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High standards, teacher testing key to new law's success

Noises emanating from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education indicate that the new teacher evaluation system for public educators holds promise, with some tweaks, in improving the quality of education in Louisiana.

The Board’s annual retreat featured remarks from the designers of the new system, necessitated by a new law that stipulates annual evaluations for all (it had been every three years for those with tenure) and that half of it be tied to student achievement, reviewing baselines and judging on progress made. Now, other details being filled in are emerging.

Appropriately, changes in subject knowledge of English, mathematics, reading, science, and social studies will comprise the half. Adding slightly as part of the other half are factors related to capacity and motivation to learn, represented by indicators like eligibility for free- or reduced-price lunches (a measure of poverty), attendance, disability, and discipline. The remainder presumably is observations of classroom management. Corrective actions will be taken for low performers, with dismissal if performance does not approve according to these metrics.

If this represents a broad brush treatment, some specifics still need addressing. While achievement gains will work well as a proxy for overall quality of teaching, they still do not capture fully the concept of teacher subject area knowledge. For example, a teacher competently versed in his subject may be able to slide by with good, motivated students who can overcome by themselves this teacher’s knowledge deficiencies, whereas one who is very knowledgeable despite that may have difficulty with a collection of less-capable students. This creates fewer incentives for the less knowledgeable teachers to improve their performances which could really multiply the achievement of better students, and might put a knowledgeable teacher at hazard of dismissal. Therefore, annual subject area teaching of every employee with a teaching license (in as many areas as a teacher wants to take) should be part of this, perhaps a quarter of the score.

Doing this also would reduce the impact of politics in the evaluation process. Before this new law, way too much of the process was subjective, allowing principal’s pets to stay on despite poor actual ability or not discouraging the setting of mediocre standards for retention. With the achievement requirement, but especially with a testing requirement, objective standards would constitute the large majority of the evaluation instrument. However, classroom management skills are a necessity as pedagogically disorganized and behaviorally unruly classes impede learning, so this should carry some weight and provide an opportunity to identify shortcomings in these areas just as the testing would identify knowledge deficiencies.

This consideration, however, brings up perhaps the most crucial and as yet unaddressed detail of all: standards to determine retention and correction must be demanding. As anybody who has spent some time in a classroom at any level will tell you (if honest), genuine, superior achievement only comes through being a demanding instructor with high standards. Ever since testing was introduced in Louisiana schools, each year after taking the Graduate Exit Exam or its equivalent, some high school students with very high GPAs end up not passing it (even class valedictorians). This is because little was asked of them by their teachers, whereas some students in high schools were standards are much higher may struggle to earn grades to pass yet pass the end-of-course exams.

Some of this disparity is as a result of teachers being incompetent in subject material, but more often is has to do with teacher effort. Demanding more out of students means demanding more out of yourself in terms of ability to cover more topics more thoroughly and to create and grade challenging assessments. You have to put more into lectures, into making assignments and in the number of them, and in grading and offering corrective information. It’s harder work which many will not do on their own unless the benchmarks make them do so.

It would be nice if, as one BESE member commented, the presence of these new criteria didn’t change the way teachers behaved in the performance of their duties. But that’s not the real world, where many will put in just the effort they need to get by (some will be driven to do more regardless of level of standards and relative incentives). This points to one other aspect that should be incorporated explicitly into the system: merit pay. Beyond the threat of dismissal, merit pay based upon this kind of system largely based on objective measures will encourage greater excellence out of more teachers, and for those already highly self-motivated to achieve will provide ample reward for their superior service.

So the promise is there (especially as it complements previous efforts), but adding these kinds of things into the equation is the difference between marginal improvement in quality of education and creating a world class educational system in Louisiana.

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