We Need To Develop The Tools To Find The Best Teachers

The President of an advertising agency where I used to work in Manhattan had an entirely unsentimental—but highly descriptive—saying about our staff: “My most valuable asset goes down the elevator at the end of every day, and I just hope they come back up again in the morning”.  He knew, as all good managers do, that the success or failure of his business was entirely dependent on hiring and retaining the best employees.

However, imagine, if you will, trying to run a business without having any clue which of your employees are good or bad at their jobs—leaving you to grasp at whatever measure seems handy in an effort to make a marginally informed guess about who to promote and who to fire.  If this notion seems a bit odd to you, you obviously have never worked in public education.

Let’s face it: most schools in the United States have very little idea which of their teachers are good, bad, or indifferent because the pertinent data is often simply not there—and, if it is, school districts and teacher’s unions are loath to peek at the numbers.  This point is amply illustrated by the recent experience of the Los Angeles Unified School District with a system known as “Value-Added Analysis”, which ranks the effectiveness of teachers based on the academic performance of their students from one to year to the next.

The system of value-added analysis has been kicking around for years, and has been used as a part of teacher evaluations in school districts ranging Tennessee to Washington, D.C.  In the case of the Los Angeles school system, administrators had the raw data available for years.  It was, however, left to the Los Angeles Times to obtain the data, hire an expert from the Rand Corporation to run the analyses, and, in a case of first-ever civic transparency that has L.A. teachers, school officials, and union leaders doing somersaults of shock and indignation, publish the value-added analyses for over 6,000 elementary school teachers and 470 schools in their newspaper.

What they found when they ran the numbers was not all that much of a surprise: a child’s teacher makes a tremendous difference, a difference that is breathtaking in terms of the effect that a single year with a very good—or very bad—teacher can have on the educational future of a child.  In fact, the teacher assigned to a child was three times more important than the school he or she attended in terms of that child’s chances for academic achievement.  Moreover, excellent teachers were found by other studies of the district to be just as excellent for all their students, regardless of the student’s English language proficiency, race, or family income—which certainly blows a big hole in the oft-repeated claim that all that is wrong with our public schools today is that too many of our students are poor, black, or foreign.

However, what might be surprising to some is that the value-added analysis showed that teacher education, experience, and training seems to not make a lick of difference in a teacher’s effectiveness—good teachers are good at their job for reasons that have nothing to do with attending workshops on Teacher Institute days or the number of years they have stood in front of a classroom.  In addition, some principals seemed utterly befuddled to find out that the teachers they thought were excellent were, in fact, ranked right at the bottom in terms of measurable student achievement.

The problem is, of course, that we have spent a great many years stabbing in the dark with frightening ignorance, whether willful or not, when it comes to hiring and tenuring public school teachers.  Lacking any reasonable basis for judging whether a teacher is good or bad at their job other than a handful of pre-arranged classroom observations, administrators often resort to bean-counting disciplinary referrals, leafing through piles of basically meaningless certifications, and insisting on properly formatted lesson plans when it is more likely the ability to do the job is based on qualities of attention to detail, personal integrity, and devotion to the profession that don’t show up anywhere on a standard teacher evaluation form.

Given that public school administrators have to do something when it comes to evaluating their teachers, I suppose it is not surprising that so many have, for lack of a better system, resorted to their own idiosyncratic methods of deciding who will stay and who will go when it comes time to grant tenure; we are, however, likely ill-served by a system that is too often a relatively capricious exercise masquerading as entirely dispassionate science.  When we look at the dismal, and often declining, performance of so many of our public schools, it is not hard to recognize the need to start asking some very pointed questions about whether we are daily digging our own graves by continuing to rely on vague and often pointless criteria to grant a lifetime of employment to those who educate our young.

When all schools routinely publish value-added rankings of their most and least effective teachers based on standardized test data, which is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future after a consortium contracted by the U.S. Department of Education finishes creating computer-based tests that generate immediate results throughout the school year, it will likely cause a great deal of discomfort for both teachers and administrators.  Nonetheless, given the alternative—that alternative being today’s system that combines the worst of subjectivity with the best of obfuscation—it is impossible to argue we should not move as swiftly as possible toward a future that recognizes teachers must be able to teach with measurable effectiveness if they want to remain in the classroom.

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