It appears that the discussion about teacher evaluation in New York state is being moved to the front burner again. However, it appears that the wrong people are leading the discussion. Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a recent letter to Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch outlined his plan for changing teacher evaluation, which included student results on standardized tests accounting for 40 percent of the evaluation. This plan patently misses the mark and will do nothing to improve teacher performance. As a matter of fact, it may lead to a decline in teacher performance if teachers begin teaching to and for the test rather than focusing on teaching the skills students need to be successful in life. Teacher evaluation is complex process, and I am afraid the governor is looking for a quick and simple method to improve student performance by making teachers solely responsible for grades on standardized tests.
Teacher evaluation is a topic that needs discussion, and positive changes in the methods of evaluating public school teachers will most likely bring about improvement in teacher performance, and it might even bring about improvement in student performance. (You might want to read that last sentence again before reading forward. I said it might improve student performance - no guarantees there.) Simply put, improved teacher performance does not guarantee improved student performance. Schooling does not happen in a vacuum. While teachers have a major influence on student performance, other factors outside the purview of teachers also play a significant role in the academic achievement of youngsters. For example, the experiences a child has from birth to the onset of formal schooling has been proven to have a significant effect on school achievement as do other indicators such as overall mental and physical health, parental support, socio-economic status, home environment and, of course, student effort. While the tests may be standardized, the students are not. New York state public school teachers work with children from myriad backgrounds, from the most affluent to those who are homeless, from the most gifted to the most academically challenged, from those born and raised in the United States to those who immigrate here often from Third World or war-torn countries who come to school with no ability to speak English. New York state public school teachers help students who are far from standardized succeed on standardized tests and in many other ways.
An in-depth examination of teacher evaluation is fully warranted because the current evaluation system followed in most schools is totally ineffective. All too often, evaluation is linked to classroom visitations and observations by supervisors (in itself, a good practice) and the completion of checklists related to teacher performance (in itself, a meaningless practice; however, one that is quick and easy). An effective evaluation system not only provides a gauge for the measurement of teacher success in the classroom, it also is directly linked to a system of staff development that guarantees that teachers are constantly learning, staying abreast of new developments in the field and employing best practices in all areas of instruction.
Educators have long known that standardized test scores, while they provide data that is helpful to the overall evaluation of student performance, is far from the be all and end all in determining future success. As a matter of fact, tests cannot determine the effects of characteristics such as determination, work ethic and desire on the ultimate life achievements of a student. For example, the Scholastic Aptitude Test was long considered one of the most important indicators of student potential for college success. The truth is that the test is linked to a prediction of possible success during the freshman year of college, and it is accurate only approximately 25 percent of the time. More than 800 U.S. colleges have dropped the testing requirement with many more planning to follow suit in the future. Colleges are now depending on more subjective indicators such as letters of recommendation from high school counselors, teachers and administrators along with student grades in high school and the level of high school courses students completed. In short, a high score on a test, especially a high-stakes standardized test, really indicates very little about future performance. That being the case, those who would judge teacher performance on these very test results, as the governor is recommending, are going down the wrong road and wasting a lot of time and resources - time and resources that we do not have the luxury of wasting.
Teacher evaluation needs to be changed and improved. That is a fact. Teacher evaluation is a complex and comprehensive process, and it can be used to help improve both student performance and teacher performance. However, it must be done in a manner which makes sense and accomplishes the mission of evaluation: to be sure that teachers are performing at the highest levels possible in all areas. Linking teacher evaluation to standardized test scores simply will not do that.
The conversation about evaluation needs to be had. However, educators, not the governor, need to take the lead role in the conversation. Otherwise, the conversation will lead nowhere.
Dr. John G. Metallo, a guest columnist, lives in Slingerlands,. He is a retired area teacher and administrator.