Strikes and scores

strikeThe Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted Tuesday to end its seven-day-old strike, and the teachers were back in the schools yesterday.  The strike, at the nation’s third largest school district, received quite a bit of attention across the nation, with coverage on major media outlets.  There were a number of contentious issues in the negotiations between the CTU and the Chicago Board of Education, but none was more vigorously contested than that of teacher evaluations.

How to effectively assess teacher performance has been hotly debated in educational policy – and research – circles in recent years.  Historically, at least in those school districts around the country that were unionized, there was relatively little formal teacher evaluation and assessment done once a teacher had been tenured, which generally occurred within the first four years of his or her career (disclosure: while I have never been a member of a teacher’s union, my wife has been in the past).

It can be fairly argued that the focus on teacher assessment is part of a broader educational reform movement that has challenged many of the traditional norms of the public education system in the United States.  Educational reformers have put forward a number of suggestions for improving the quality of the system, in order to bring performance of American students up to the levels of other countries as measured by international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Many school boards have pushed to incorporate more rigorous forms of teacher assessment as union contracts come up for negotiation (in non-unionized districts, or in private or charter schools, there is more latitude for school leadership to unilaterally impose an assessment system).  One form of evaluation that has taken hold across the states is to assess teachers based in part on the performance of the students in their classes, as measured most commonly by their scores on state assessment tests.  And it was the use of student test scores that was at the heart of the CTU strike.  The school board had wanted an assessment system that based 45% of the evaluation on the student test scores; the CTU fought vigorously against this.  In the end, the two sides agreed on keeping the role of student test scores at the current level of 30% of a teacher’s evaluation score, the minimum required by Illinois state law.

As with other proposals for improving public education, teacher assessment should be open for discussion – and for research. In the current political environment, it is difficult for teachers and their unions to steadfastly resist any attempt to put in place mechanisms for determining how well each teacher is performing.  But they also are within their rights to insist on evaluation systems that have been shown to be reliable and valid in distinguishing between strong teachers and weak teachers.  While many researchers across the country, including some in our College of Education, are conducting research on this topic, it is still a fairly new and emerging topic (and we are currently conducting a search for two faculty members who do research on teacher quality and assessment).

There are a number of issues to consider when examining the role that student test scores should play in teacher assessment systems, including:

  • How do you control for differences in student characteristics from classroom to classroom?  Research clearly shows that student performance on tests is a factor of a number of issues, including prior educational experiences, the home environment, access to outside-of-school educational assistance, and the like.  So you don’t want to set up an evaluation system that discourages teachers from teaching in schools or classrooms with harder-to-educate students.  You want to create incentives for your best teachers to teach the most challenging students, but rewarding teachers based on student test performance could hinder this.
  • Have the tests being used been validated as an instrument for measuring teacher performance?  While most state curricular assessments have been validated for measuring student performance, few, if any, have been shown to be valid measures of teacher performance.
  • How do you assess teachers who teach subjects in which students are not tested, or are not tested every year?  For example, here in Michigan, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests are administered only in grades 3 through 9, and not every subject (math, reading, writing, social sciences, and science) is tested in every grade.  Art, physical education, music, and special education teachers – how should test scores be used to assess them?  Or are other forms of student assessment needed to determine the performance of teachers in these subjects?

These questions, and the issue of teacher assessment, are not relevant to schools of education only as a research topic.  The U.S. Department of Education is currently looking at regulations for teacher preparation programs that would include measures of the performance of the programs’ graduates, including how those teachers’ students performed on standardized tests (I previously wrote about this topic in an earlier blog post).  So those of us in education schools have been following these debates quite closely, and we will be engaged in them as they move forward.

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