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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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The push for better evaluation systems "is the fastest and most controversial reform we have right now," says Elena Silva, a former senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a policy nonprofit. While Ms. Silva agrees that meaningful evaluations are necessary, she's not sure that the rapid push – or the focus on ousting the worst performers – has been helpful.

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"The movement around teacher evaluation reform was pushed fairly boldly and quickly around the accountability issue," Silva says, "And that was a mistake. It left teachers behind and didn't attend to the vulnerabilities and insecurities teachers feel."

Instead of just focusing on how to punish or reward the worst or best 5 percent of teachers, she notes, "the larger solution lies with the 90 percent [in the middle], and helping that 90 percent improve and creating the conditions necessary for them to do their job well."

Testing is a blunt instrument

Most agree student learning should be at the heart of teacher evaluations – but what happens when the tests are flawed?

When scoring math tests this year, teachers were constantly calling the testing company over mistakes on the test, says Katie Zahedi, principal of Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, N.Y. On a few questions, her teachers differed strongly with Pearson, the testing company, on how the answers should be scored.

Nancy Keeney, an English and reading teacher at Linden Avenue, says that the tests have also started to affect how she teaches – for the worse. The reading test, for instance, asks students to read a poem or short excerpt and then dissect the various elements into a "graphic organizer."

"This isn't something English teachers would teach if it weren't on the test," Ms. Keeney says, "but now you have to teach kids how to do that…. I have never seen any kid sit up straighter and spark to life when going over graphic organizers and learning how to identify correct answers."

A recipient of Race to the Top funds, New York has been working to roll out an evaluation system – which local unions need to sign on to, district by district – required by the Race to the Top rules. The result has been a complicated system that few understand and almost no one seems happy with. Many districts still haven't come to an agreement with their unions, and as of this spring, nearly 1,500 New York principals – a third of all public school principals in the state – had signed an open letter of concern about the state's approach.

Meanwhile, the state has been cited by the federal government for its failure to follow through on the promises it made in its application, particularly relating to putting the new evaluation system in place.

In their letter, the New York principals cite a number of concerns, but the big one comes down to test scores, and the value-added model that, in theory, isolates the teacher's contribution to a student's improvement on standardized tests.

In New York, other measures, including observations, also factor into evaluations, but the state has determined that no teacher who is deemed "ineffective" based on student test scores can be deemed "effective" overall – even though student scores account, in many districts, for only 20 percent of a teacher evaluation. The trouble, say critics, is that value-added scores are highly flawed and particularly unstable with certain groups of students, including English-language learners, special-education students, and gifted students.

"I went from being very enthusiastic about these methods to extremely worried," says Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor who has researched teacher evaluation extensively and says she's seen value-added scores bounce wildly around even when she and other researchers believed they'd controlled for all student characteristics.

A few small anomalies, she says, can make a big difference in how a teacher appears to be doing.

Ms. Darling-Hammond cites a New York City teacher whose scores showed her to be the worst eighth-grade math teacher in the city, even though her kids – part of a gifted and talented class – all passed the state's Regents exam for integrated algebra, a test they normally wouldn't take until late in high school. The students appeared to have moved far beyond the material they were tested on.

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