Gorjifard: Testing Teachers
By Sayeh Gorjifard, Guest Columnist
Published on Monday, September 17, 2012
Last Monday, 25,000 Chicago public school teachers went on strike to protest the educational reform agenda proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Following reforms in New York City, Emanuel pushed to extend the length of the school day, rescinded a promised raise to teachers and introduced a stricter teacher evaluation process that accounts for student standardized test performances. The teachers are having none of it.
Ultimately, the major point of contention between the mayor and the teachers is over the use of student test scores to evaluate teacher performance. Emanuel’s proposal is not new. Thirty-three states have created similar evaluation processes, claiming it to be the most meritocratic system available. But union officials argue that this system will unfairly punish teachers whose students face personal challenges such as socioeconomic distress, which may negatively or unfairly affect test performance. This is a valid point to some extent — in Chicago, about 87 percent of students come from low-income families. However, the policy also includes a provision that allows teachers to appeal their ratings should they challenge the fairness of the evaluation.
Many reformers believe teachers unions overuse poverty as an excuse for poor performance. Recent films like “Waiting for Superman” (2010) and “Won’t Back Down” (2012) further criticize unions as an impediment to educational reform by prioritizing teacher wages over a crippled education system. In Chicago’s case, the teachers are being too resistant to necessary reform. With only 60 percent of Chicago students graduating high school, Emanuel was right to extend the school day. The most critical reform for struggling school districts is a more comprehensive system to evaluate teacher performance — and testing should not be taken off the table.
Granted, the current system of once-a-year exams needs to go. Rather, students should take several exams throughout the year to show improvement, a more statistically significant measure of a teacher’s effect despite outliers. These exams should be heavily employed in elementary schools, where teachers have the most potential to positively affect students’ education. Critics argue that this will inspire teachers to tailor lessons to exams. Perhaps, but is it really so bad if exams test crucial reading, writing and math skills?
Apart from exams, Chicago must soften tenure protections to ensure better evaluations. To clarify, tenure is not intended to protect against poor performance but rather to protect teachers from being fired based on arbitrary reasons like political affiliation or a principal’s whim. Educational activist and Harlem Children’s Zone president Geoffrey Canada has argued that the current tenure system has gone too far. He believes that too often nowadays, school administrations use tenure as an excuse to not evaluate their teachers thoroughly.
A thorough evaluation is not just a rigorous testing regimen, though test results should not be excluded from consideration. A fair evaluation takes a lot of work and incorporates soft factors that are not as black and white as test scores. In response to this dilemma, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has started the Measure of Effective Teaching Project to formulate a consistent evaluation system for school administrations. According to a study conducted by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, thoroughly done evaluations reveal innovative and effective teaching methods better than purely test-based performance measures.
Teachers unions need to be more reasonable in the face of reform. They must forego some job security or protection of teachers who underperform just as administrations need to offer teachers more oversight, support and respect for effective work. Lord knows that teaching underprivileged kids is not easy. Slam poet and former school teacher Taylor Mali perhaps put it best when he said, “Instead of obsessing about our worst teachers, we need to start a new national conversation about what it takes to be a great teacher.”
Yet even the greatest of teachers cannot save this system alone. Ultimately, our nation’s public schools are facing a crisis, and we need a collaborative and open effort to reform them. Past policies have left us with overcrowded classrooms, unsafe schools, demoralized teachers (even the good ones) and egregious funding inequity, among other things. Really good teachers and rigorous testing will not completely transform public education. But for the sake of the 350,000 students in Chicago, let’s save the playground fights for recess and get classes back in session.