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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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"If you had a basket of evidence, you would have seen that she got the eighth-graders to pass the Regents, seen that the scores were high. You might have also seen classroom evidence. You would have said 'this teacher is kicking it out,' " says Darling-Hammond. "The issue is not, 'Do we look at student learning?' The issue is, 'How do you look at the data?' "

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But others believe that, even while flawed, value-added data is still in many cases the best way to look at a teacher's impact on student learning – so long as it's combined with other tools.

"There are a million good, legitimate concerns, but there's also a philosophical element … which is being willing to be judged by something that's truly objective," says Mr. Weisberg at TNTP.

"We don't have the same sort of debates about whether we've squeezed all the potential for unfairness out of evaluation systems for surgeons or engineers," Weisberg says. "How long do you want to wait until we have a system that satisfies all the concerns?"

Phillips, at the Gates foundation, notes that in her organization's study, value-added scores tend to correlate highly with other, more nuanced assessments of teaching quality.

Value-added "is volatile, but not so volatile that it's not predictive," says Phillips. "But some assessments it's based on aren't as great as you'd like, either. It's why you want multiple measures."

The nuance of multiple measures

Student test scores are far less controversial when they're not the only piece of evidence being used in an evaluation – or when administrators have some discretion to interpret those scores.

That's the case at the Achievement First (AF) schools, a growing network of 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut that has one of the most comprehensive, and harmonious, evaluation systems around – all initiated by teachers. While test scores are key (they count for 40 percent of the teacher's overall evaluation in cases where a standardized state test exists), school leaders understand their limitations and can use professional judgment to weigh those scores.

And the test scores are just one piece of a system that also includes detailed observations from in-school and out-of-school evaluators, and surveys of students, peers, administrators, and parents. Every teacher is assigned a coach, who helps them improve and hone their craft in weekly or biweekly meetings.

"We have a culture of continuous improvement, and teachers are intent on getting better," says Kate Baker, the principal at AF Bridgeport Academy Elementary School in Connecticut.

This spring, the end of his first year teaching first grade at AF Bridgeport, Ted Eckert received an 11-page evaluation summary.

It included the results of surveys from his students' families, fellow teachers, administrators, and four observation scores: three formal ones, and a fourth score based on frequent informal observations. In the fall, he'll get his students' test scores.

"It was a really complete picture of not only me as an instructor and teacher, but as a professional on a staff with lots of moving parts," says Mr. Eckert. In his five previous years teaching in the Bronx and Queens, he says he got "nothing even close to as systematized as I experienced this year."

AF's evaluation system began several years ago, when teachers started asking for more support to help them improve, and also for a career path that could allow them to stay in the classroom while still moving up into leadership positions. Teachers met with school leaders, and together they came up with the current system.

"We knew what we included would help drive teacher behaviors, so we wanted to make sure the right stuff was in there," says Sarah Coon, AF's senior director of talent development.

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