Evaluation system reduces Baltimore kids and teachers to data sets

Baltimore teacher: Rating a choir teacher based on her school's math test scores is absurd.

If you know a public school teacher, give them a hug. Yes, it's flu season but, trust me, we need the love. This year's teacher evaluation system has been rolled out and, even though the evaluation system gets changed more often than your bed sheets, this iteration should be the last of its kind.

The crux of the issue facing Baltimore City schoolteachers is this:

Half of our evaluations, and consequently our pay raises, are based on factors that are largely outside of our control. As would stand to reason, half of our evaluations are based on professional responsibilities (showing up on time, etc.), and the results of our biannual observations. The problem? The other half of the evaluation is packaged in code and it goes like this: 35 percent SLO (a VAM) and 15 percent on "school performance measures." Decoded, SLOs, or Student Learning Objectives, are predictions as to how much our kids "should" learn — we're evaluated on whether or not students meet those goals. This is the Measure of the Value we've Added to their education. VAM! I know, even jazz hands don't make that exciting. "School performance measures" include things like the schools' attendance data and students' test scores on their reading and math tests.

I can hear it now, but no, we are not a bunch of handout-wanting slackers; we don't protest these measures because we don't want to put in the hard work it takes for kids to be successful. Remember, we are the same people who go to work early, stay late, run after-school clubs, write notes and emails home, call your house when we're worried about your child, spend our paychecks on school supplies, and lose sleep worrying about students we couldn't help or papers we didn't have time to grade. We protest this evaluation system because it's built on a lie — the lie that poverty, violence, food insecurity, illness, student motivation and lack of resources don't factor in to student achievement. The very system that is billed to "punish bad teachers" and "reward good ones" penalizes teachers who serve the students and communities that are up against the greatest hurdles. Punishing teachers because their students don't come to school enough doesn't lead to greater student achievement; we already wanted them to come to school every day. Rating a choir teacher based on her school's math test scores is absurd. Yet that is exactly what this system does.

So why would the teachers' union and the school system allow this? Because the federal government requires it, so the state demands it, and the school system complies. Each year the exact mechanism by which the school system attempts to meet this mandate changes, but the problem remains the same. Fortunately, change is coming: 20 percent of New York state students opted out of the standardized tests that these evaluation systems revolve around and, thus far, New York has not been sanctioned, and schools have not lost their funding. School systems should read that as a sign that this law has lost its teeth. ESEA a.k.a. "No Child Left Behind," the law that turned our "education system" into a test-and-blame system, is being challenged across the nation and is in legal limbo in Congress. ESEA's champion, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has just stepped down and with him this evaluation mandate should go.

So when you see your son's art teacher, thank her for giving him and his schoolmates the tools to express themselves, even if she can't measure that in an SLO. Tell the school librarian that you appreciate her running that book critics' circle because, even though your son struggles sometimes with comprehension, this year he's coming home excited to read the next novel on the book club list, and you can tell he's reading better already. And as much as we appreciate your moral support, what's invaluable is your voice. Call your Congress members and demand that they take teacher evaluation mandates out of ESEA. Tell them your stories about the value your child's teachers add to his life. We all want our kids to be seen as learners and as the fantastic young people they are, not as numbers in data sets, which is what kids and their teachers are reduced to as long as this system remains.

Kimberly Mooney is a Spanish teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School #233; her email is kmooney6@alumni.jh.edu.

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