It’s time to grade the teachers

Patrick Gibbons

It is extremely rare for politicians to turn down other people's money, even if the sticky strings of a spider's web are attached.

But policymakers in Nevada are turning down President Obama's "Race to the Top" education dollars rather than vex teacher-union bosses.

Nevada fails to qualify for the funds because of a union-demanded provision that lawmakers inserted into state law in 2003. That was when the legislature was passing NRS 386.650 so that Nevada could get federal No Child Left Behind dollars. To qualify, Nevada had to establish a statewide program under which school districts collect and maintain data on students' academic achievement, attendance and drop-out rates. Such data allows longitudinal studies to be done later, tracking the effects of different variables.

The most important variable — much research has proven — is teacher quality, which has an impact some 20 times as powerful as, for example, smaller class size. Yet lawmakers acquiesced before the union and negated the entire purpose of the data, requiring that "[t]he information … must not be used for the purpose of evaluating an individual teacher or paraprofessional." The Obama administration won't give "Race to the Top" money to states with such a provision.

Teachers, subject to much union demagoguery, naturally fear evaluations that would be unfair to teachers working with predominantly minority, low-income or mentally handicapped students — all of whom often underperform. But the way we evaluate teachers now is unfair to the students, their parents and everyone who pays to support our very expensive schools.

For a teacher to earn tenure in Nevada, state law only requires three "satisfactory," but entirely subjective, evaluations. Principals simply observe classroom preparation, management skills, lesson plans and other categories of behavior, most of which have nothing to do with whether or not the students are learning. Teachers can even be tenured after just one year on the job.

Not surprisingly, few teachers receive unsatisfactory reviews, and even fewer lose their positions for poor performance.

Although research demonstrates that the single most important factor affecting student success is the teacher, Nevada lawmakers have ensured that public schools have almost no way of separating the good teachers from the bad. Even when school principals do uncover terrible teachers, they are hard pressed to get those teachers to improve, let alone find another line of work.

Our meaningless teacher evaluations would allow union bosses to defend a dead body in a classroom — assuming, of course, they could still collect the departed's dues. It's a system not fair to students by design. Instead, Nevada public education some time ago became a jobs program for adults.

Fortunately, there is a way to evaluate teachers fairly and help students at the same time: It's called "value-added assessment." Teachers are evaluated based on how much knowledge their individual students gain over the course of the year, rather than their students meeting or exceeding some preset benchmark.

Individual students' test scores are compared with their own scores from past years — not with other students' — and a trend line predicting future student achievement emerges.

"If you find that the majority of kids in a particular classroom have flat spots on the growth curve," wrote Dr. William L. Sanders in an article for Teacher Magazine, "it becomes strong, powerful evidence that something regarding instruction is not happening in that classroom."

Sanders is the "father" of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. Research he conducted revealed that students in classrooms with highly effective teachers learned 50 percent more over a three-year period than did peers with teachers who were in the bottom 20 percent. Today, such student data can be used to identify and reward good teachers or to identify weak teachers and help them improve. Or failing that, provide schools with the evidence needed to encourage weak teachers to pursue other careers.

Today, high proportions of new teachers are recruited out of the bottom third of college graduates. That means that class-size reduction programs, such as Nevada has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into over recent decades, actually only increase the likelihood that students are taught by ineffective teachers. For this biennium, the Nevada Legislature dedicated $290 million to class-size reduction — money that could be better spent properly evaluating teachers and rewarding high-achieving teachers and schools with bonuses.

Nevada needs to move public education's focus back to students and away from giving jobs to adults.

A good start would be eliminating the inappropriate restrictions in state law on teacher evaluations and creating instead a meaningful value-added assessment program, using the student data we already collect.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.