News & Press

August 07, 2012
Editorial: Carrots and Sticks for School Systems

Editorial, New York Times

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been pushing the states to create rigorous teacher evaluation systems that not only judge teachers by how well their students perform but also — when the results are in — reward good teachers while easing chronic low performers out of the system. More than half the states have agreed to adopt new evaluation systems in exchange for competitive grants from the federal Race to the Top program or greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law.

How can you measure the achievement of students, teachers and schools in a way that is fair, accurate and doesn’t provide incentives for obsessive testing, and cheating?

These incentives are long overdue. As things stand now, according to a study by the New Teacher Project, a Brooklyn-based policy group, many school managers make no distinction between high-performing and low-performing teachers. The result is that poor teachers stick around while good teachers go elsewhere or leave the profession, frustrated because they are not promoted, rewarded with better pay, or even simply acknowledged.

That clearly needs to change if the new evaluation systems are to have any impact on the quality of the teacher corps.

The study covered four large urban school districts consisting of more than 2,100 schools and nearly a million and half students. It measured about 20,000 teachers by how much academic growth students showed in a given year. On average, the highest-performing teachers — about one-fifth of those studied — helped students learn two to three additional months’ worth of math and reading, compared with the average teacher, and five to six months more compared with low-performing teachers.

The students clearly noticed the difference. In surveys, they were more likely to report that the better teachers cared about them, made learning enjoyable, and did not let them give up on difficult problems. Even so, high-performing teachers said that administrators were often indifferent to their performance, neither rewarding nor praising them. Only about a quarter of the high performers were offered leadership roles in the schools. Many said they were not even encouraged to stay another year. And schools were nearly as likely to offer leadership opportunities to low performers.

In short, most school cultures do not seem to value excellence in teaching or appreciate how difficult it is to achieve. The costs are great: an estimated 10,000 high-performing teachers leave the nation’s 50 largest districts in a year, either for other districts or to exit the profession. That is a heavy loss, but it is especially costly to low-performing school systems that should be strengthening the teacher corps year upon year.

The study offers several recommendations. School systems need to create explicit policies aimed at retaining high performers, and hold principals accountable for creating an environment in which those policies succeed. Schools should offer higher earning potential to excellent teachers early in their careers instead of waiting to reward them years later. And the states should set clear standards for effectiveness, encouraging chronic low performers to leave the system.

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