down achievement," says Eric Hanu­shek, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution in California. "The biggest tension is: How much do you rely upon objective statistical information from test scores, and how much do you rely on other measures of teacher performance?"

A number of parents backed the Houston decision at a packed February board meeting. But the local teachers union is planning a legal challenge, claiming, among other concerns, that the formula is not public and leaves teachers in the dark about how they're judged.

The district defends it as a tool to help principals ensure that each classroom has an effective teacher. No one has been let go yet under the new policy, but at the end of the school year, the data could be cited as one criterion for not renewing a teacher's contract.

The controversy highlights a broader debate over how to improve teacher evaluations – which are "largely broken," US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently before a House committee.

Secretary Duncan presented the blueprint of the No Child Left Behind overhaul to the House education committee Wednesday. The plan includes a number of provisions for improving teacher quality.

For all the potential flaws, linking teacher evaluations to student achievement data is a move in the right direction, says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington. Under the status quo, she says, teachers tend to be fired only if they are abusive or break the law. Studies in a sample of districts across the United States have found that less than 1 percent of teachers earn an unsatisfactory rating on their evaluations. "We do not fire teachers because they aren't good at teaching math [or other subjects]," she says.