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The Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund, which was designed to use federal grant money as an incentive for states to replicate programs shown to improve student performance, has been a mixed bag. For one thing, what began as incentives for states to adopt common standards in English and math has risen to the level of what may well be illegal coercion.

teacher quality standards
Charles Chieppo

But the program also has prompted a number of states to lift arbitrary caps on charter schools and, perhaps most importantly, has gotten 36 states and the District of Columbia to introduce more rigorous teacher-evaluation systems.

There is no factor within the four walls of a school that affects student performance more than teacher quality. Research by former University of Tennessee professor William L. Sanders found that the effects of a poor third-grade teacher were still measurable on a student’s fifth-grade math scores, regardless of the quality of subsequent teachers. Conversely, academic growth in students who had highly effective teachers three years in a row resulted in scores that were dramatically higher than those unlucky enough to have had ineffective teachers.

Given the importance of teacher quality, few would disagree that we need to attract and retain the very best teachers. But knowing who those teachers are requires rigorous evaluations.

Current systems clearly aren’t working. A 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education found that over two school years, half of Boston’s public-school teachers had never been evaluated, while one-quarter of the city’s schools hadn’t turned in a single evaluation.

But there is profound disagreement over how teachers should be evaluated, especially since the results of those evaluations will be central to their compensation and job security. Ground zero for the controversy is the role student test scores should play in the evaluations. The issue was at the heart of the recent Chicago teachers strike, and negotiations with Boston’s teachers union dragged on for years before the sides finally came to an agreement.

Standardized tests routinely attract a torrent of criticism, but the work of noted educational-standards expert E.D. Hirsch is instructive here. Hirsch found a high correlation between standardized reading test results and the likelihood of economic success, adaptability to retraining, civic integration and even the probability of not being incarcerated.

Standardized-test results certainly are not perfect, and they should not be the only measure by which teachers are evaluated. But there is clear evidence that the rate of student improvement on the tests should be a very significant part of those evaluations.

Money isn’t everyone’s primary motivator, but the almost total disconnect between teacher performance and compensation is one cause of our failure to attract more of the best and brightest to work in our public schools. Rigorous evaluation systems that reward teachers who consistently improve student achievement and encourage those who don’t to seek a different career are one important way to make teaching more appealing to talented, ambitious young people.

Charles Chieppo is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School and the principal of Chieppo Strategies, a public policy writing and advocacy firm.

This piece ran originally on the Better, Faster, Cheaper blog.

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  1. I agree with the author. Insuring that all students have access to high quality teachers is central to school reform efforts. In addition, student performance data is an important part of determining “high quality”.

    However, as a long time public school practitioner and now the owner of a school reform company, I know that there is more to it than that. Before explaining what I mean, I want to acknowledge that there are master teachers who can achieve results under the worst of conditions. I have seen it and have the greatest of respect for these professional educators.

    This is not the norm, however. Like most of us, teachers want to work in a system in which there are clear expectations and goals and the tools to successfully meet the goals. Instead teachers are working in systems in which there are conflicting initiatives that require them to spend precious time on activities that have little relevance to the classroom. Systems in which there are frequent changes in leadership and therefore goals. Systems in which a researched curriculum is left up to them to create and differentiate for a wide variety of instructional levels. Systems in which the only feedback that they receive on the progress of their students–outside of their own classroom experiences–comes well after the students have left their classroom. Systems in which there isn’t time or money devoted to scheduled collaboration with colleagues but there is time and money to listen to a featured speaker. Systems in which the protocol for managing the needs of students is from another era.

    If student performance data is to be used to evaluate teacher quality then we better even the playing field by providing them the context within which they can be successful. Otherwise, we are setting good teachers up to fail.

  2. Of course we need to pay teachers better. However, the argument for basing compensation on test scores is deeply flawed. The correlation between standardized test results and likelihood of economic success is misleading. Test scores correlate so closely with family economic level that the scores of a school can be accurately predicted based on family background. Family background is a powerful predictor of economic success. Compensating teachers based on standardized test scores would reward teachers based on demographics of their schools. Average teachers in affluent neighborhoods would be paid more because of higher test scores, although the main reason for the students’ performance level is home environment. Some of the best teachers, because they choose to work in difficult neighborhoods, where families struggle, would be financially punished because their students lack the home support that produces higher test scores.

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