Don’t Put the Brakes on Teacher Evaluation

Across the country, dozens of states and school districts are engaged in an unprecedented effort to raise the quality of education they provide. First, they are embracing new Common Core State Standards that will focus classrooms more intently on the skills that prepare young people for college and fulfilling careers. Second, they are modernizing outdated systems for assessing and supporting teachers, whose effectiveness has a greater impact on students’ academic success than any other school factor.

These transitions are imperative because we are so far from where we need to be. Less than 40 percent of American students graduate high school ready for college and even middle class kids lag behind their international peers. Combining world-class content in the classroom with rigorous systems that help educators teach it successfully gives us the best opportunity in decades to create better American schools.

It isn’t easy, though. And when the work of implementing seismic change of this sort becomes real, there is often a temptation to pull back, go slower, do less.

Tomorrow, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is scheduled to give a speech in which she will address these transitions. Based on her recent public comments, it’s likely that she’ll argue that this is all too much, too fast, and that we should slow down or pause the use of students’ results on new Common Core assessments in teacher evaluations, in particular. This would delay or derail national efforts to make student learning a bigger factor in teacher evaluations and ensure the new standards are taken seriously.

I have generally been heartened by the support from both national teachers unions for Common Core and have praised Ms. Weingarten’s public statements suggesting openness to evaluation reform, too. But I think it would be a mistake to suggest that we must mothball teacher evaluation work to get Common Core right, for four major reasons.

1. Students don’t have the liberty of treating the initial years of Common Core as a grace period. Many are taking new Common Core-aligned tests for the first time this year. They need Common Core proficiency for college entrance exams and placement exams, which determine whether they can take credit-bearing courses. For them, Common Core counts, right now. Why should it be any different for their teachers and schools?

2. Taking accountability out of the equation isn’t likely to ease or improve Common Core implementation. The work of creating new assessments and curricula still has to happen. Teachers must receive time and training. In our experience, districts focus more intently on such tasks when they are well-aligned with how everyone will be held accountable. The new Common Core assessments can also help us identify the teachers who are thriving and ensure that their colleagues can observe and learn from them. Why give up that opportunity?

3. Teacher evaluation work has already proceeded slowly. Many states committed to a new approach in 2010 (often with union support) and still have not rolled out complete systems, three years later. Though tempting, we cannot wait to include student learning outcomes into the evaluation process until implementation is flawless. That day won’t come. Instead, we need to use the best information and the best judgment we have to assess and support our teachers and ensure that students are getting consistently effective teaching.

4. We should not expect the new Common Core assessments to bring great changes in which teachers are identified as high and low performing compared to current tests. The Gates Foundation’s MET research has already shown that teachers whose students grew the most on basic state tests also grew the most on more cognitively demanding tests – the very type we’ll be using under Common Core.

We cannot afford to pretend that there are not differences in instructional skill from one teacher to another just because we are living in a time of change. We cannot expect teachers to do the hard work of changing their approach to instruction if we’re also telling them it won’t really count.

In the end, these choices belong to public officials—governors, legislators, superintendents, and so forth. Even if the AFT reverses its support, decision-makers need to say enough of kicking the can down the road. Now is a time for seeing through our commitments.

There is no doubt that the shifts we are making in Common Core and teacher evaluation are difficult. But it’s a false choice to suggest we can only do one at a time. If we fall into this way of thinking, what will be postponed next? School turnarounds? Funding changes? Technology rollouts? We believe our teachers are fully capable of improving how they teach at the same time they are changing what they teach. We can do both and we need to do both.

The go-slow approach hasn’t worked before. Let’s not be enticed by the old arguments once again.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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