Making the best use of teacher evaluations

By James McCusker Herald Columnist

A few days ago, a report from the Center for Public Integrity on state government corruption and crime assigned a grade of “F” to the state of Maine. At least one Maine resident we know, who had previously lived and worked for substantial amounts of time in Boston, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia, found this surprising.

It was no less surprising to the rest of us around the country who rely on news headlines to alert them to trouble spots in our country. Maine simply doesn’t show up in a lot of headlines. And as far as most of us know, its biggest crime wave ended years ago when that J.D. Fletcher woman moved away from Cabot Cove after “Murder She Wrote” was cancelled by CBS.

Maine’s most frequent corruption story is more Down East humor than actual malfeasance. When the state’s notoriously inclement winters produce pavement “frost heaves” that disturb motorists’ stomachs and devastate automobile suspensions, residents claim that the state or the country hired a Miami contractor to save money.

Maine’s reputation remains untarnished, despite its bad grade. It turns out that the state’s “F” wasn’t the result of an investigation that unearthed some vast organized crime syndicate. The Center for Public Integrity explains that its report “is not a measure of morality or good behavior of the people serving in state government.” Instead, it measures the quantity and strength of the laws, policies and practices that prohibit and attempt to prevent bad behavior.

Setting aside the “headline management as marketing” aspect of the report, it does reflect our teenlike addiction to rankings irrespective of their reality content. It also reflects our current infatuation with statistical measurement systems containing more mathematics than thought.

The reality of the Center for Public Integrity’s report is that before its makeover it was a potentially useful, if unexciting, comparative analysis of anti-corruption legislation on the books in our fifty states. As publicized, though, it’s “Moneyball” all over again.

Nowhere is our infatuation with rankings and statistics more evident than in the proliferation of “value-added” performance measurements for teachers. It is a classic example of preferring the simplicity of what we can easily measure to the difficulty of what we needed to measure in the first place.

In practice as well as in theory, value-added teacher ratings can be based on all sorts of current and time-sequenced, performance-related variables. The value-added look at higher education faculty, for example, used multiple measures of teaching performance, including student evaluations. At the K-12 level, though, most frequently they are simply linked to student test scores on some type of achievement examination.

This type of measurement has the kind of initial credibility that number-based systems still enjoy. And even though subsequent research reveals the numbers themselves are a lot “softer” and inaccurate than they first seem, rankings anchored to test score statistics have lost none of their appeal.

There are some fundamental problems with this type of system, though, and they need to be addressed as soon as possible.

The first is that teacher evaluation wasn’t really the problem in the first place. Any school principal worth his or her pay could sit down and rank the teaching staff in terms of performance. They might not even have to sit down to do it. It’s their job to know these things.

The truth is that everybody in the school knows who the good and bad teachers are. The real question, then, is not performance measuring as such, but what we do with the performance information we already have and have had available for years. As we all know, the answer to that question is pretty much nothing so far.

The second problem is the value added by making the teacher evaluation rankings public, which was recently done in New York City. There is clearly no added value within the schools themselves beyond its “slam book” giggle potential for the students.

The value to parents, too, is questionable since it is likely that the parents who didn’t realize that their kids were going to a crummy school will be the same ones who will be unaware of or ignore the publication of teacher rankings.

This isn’t a happy picture, but there is still hope. Although close to useless in their present form value-added performance measurements have forced teachers unions and school systems to sit down to discuss and negotiate the role that performance standards should play in labor contracts.

That doesn’t sound like much and it isn’t, but it is more progress on this crucial issue than we’ve seen in over a half-century. Give it a “B-minus” which, incidentally, was Washington state’s grade in the public integrity report.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Snohomish County Business Journal.