Our View: When Every Teacher is Rated ‘Great,’ Students Suffer

| USA Today | Editorial Board

As students return to school, the Los Angeles teachers' union is in an uproar, so incensed that leaders are calling for a boycott of the Los Angeles Times.

What did the paper do to anger the union?
It used district test data to rank 6,000 elementary school teachers based on how much their students improved from year to year on standardized reading and math tests. The data — which school districts across the nation possess on their own students — had never been analyzed. It suggested that the best teachers often taught just down the hall from the worst, and those highly effective teachers consistently raised test scores no matter who their students were.
The teachers' union denounced the rankings as unfair, and the controversy highlighted one of the great ironies of the nation's public education system: Even though a teacher's job is to teach, student test scores are rarely used to evaluate teacher performance. Laws in several states — including California until recently — have actually prohibited using such scores to rate teachers. That's like barring the use of batting averages to help evaluate baseball players, for fear of embarrassing the .200 hitters.
Reformers agree that hiring good teachers and firing bad ones is the single best way to improve education. But powerful teachers' unions, abetted by weak-kneed lawmakers and school boards, have stood in the way of making evaluations meaningful.
In too many districts, the system relies on harried administrators rating teachers based on pre-arranged observations in classes. In Los Angeles in 2008, 99.3% of teachers were rated "meets standards." Fewer than 1% were rated "below standard," according to a study by The New Teacher Project, a non-profit group that advocates improved instruction. Even the teachers' union admits the system is broken.
Nor is Los Angeles an exception. After studying teacher evaluations in 12 districts in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio, the group concluded that "on paper, almost every teacher is a great teacher," even in districts replete with failing schools.
The upshot is that bad teachers don't get replaced, great teachers don't get rewarded and students' lives are blunted. That's finally starting to change. The Obama administration, which is rewarding state reforms with federal funds in its "Race to the Top" competition, has made revamping teacher evaluations a priority. A dozen states — including Nevada, New York and Wisconsin — have rewritten laws to allow using test scores.
More districts have begun using a "value added" evaluation, which provides one way to gauge teacher effectiveness because it measures a child's progress as he or she goes through a year of classes. To be sure, it isn't the full measure, and even its staunchest advocates suggest that it be used as half or less of a teacher's evaluation.
Even so, reform doesn't come easy. In Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee combined value-added with sophisticated observations to evaluate teachers. Her firing this summer of 76 teachers has so angered the union that it is working to oust Adrian Fenty, the mayor who hired Rhee, in next week's Democratic primary.
The raging debate over whether the Times should have published the test data misses the larger point. If school officials cared enough about students to evaluate teachers properly, a newspaper wouldn't have to try to do it for them.
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.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

Learn More About TNTP