Tear Down that (Fire)Wall!

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of attention with regard to firewalls and the linkages between the evaluation of teachers and the achievement of students.  The current draft criteria for Race to the Top proclaims that states must be able to use student performance data from their respective state assessments, crosswalking it back to the classroom to determine which teachers have been effective (and which have not).  In a new era of teacher incentives and merit pay, the trickledown of federal law will soon demand that good teachers “show” their effectiveness, and that there is no stronger measure for it than how well their students achieve.

As soon as those draft criteria were written, we started hearing of the legal obstacles policymakers in California, New York, Nevada, and Wisconsin would need to overcome (as all four states currently prohibit linking individual teachers to student achievement data).  California claims that while it is prohibited at the state level, exemplar school districts like Long Beach Unified are already pursuing such policies.  New Yorkers immediately go on the defensive, and claim that the federal interpretation of laws in the Empire State is incorrect.  Wisconsin’s soon-to-be former governor is quickly working with the state legislature to reverse their firewall issue.  And what happens in Vegas is clearly staying there, as we’ve heard nary a peep from Nevada on their plans to address a potential stumbling block to RttT funds.
At the heart of the firewall issue is one incredibly important philosophy.  If we are to improve the quality of K-12 education in the United States, we need to ensure effective, high-quality teaching is happening in classrooms throughout the nation.  To ensure that, we need hard, strong, irrefutable quantitative measures for determining effective teaching.  And the surest path to determining effective teaching is by measuring the outputs.  Good teaching results in effective learning.  Effective learning shows itself on student assessments.  Strong student assessments mean quality teaching in the classroom.  Rinse and repeat.
Is it as simple as that?  In an era where most of our student assessments are focused on measuring reading and math proficiency in grades three through eight, do we really have a full quantitative picture to separate the good teachers from the bad?  Do we really have the data to determine effective teaching from that which is getting in the way of achievement?  And do we know enough about student performance data that we are able to make very clear cause/effect determinations of teacher quality based on student test scores, without needing to factor in the other variables, factors, and resources that ultimately impact a student’s ability to learn?
Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is all for focusing on teacher quality.  We have schools of education who are turning out teachers that lack the pedagogy or content knowledge to succeed (with most of them ending up in the schools and communities that need teachers the best).  In fact, Harvard University Dean Merseth recently said that only 100 education schools are doing “a competent job,” while the other 1,200 could be shut down tomorrow.  
At the same time, prevalent thinking has grown more and more in line with the belief that pedagogy and clinical training simply do not matter.  New teachers can get by on four weeks of classroom prep, not four years.  Low-quality teacher training programs and questionable alternative certification pathways are all about throwing teachers into the deep end, without ensuring that they are able to swim first.  And we’ve built a system where the classrooms and communities in the most need are rarely serving as home to our strongest and most capable teachers.  Struggling schools are made to feel lucky they have a teacher at all, and are more than happy to just settle for a “warm body.”
The convergence of these beliefs and these realities paint a dangerous picture when it comes to rewarding teacher quality and measuring it by student performance on state assessments.  Why?
Teaching is more than just reading and math.  Yes, those two subjects represent the very foundations of learning.  Without reading and math skills, students will struggle performing in other subjects.  But if state assessments are our rubric, are we saying that some subject matter teachers are less equal than others?  We all know that science will soon be brought on line, but what about other academic subjects.  Social studies and history.  Art and music.  Foreign languages.  Even ELL and special education.  Do those teachers not fit into our bell curve of effective teaching if we do not have state assessments for the subjects they teach?  Are they not effective teachers because we are not measuring student achievement in their chosen academic fields?  
What about the notion of the teacher team?  If I am a middle school student, my performance on the state reading exam is impacted by more than just what is happening in my ELA class.  Hopefully, my social studies teacher is introducing new vocabulary words and forcing me to apply critical thinking and comprehension skills to what I am reading.  My first or second year of a foreign language is getting me to reflect more closely on sentence structure and the roots and meanings of key words or word parts.  Even my math and science classes are contributing to my overall literacy skills.  So if I gain on the state reading exam, is that just a win for my reading teacher (as the current proposals would call for) or is that a win for the entire faculty?  Should teacher success be based on the success of the school, with a rising instructional tide lifting all boats, or can it really be winnowed down to a one-to-one formula, where a boost in an individual student’s reading score is solely credited to the teacher who happened to have them in the ELA class for 45 minutes a day?
What about longitudinal gains?  In Washington, DC, this year we witnessed how targeted test skill development can influence performance on the state exam.  So are we asking teachers to do test prep or to teach? Are they to facilitate or to educate?  Seems that the ultimate measure of a teacher is not just the short term gain on the state assessment, but also how well the student retains that knowledge and applies it in future grades and in future studies.  But how, exactly, do we capture that in a quick and dirty way?  In an era where we still look for the immediate payoff, no one wants to wait and see the longitudinal academic gains of students, ensuring that there are no drop-offs from fourth grade until eighth grade?
Are all gains equal?  If I am a math teacher in an upper class suburban public school, and my students post five point gains on the state assessment, taking them from 92 percent to 97 percent, is that equal to a math teacher in a failing urban middle school who boosts student math performance from 45 percent to 50 percent?  Is a gain a gain, or are some gains more equal than others?  Do teachers get extra points for impacting the achievement gap?  Is there a weighted system for demonstrating gains in dropout factories or historically low-performing schools?  Is demonstrating real movement in the bottom quintile worth more than moving a few points in the uppermost quintile?  
And then we have all of the intangibles that should be factored into the mix.  Class size.  Native languages.  Pre-service education.  In-service professional development.  Quality and quantity of instructional materials.  Accessibility to mentor teachers. &nbsp
;Parental involvement.  Principal and administrator support.  All play a role in driving student achievement and ultimately closing the achievement gap.  How do all get factored into the formula that student achievement plus teacher incentives equals effective educators?
We should be doing everything we can to strengthen the teaching profession and ensure that classrooms in need are getting the most effective teachers possible.  We should acknowledge that not everyone is cut out for teaching, and that getting that first teaching job and a union card should not be the only tools required to assure lifetime employment.  And we should look to quantifiably measure teacher effectiveness, recognizing that the ultimate ROI for education is whether students are learning or not (and that they are able to retain it).  We should be incentivizing superstar teachers, particularly those who teach hard-to-staff subjects or in hard-to-staff schools.
But before we tear down the remaining firewalls and decide that teacher evaluations are based solely on a student’s singular performance on a bubble sheet exam, we need to make sure we aren’t moving a bad solution forward without truly diagnosing the problem.  Virtually all states are struggling to implement good data systems that track students longitudinally.  Before such data tracking is in place, can we really use the numbers to evaluate teacher performance?  Current standards are a hodgepodge of the good, bad, and ugly when it comes to what we are teaching students and what we expect them to learn.  Can we evaluate teachers on student performance when we have no national agreement on what student proficiency in fourth or eighth grade truly looks like, regardless of zip code or state lines?  And can we truly use assessments to evaluate teachers when the vast majority of educators teach subjects or grades that simply aren’t assessed in the first place?
Seems we need to focus on the development and implementation of our standards, our assessments, and our data collection before we can move to step 106 and begin applying that data to determine the salaries, longevity, and very existence of the teachers we are linking it to.  In our zeal to fix the problem, we could be creating a slew of additional ones.  And at the end of the day, none of them get at the heart of the matter — improving the quality of instruction while boosting student learning and closing the gaps between the haves and have nots.

437 thoughts on “Tear Down that (Fire)Wall!

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