GUEST BLOGGER: Mary Anne Mather, Using Data Facilitator & Social Media Liaison on Twitter & FaceBook

Shimmering water view Falmouth, Massachusetts

A beautiful morning walk in Falmouth, Massachusetts

A recent weekend wedding celebration on Cape Cod brought together a stirring mix of sapphire shimmering ocean, stunning bride (who I had the joy of watching transform over the years from little girl to accomplished young woman), and satisfying conversation with long-time friends—an enjoyable mix of hilarity, nostalgia, and sometimes serious discourse.

During several early-morning walks with friends connected through our work as educators, the more serious discourse returned time and again to an impassioned discussion about teacher evaluation. This conversation was prompted in particular by a June 4 Washington Post article, Maryland Teacher Evaluation Redesign Bogs Down. We were somewhat stunned to learn two pieces of data: 1) Almost a year ago, Maryland won a $250 million federal grant to build a “transparent and fair” teacher and principal evaluation model that would tie their success to student test scores and learning, and 2) The state is seeking a year’s extension to fully execute the evaluation system it has yet to develop.

“Two-hundred fifty million,” my friend mused. “They could hire 250 people and pay them a million dollars each. With that kind of brain trust you’d think something could be developed in a year.” We laughed, but think about it.

WE did think about it. And talked about it. And then talked some more. Over the duration of several walks and shared meals, the “business” conversation on our end included talk like this:

• We speculated that all that money must have been awarded in the hopes of creating a model system 1) capable of broad adoption nationwide, and 2) ensuring an accurately assembled collection of algorithms that could reliably provide an automated handicapping routine able to take into account: the influence of previous teachers on any given student; the fact that my class this year might have a larger population of English language learners or special needs kids than yours (and what are those exact needs?); the fluid, just-in-time collaboration with my grade-level colleagues as we team-teach student skills development; and an endless list of other variables—yet still be able to pinpoint the relationship of MY individual influence on the specific standardized test scores of an individual student.

12 people standing on a data line

Can you fairly translate student data to teacher evaluation?

• We were not convinced that any amount of money can build an automated system that alone can provide “transparent and fair” educator evaluation. This thinking seems ironically echoed in a June 5 New York Times article also focused on teacher evaluation models in Maryland, Helping Teachers Help Themselves, in which it was reported that the Montgomery County Superintendent would not take federal Race to the Top money because the grant required districts to include students’ state test results as a measure of teacher quality.

• We admitted to one another that we are not against considering student test scores in the same sentence with teacher evaluation measures, but it’s only one data point, not THE data point. And not even the most important or reliable data point.

There was lots more talk about the need for trained leaders to facilitate effective teacher evaluation, the role of the unions, evaluation horror stories and successes we had experienced during our teaching careers, the use of teacher-focused Individual Education Plans (IEPs) linked to annual performance reviews, and ways to blow up, not just tinker with, a very old system.

I’m an English language arts major, which perhaps accounts for how overwhelmed I feel about a mathematically based system that can accurately tie standardized test data to teacher evaluation. When I hear the word “system,” I hope it refers to the concept in a more inclusive way—one that integrates human elements that can be described, and systematized, but really can’t be automated. My friends and I are interested in your contribution to this conversation. What does a “transparent and fair” system look like? What are the essential components? How can they work reliably? Maybe we can share some thoughts with the Maryland team.

More Information If You’re Interested

There have been a plethora of articles, reports, and opinionated discourse similar to what my friends and I had over the wedding weekend about teacher evaluation tied to standardized tests, and from the sound of it all, there will need to be a whole lot more before anything sensible (and let’s add “fair and transparent”) is created, piloted, evaluated, and proven (and we are hopeful that piloted, evaluated, and proven are part of the equation before the firing commences!). Here are a few references if you want to stimulate some talking points:

Can Teachers Be Evaluated By Their Students’ Test Scores? Should they be? The Use of Value-Added Measures of  Teacher Effectiveness in Policy and Practice
Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Brown University
NYU professor Sean Corcoran uses data analysis to argue that value-added models are not precise enough to be useful for high-stakes decision-making or professional development. Corcoran cautions to be fully aware of the limitations and shortcomings of these models and consider whether their minimal benefits outweigh the cost.

Experiments in Evaluating Teachers
This year, 17 California schools voted overwhelmingly to begin using an evaluation system that combines individual and school test scores and multiple classroom evaluations by teachers and administrators, along with regular discussions about teacher effectiveness.

Helping Teachers Help Themselves
Montgomery County, Maryland’s 11-year-old Peer Assistance and Review Program (PAR) for evaluating teachers relies a collaborative peer review process.

Making Data Work
UK educator Mike Bostock proposes that sorting out our approach to the use of performance data holds the key to several troublesome areas of current education practice, including having greater influence over school inspection, knowing where to target school improvement activities, improving professionalism, and valuing the good work that teachers do.

The System For Teacher and Student Advancement (TAP)
According to their website, TAP helps teachers become the best they can be by giving them opportunities to learn better teaching strategies and holding them accountable for their performance, see More Than Measurement: Lessons from TAP Teacher Evaluation.

Best Resources For Learning About The “Value-Added” Approach Towards Teacher Evaluation
Blogger educator Larry Ferlazzo offers many “best of” lists.  Here’s his compilation on this topic.

And one last note…
During the wedding reception, the DJ played Etta James’ dreamy hit At Last, which reminded me that one of our previous blog entries about teacher evaluation was inspired by that very piece of music, At Last: The Saner Side of Teacher Evaluation Data