Putting students first

Our view: What’s wrong with judging teachers by how well their pupils perform?

April 30, 2010

We'll wager most people who have achieved any amount of success in life can point to at least one teacher during their formative years who had a big impact on helping them achieve their goals. Such educators are cherished in memory long after their classroom days are over, and their legacies continue in the many young lives they touched.

Maybe that's just another way of saying we judge great teachers by what their students achieve, which is how schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick thinks Maryland ought to judge its educators as well. This week, Ms. Grasmick persuaded the state board of education to adopt a proposal that would require student achievement to make up at least half of teacher and principal evaluations.

Tying teacher evaluations to student performance hasn't typically been popular with teachers or their unions. But the idea has gained new urgency under the Obama administration, which has made teacher accountability a centerpiece of the reforms it is trying to encourage through the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top competition. This year, the department is slated to award hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars to states willing to take strong action to raise student achievement levels in measurable ways that show whether teachers and principals are making a difference.

Ms. Grasmick has been talking to teachers associations throughout the state to reassure them that the new evaluation standards are not an attempt to punish teachers or to put their livelihoods in jeopardy. While the immediate impetus behind the change is clearly to make Maryland more competitive for a federal grant, she's also made it clear that this is a reform that will benefit the state's schoolchildren regardless of how the Race to the Top turns out. It's simply the right thing to do.

Still, nobody expects it to be easy. It will take time to develop new rules for monitoring student achievement that take into account the great differences among students and the schools they attend. Obviously, one can't judge the progress a special needs student makes the same way one judges that of a kid enrolled in a gifted and talented program. But for both, the criteria by which their teachers are evaluated ought be the same: Did the child make measureable progress in the classroom over the course of the year, and if not, what could the teacher have done to improve his or her performance? Regardless of where a student starts out, the goal should be academic growth, however state officials eventually choose to define that.

Standardized tests, of course, are the traditional way of measuring student achievement, and the state will have to take a hard look at the role test scores should play in the new evaluation system, especially since not all students take the Maryland State Assessment or High School Assessment exams every year. There's also the question of what proportion of the 50 percent (or more) of a teacher's evaluation that's tied to student achievement should directly relate to test scores.

Officials will also have to decide how to handle evaluations when students fail to achieve through no fault on the teacher's part. That's a particularly thorny issue in poor jurisdictions, where there are often many factors affecting students' ability to learn that are completely outside educators' control. It's fair to hold teachers accountable for what and how well students are taught but not to blame them for the family problems or substance abuse issues their kids bring with them into the classroom.

Sorting all this out will take time, and Ms. Grasmick still has a lot of work to do getting local school officials and unions to buy into her reforms. But ultimately Maryland schoolchildren will be far better off for having a system in which the success of the adults is measured by the success of the students.

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