The unanswered questions of teacher evaluations

December 26, 2010

Maryland has evidently opened quite a can of worms in promising to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student achievement ("State is not backing away from teacher evaluation rule," Dec. 24). One of the most obvious concerns, which I have not yet seen discussed, is the influence of socioeconomic factors on achievement.

Students in a neighborhood where most people live in the same place for 10 years or more are almost certain to do a lot better in school than those who live with chronic housing instability and sometimes housing insecurity. Quite apart from other factors which may be correlated with those differences, parents who spend more time worrying about housing, looking for housing and moving have that much less time to focus on their children, supervise homework, read together, visit museums and other things that contribute to children's academic development.

Children who lack those family benefits are likely to do less well in school, and in many cases to act out in ways that make teaching and learning harder for everyone else. It would be unjust and stupid to evaluate teachers and principals without taking such neighborhood differences into consideration. Student achievement that approaches state averages in a poor neighborhood may reflect far more professional skill and commitment than achievement far above average in a rich one.

Creating an equitable formula for evaluation is not going to be easy. I wish the state luck, and a lot of thoughtful discussion.

Katharine W. Rylaarsdam, Baltimore

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