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Back to school: How to measure a good teacher

Back to school: Perhaps the most controversial education reform is how to measure a good teacher. As the trend to overhaul teacher evaluations catches fire, some teachers find that new feedback and mentoring programs can lead to 'incredible' results with their students.

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Most everyone agrees: There's no single foolproof measure of a teacher. Standardized tests give one indication of what students are learning. Observations – when the observer is trained well and looking for specific details – can offer more nuance.

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But how do you evaluate the essence of a teacher who inspires a true love of learning and problem solving versus one who just gets students to master certain concepts? And what about all the factors a teacher has no control over, such as family life, poverty, or a student who is having a bad day when it's time to take a test?

There is consensus that the status quo doesn't work. The majority of districts in the United States are like the one in which Newman found herself always "perfect," or close to it. Principals come in for a required observation every few years, from which the teachers get little feedback, and nearly all teachers are considered good.

A landmark 2009 study of 12 districts in four states by TNTP found that more than 99 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory. The study confirmed what many in the education field already knew: Traditional "evaluations" gave very little useful feedback to teachers and their administrators.

So far, the current mantra in redesigning evaluations is "multiple measures."

Emphasize student learning and growth, yes, but don't judge teachers solely on standardized test scores. Make classroom observations count, and train evaluators and teachers so that both have a common understanding of the specifics the observer is looking for. Use varied measures of student learning, including, perhaps, student portfolios, internal assessments and checks, and teachers' goals for their students. Even – crazy as it might sound – ask students about their teachers.

What's important "is ensuring that each of those measures contributes something fairly unique and different to the picture," says Vicki Phillips, director of the Education, College Ready United States Program for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has invested $290 million in teacher evaluation programs in three urban districts, including Hillsborough County, and five Los Angeles charter-school networks.

The long-term, ongoing Gates foundation Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study has in recent years delivered some of the most thorough research on teacher evaluations. It found that the most important elements are detailed observations tied to a specific rubric; student achievement growth, measured, in most cases, by value-added test scores that try to isolate the teacher's contribution to students' scores; and student surveys rating teachers on such factors as how well they support, or challenge, or provide feedback.

"When you add them together, the corroboration becomes even stronger … and you get a much more reliable picture," says Ms. Phillips.

Policy reform brings psychological shift

After a peer evaluator watched Newman teach three-digit addition and subtraction problems to her second-graders last year, the evaluator noted that Newman could do a better job asking her students to evaluate their own work, and suggested she do more to encourage them to reflect on and analyze their learning.

Newman was leery, especially when her assistant principal pushed her to not only incorporate "quick writes" – five-minute written reflections by students – at the end of each lesson, but to have her students themselves create a rubric to score those quick writes. After all, she pointed out, these were 7-year-olds she was working with.

"I thought he was crazy," says Newman of her response to her boss's explanation of a district shift to "student ownership." In turn, he pointed out that in the new observation rubric, one whole column talks about having students take initiative.

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