Evaluating teachers on student performance benefits both

May 05, 2010

In a recent op-ed state senator and Montgomery County Education Association employee Paul Pinsky asked the state of Maryland to "dig deeper" when looking at the impact that changes to local evaluation systems could make on teachers and students. I say it's time we do just that, by taking a look at what we are really being asked to change.

As stated by the U.S. Department of Education, the "Race to the Top" funding, among other things, is about "improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance." It's about "providing opportunities for highly effective teachers and principals to obtain additional compensation." And it's about "removing ineffective tenured and untenured teachers and principals after they have had ample opportunities to improve." Many, including my only local school district and union, find these concepts to be an assault on their current way of doing things. While I appreciate the good work and progress my own county and union have made, especially in the past decade, I could not disagree more with their assessment that change in Montgomery County is currently unnecessary.

While the debate has centered on the use of student data in teacher evaluations, we should understand that this is mere deflection from the greater issue at hand. Whether teacher evaluations are comprised of 50 percent student growth data or a "significant" portion of student growth data is at its heart of no practical consequence. The fact that the debate has so far centered on this question is most likely the result of political squabbling and power grabs that no good hearted citizen of our state should have to bear.

The deeper issue is whether we should create an educational system that evaluates and rewards teachers and principals based on performance in an institution where such market-based principles have traditionally been absent. Montgomery County Public Schools and the county's teachers union have implicitly made clear that they are opposed to these fundamental changes by stating they are currently unwilling to change their current Professional Growth System. However, as a Montgomery County teacher and member of MCEA, I believe the inclusion of these principles into Professional Growth Systems across the state will be a victory for the teaching profession and a victory for all our students who stand to benefit the most from these reforms.

Allow me to illustrate my point. Today, I spoke with a new first year teacher who pursues her master's degree in education during the evening. She looked tired, as most first year teachers look, so I asked her if everything was OK. She replied that it was not and that she was tired or struggling with her job and that she did not know if she would teaching next year. Why? Because she is not tenured, and by the negotiated MCEA contract, all new teachers must be dismissed before any tenured teacher. While I have never seen this particular teacher instruct, I do know this: a system that dismisses teachers based on seniority rather than ability or quality is indeed a broken system. What impact does dismissing the most hard-working and promising teachers among us have on our system? And worse, what impact does that have on our students?

This is not at its core an issue about whether student data should be included in evaluation systems. What unions and some school systems understand is that accepted "Race to the Top" applications will challenge the long held institutional beliefs about what are fair and equitable evaluation and compensation practices. No longer will we arbitrarily assume that all teachers work equally hard or that all teachers do their job equally well. This is about creating a system that pays teachers who are more effective more money than those who are not. It's about creating incentives to put these top teachers in areas that need it most. It's about motivating those teachers who have done what they have done longest, to do it better. And it's about considering the quality and ability of instructors and principals rather than the number of years they have put into the system. It's about dismissing ineffective teachers, not new teachers.

While some want to focus the argument around the types and kind of student assessments that will be used to measure teacher and principal effectiveness, to do this is to miss the larger issue at stake. We can adjust evaluation and assessment systems as they reveal themselves to be more and less effective. We can continue to include "other" factors in evaluation systems that value those things not measured merely by longitudinal student data. There is still plenty of wiggle room under the state law to do just that. And if state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state board enact such harsh regulations as to make this type of wiggle room impossible (and I don't think they will), I'm quite certain they too can be dismissed in favor of those willing to put in more permissive regulations.

But we should not relent because we think our current system is just fine, or that it's a "national model," or that the new law will hamstring growth for years, or that it makes us uncomfortable. We should not pronounce to our teachers, as MCEA President Doug Prouty recently did via e-mail that, "we have not changed our evaluation in any way. We have no intention of doing so." Instead, we should embrace the opportunity provided to us to get the best and the brightest teachers into education, teachers who will know that their hard work and energy will be rewarded, rather than dismissing these same teachers because they have only worked a single year within the county. This is a system that deserves our attention, as well as our best intentions to change it.

Mike McCabe, Ellicott City

The writer is a Montgomery County teacher and Montgomery County Education Association member.

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