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Chicago, ground zero on teachers and test scores

September 13, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • Striking Chicago teachers are unhappy about several issues.
Striking Chicago teachers are unhappy about several issues. (Sitthixay Ditthavong /…)

The Times' editorial board has supported making student test scores part of a teacher's performance evaluation -- within reason. But the Chicago teachers strike shows at least one reason why teachers unions have opposed such policies so vociferously.

Part of what we ask of teachers is that they keep bringing those test scores higher; as a result, it's reasonable for their evaluations to include how well they've done that part of the job. But when the scores are closely linked to the pay raises teachers get -- or whether they even have a job -- school administrators are in untested waters, and I'm not sure they remembered to bring a life jacket with them.

Of course a teacher's evaluation should have some kind of impact, including, in the cases of the most problematic teachers, that they could lose their jobs. Some teachers should lose their jobs, and parents don't need test scores to know exactly who those teachers are. Unions have stood up for teachers whom they knew had no place in a classroom, and now they're beginning to reap the payback.

But how many teachers are we talking about? With all of the Obama administration's talk about teachers being the most important in-school factor in a child's success, does anyone know how many "bad" teachers we'd have to get rid of to achieve that success? Or just how high the test scores should rise for the others to get a raise?

Let's face it: The state standardized tests were never designed to measure an individual teacher's performance, much less decide his or her pay. The tests have some value in that regard. When one teacher's students show solid or even spectacular growth during most years, that's probably a really good teacher. When another teacher's students don't just get bad scores but actually slide back year after year, that can't be allowed to continue. And this should only be measured over a course of years; the change in test scores in a single year can be attributed to all kinds of factors.

Most teachers don't belong in either the top or bottom category. They're somewhere in between, and that's where the tests are far less effective at showing differences.

At the same time, Chicago school officials want principals to be able to hire whatever teacher they choose when they have openings rather than picking from a pool of laid-off teachers. But in that case, isn't this a double whammy? Say a teacher is great at raising test scores but a principal doesn't want to hire this teacher because she's more experienced and thus more expensive. If the test scores are so important, why shouldn't they matter when it comes to rehiring teachers?

There could well be less than pure motives on both sides, which makes it hard to judge who's right or wrong in the Chicago contract dispute. The teachers union wants things done the way they've always been done: Nothing matters but seniority when it comes to hiring, layoffs and pay. That provides little incentive for veteran teachers to try hard, though many of them do anyway. Meanwhile, the administration can talk about this being all for children, but there's a vested interest in hiring younger, less experienced and thus much less expensive teachers. That might be good for school budgets, but it's not good for the future of the teaching profession or the long-term future of schools. If teachers have no job protection over time, if in fact their very experience counts against them, the job becomes just that -- more a job, less a career. That's not how we attract bright young people to the profession. Layoffs don't necessarily happen because a teacher is bad, and yet those teachers could be permanently out of jobs while principals bring in new people. How much loyalty can teachers have to a system like that?

There's room for some consideration of test scores in evaluations. It also should be easier to fire bad teachers, and principals should not have to hire an unsuitable teacher simply because that's the person in the layoff pool who has the next-highest seniority. But how far should schools scale back on job security before they're not just hurting individual teachers but themselves?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, along with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have been pushing for a system that goes much further. But there's not a lot of research that says the key to better-educated students lies in holding teachers accountable for numbers that were never designed to judge their performance. A path has been chosen, but the reasons for treading that path so firmly are not as well understood as they should be.

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