One is Not Enough: Let's Get Teacher Accountability Right

12/02/2010 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An educator from the nation's largest school district offered up several detailed explanations or excuses, depending on your point of view, on why test scores had not shown any growth the last few years. When asked about the scores he stated: "What I mean by that is when you want to break these things down, you really want to look with a sort of much finer tool than simply say, well, you either pass or didn't pass." When asked about lack of growth related to passing rates he explained that students may not have passed, but their test scores still went up and that these increases aren't reflected on a simple passing rate statistic.

Sounds like more excuses from a unionized, tenured teacher... well, not exactly. These statements were made by Joel Klein, the retiring Chancellor of New York City Schools, in an NPR interview. One of Mr. Klein's major initiatives as chancellor was teacher accountability. What do you think he used for evaluating teachers? You guessed it: standardized test scores!

Evidently, when it comes to evaluating his effectiveness, simple test scores aren't adequate.
Mr. Klein is absolutely right! Mr. Klein's statements echo one of the major concerns teachers have with focusing only on test scores: the data doesn't tell the entire story.

Many of the reforms being implemented (Race to the Top, etc.) state that accountability should encompass more than just standardized test scores, but in practice teachers and schools are being evaluated by only one measure: standardized tests. These tests measurement basic skills in only two subjects, yet these are what we use to deem students, teachers, and schools as effective or ineffective.

If we hope to truly create a world class educational system we must have accountability. This accountability must extend to all administrators as well, but that's a discussion for another time.

The question is not if, but how teachers should be evaluated. The current trend is based solely on test scores and as Mr. Klein pointed out, these scores don't paint a complete picture. Standardized testing should be one of criteria, not THE criteria.

Many administrators and politicians don't want to invest the time and energy necessary to design and implement a comprehensive system of evaluation for educators. In his book, Grading Education, Richard Rothstein states that the reason why we have gotten accountability wrong is that we wanted to do accountability on the cheap.

Teaching is a multifaceted job full of complexity. Shouldn't we evaluate teacher effectiveness in a similar fashion? We need a multidimensional measurement.

Teacher evaluations should include the following:

1. Observations
The current system is not adequate. My principal is aware of what is going on in my class, but as it relates to effective teaching practices, we need more observations. Effective observations would focus on effective instructional practices. These observations would be the basis for training and/or coaching to improve the teacher's effectiveness. We need to have evaluators/coaches that are equipped to properly evaluate and coach teachers (England has trained evaluators who observe teachers).

2. Standardized Testing
Standardized testing is a valuable tool in assessing teacher effectiveness as well as student needs. In order to limit other variables, the testing data should include multiple years. This data will not be limited to the individual teacher's test data. It would also include scores from that teacher's entire grade level. This would encourage collaboration and not competition. Competition among teachers is detrimental to successful schools.

3. Student Portfolios
A rubric should be developed to evaluate the work completed in class by students. An emphasis should be placed on skills that standardized tests do not assess. Attributes such as creative and critical thinking skills should be paramount on the list. Student created work, including group work, is a vital part of authentic learning. Thus, it needs to be part of how we evaluate teachers.

4. Peer Assessment
Teachers work closely together and we are able to provide accurate input on our peers. The assessment has to be designed to focus on teaching practices, not personal compatibility or likability.

5. Contribution Index
Many teachers impact their schools beyond their classroom walls. These teachers provide leadership (often with no compensation) that is invaluable to the school, other teachers, and the students. They may be grade level leaders, mentors, technology leaders, etc. Effective teachers don't work in a vacuum.

6. Community Assessment
This assessment would have to be carefully designed to prevent a popularity contest. Similar to the use of standardized tests, the data would include multiple years to limit the effects of outliers. This information would provide valuable feedback to the teacher.

A comprehensive assessment will not only give us a better understanding of teacher effectiveness, it will also provide us with an important tool for improvement. These evaluations would identify strengths and weaknesses and these would be used to create a written plan with goals for improvement for the teacher. If a teacher is rated as ineffective they will be placed on an improvement plan.

I'm afraid we will settle for the quick and easy road to accountability. This is a huge disservice to our students. It also demeans the contributions of educators who sacrifice time, talent, and treasure to improve the lives of students across our nation. A one-dimensional approach to evaluating teachers/schools will have an adverse affect on education.

This is only one piece of the pie when it comes to improving schools. Unfortunately many are treating it like it's the whole pie. All areas of education including lesson design, teaching strategies, curriculum, administrative functions, etc. all need to be examined and updated to meet the challenges we face in education.

We have to have to get it right or we will continue to struggle in our attempts to improve education.