Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The True Lesson From The Race To The Top

By now, everyone in the State has heard that New Jersey is not getting $400 million in Federal education aid and that Bret Schundler got thrown under the school bus. I don't quite understand what all the hubbub is about -- the Governor's decision not to cut a deal wiht the NJEA was what cost us the money. All the rest is political theater, and not very good theater at that. It does make me wonder whether or not the Governor's smearing of Schundler will cost him any points on the far right -- the folks Schundler was intended to help bring into the fold.

The true story from last week is that Washington, D.C. did qualify for $75 million in Race To The Top funds. The District's implementation of a teacher evaluation system that takes test scores into account was cited as one factor that helped the District into the winners' circle. In fact, test scores accounted for 50% of a teacher's evaluation.

This should be cause for great celebration on the right. District Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a favorite of proponents of charter schools, school vouchers and teacher union busting. The agreement between the district and the Washington Teachers Union is being hailed by some as an example of the direction school districts must take in their union negotiations.

The problem is that the District's teacher evalution process has proven to be somewhat controversial. According to the WTU and the American Federation of Teachers, Chancellor Rhee rushed her evaluation system into use before it was fully tested. The WTU is considering legal action pertaining to the firing of 6% of the District's teachers as a result of the allegedly flawed evaluations.

The issue is whether or not using one year's test scores to fire a teacher is an unfair labor practice. And there is data which strongly suggests that teacher evaluations which only take one year's work into account are flawed. The Wall Street Journal reports that "a large proportion of teachers who rate highly one year fall to the bottom of the charts the next year. For example, in a group of elementary-school teachers who ranked in the top 20% in five Florida counties early last decade, more than three in five didn't stay in the top quintile the following year, according to a study published last year in the journal Education Finance and Policy."

Problems with using test scores to evaluate teachers are well known. Students aren't always assigned to teachers randomly. A teacher who gets a higher percentage of lower scoring students due to that teachers' ability to help those students will be rewarded with a lower evaluation score. Elementary school teachers may only have 15 or 20 students, which is a very small pool on which to judge them. And while using test scores from multiple years helps, it does not solve the problem entirely. The Wall Street Journal cites a report from the Department of Education which shows that, even under an evaluation system using three years of data, one in four teachers will be misclassified.

Awareness of the dangers in rushing teacher evaluation systems into practice cuts across the political spectrum. The WSJ quoutes Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, as saying that "[b]ecause education tends to have this moral-crusade element . . . we tend to rush to use things before they are refined or really fully baked."

The Obama administration has been known to take the position that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. But at least with respect to teacher evaluations, let's hope that the majority of school districts out there recognize that there is no point to an evaluation process that weeds out the good teachers inadvertently.

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