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Make teacher evaluations fair

There has been much recent debate about Race to the Top (RTTT) and its efficacy in improving K-12 education. RTTT was a competitive federal grant that challenged states to pursue innovative reforms on a rapid timeline from 2010 through 2014. The reforms are designed to ensure that every student is prepared with the requisite skills to succeed in college or in a livable-wage career. Maryland, like other RTTT-winning states, is using its grant ($250 million) to fund a new curriculum and a controversial teacher evaluation model that incorporates student growth, as measured in part by state test results.

The problem that we are now faced with is tying teacher evaluations to assessments that are soon going to be obsolete — while simultaneously implementing a new curriculum.

Maryland's RTTT grant is funding the development and implementation of a new curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which are rigorous K-12 expectations in English language arts and mathematics that were developed collaboratively among the states and have since been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The Common Core represents a seismic shift in instructional content and teaching methods; if implemented well, it will raise the level of rigor for all students.

The assessments aligned with the Common Core, which are currently under development, have great potential for providing useful information to teachers about what their students have learned and what they may need to re-teach. The next two years will be a period of transition as schools implement the new curriculum while still administering the old tests. In Maryland, these are the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) and High School Assessments (HSA), poorly designed tests that provide little meaningful information about what students have learned.

As we shift to this more rigorous curriculum and assessment program, Maryland's RTTT grant also requires that teacher evaluations now include measures of student academic growth in addition to the traditional measures that focus on the professional growth of teachers. Teachers in Maryland and nationwide have expressed apprehension about tying evaluations to student growth as measured, in part, by performance on state tests. Their concerns are exacerbated by the fact that these tests are not aligned to the Common Core.

The implementation timelines present real challenges to educators. Some say we should do away with testing through this transition. While the information we get from the current testing program is not ideal, it gives us some indication of whether students are learning. Throwing accountability to the wind is not the solution.

This country is plagued by entrenched educational inequities in which achievement is too often predictable by race and socioeconomics. Collectively, the new curriculum, the assessments under development, and teacher evaluations that account for student growth show great potential for raising the level of rigor and shoring up supports for classroom teachers, schools and districts.

If our nation is to deliver on our promise to prepare every child, we must have effective teachers in every classroom. Teacher evaluations must be, first and foremost, a career development tool that provides meaningful feedback to help teachers grow as professionals. And they must be steeped in a culture of support.

To complement our teacher evaluation model, Howard County is studying use of the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) process, where expert teachers evaluate and coach new teachers and underperforming veterans. PAR shows real promise for fulfilling RTTT goals and would fit nicely into the evaluation model. Evaluation systems should be designed to help all teachers become good and push good teachers to become great.

Any effective teacher would agree that their job is to ensure that every student grows academically throughout the school year. Including measures of student growth as a component in the evaluation of a teacher is reasonable, as long as multiple measures are used to truly reflect the work the teacher was charged with accomplishing. A judgment based on even the most psychometrically sound achievement tests would tell only a fraction of the story.

Better teacher evaluations are not a magic bullet. However, establishing an effective performance evaluation system will go a long way toward building confidence in, and among, our teaching professionals, and arming them with the tools they need to help every student thrive.

It would be counterproductive to prematurely implement an evaluation model that factors in student performance on obsolete tests. This would undermine teachers' commitment to reform and drive them to "teach to the test" — a test that no longer reflects what we want them to teach. During the next few years, the student growth components of the new teacher evaluation models should be piloted, studied and refined while teachers are held accountable only for professional practice. I urge policymakers to rethink the binding teacher evaluation requirements that will be in place next year and which are serving to undermine the good that these reforms could do if the curriculum and assessments were well established before being tied to teacher accountability.

Renee A. Foose is superintendent of the Howard County Public School System. Her email is rfoose@hcpss.org.

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