Grading the Teachers

The sign of a first-rate intelligence, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Holding two opposing ideas while continuing to function is what we are being asked to do with the highly charged issue of teacher effectiveness.

One opposing idea is that students’ test scores can reveal, just like the tea leaves at the bottom of your cup, which teachers are effective and which are not. The Los Angeles Times took that idea to its ultimate conclusion this summer with its “Grading the Teachers”‘ project. The newspaper commissioned a value-added analysis on the test scores of students. Then it gave an effectiveness grade to 6,000 elementary school teachers and published the results, school by school.

Value-added analysis already controls for socioeconomic status and extenuating circumstances like divorce, mobility etc. by looking only at a student’s growth and projected growth in test scores. So if a student is at the 60% percentile and remains at the 60% percentile, the teacher doesn’t lose any points.

The other opposing idea is that we don’t really know what teacher effectiveness is or how it works. The current frenetic activity around teacher accountability and value-added analysis is matched only by the frenetic activity around defining what teacher effectiveness is. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now at work on an ambitious 2-year, $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project that it hopes will provide insights into the characteristics of effective teaching that can be monitored by those doing teacher evaluations.

In Los Angeles, one of the teachers outed as ineffective by The Los Angeles Times is a 3rd-grade teacher who is far from a slacker. She is a well-regarded, hard-working and well-liked teacher who leads a professional development circle at her school on–you guessed it–being an effective teacher. Ironically, she was ranked in the lowest category of the LA Times’ project because her students performed significantly below what they would be expected to score on state tests.

While there’s more to teaching than state test scores, there clearly is an issue with this 3rd-grade teacher no matter how well-meaning and diligent she may be. Her students are losing ground. But, will the principal of the school know how to work with her to be more effective? Will the principal be able to guide her efforts to improve?

The inner workings of outstanding teaching may still not be fully understood. But, the telltale signs of that force at work are hard to ignore.

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