This entry is written by KPI's education policy fellow, John LaPlante. Read more about John here and for more of his writing click here.
Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, has been visiting Kansas this week
as part of a national tour designed to highlight the importance of excellent teachers.
Duncan's tour couldn't come at a better time. As he pointed out in Topeka, one million students drop out of high school each year--with serious consequences for them and everyone else. He added that "far too many of those who do graduate need remedial classes."
So what can we do? For starters, we can recognize the importance of excellent teachers by taking the task of evaluating all teachers seriously.
Teachers are not the only factor in how well a student learns; the home environment matters, too. Still, teachers are the most important in-school influence on student achievement. As the experience of some public charter and traditional public schools demonstrates, even students from low-income families can do well, if given the right environment.
So exceptional or even adequate teachers matter. Unfortunately, exceptionally poor teachers matter as well; the student who is placed in a classroom with a poor teacher is set back months.
Oddly enough, our K-12 bureaucracy doesn't do much to recognize the fact that teachers, like people in any occupation, aren't all the same. As a result, an excellent teacher, a competent but unspectacular teacher, and a dangerously incompetent teacher may all be paid the same. Seniority and number of college credits, not job performance, determine pay in most schools. If a school's finances come to the point where administrators must lay off teachers, a third-year teacher who has won "teacher of the year" may be dismissed to protect the 20-year veteran who is disengaged from his subject and students.
Thankfully, some education researchers and schools are working on ways to evaluate teachers, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some of the work has centered on using "value added" tests that pinpoint which teachers are exceptional in helping students gain in knowledge and skills over the course of a school year.
Tying teacher pay to student achievement (as measured in test scores) is controversial, and leaders who try to do so risk strikes that throw children out of school for days or weeks at a time. Witness the ongoing drama in Chicago, where Duncan used to serve as superintendent.
Is it difficult to evaluate teachers? Yes, it can be difficult for any business to evaluate its employees. Still, most companies find a way to do it, and schools need to find a way, too. As Duncan says, no teacher should be evaluated solely on the result of one test, no matter how good. For one thing, the tests are a work in progress, so student test scores should be just one factor in a teacher's evaluation, along with qualitative assessments of student learning and teacher performance.
Students who deal with teachers every day know that "every teacher a great teacher" is a myth. If you ask them in private, you'll get a lot of teachers to say the same thing. Why, then, should we act as if what we know to be true is not?