03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Randi Really Said and Meant

Last week, the nation's press reported something that most teachers found unbelievable: Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that teachers should be evaluated by their students' test scores.

Teachers hate this idea because they know that teachers are not solely responsible for their students' scores. The students bear some responsibility, as do their families, for whether students do well or poorly on tests. District leaders bear some responsibility, depending on the resources they provide to schools. Teachers also are aware that the tests are not the only measure of what happens in their classrooms and that even the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that we need better tests. There is a fairly sizable body of research demonstrating that test scores are affected by many factors beyond the teachers' control.
I was surprised too when I read the headlines and the press accounts.

But when I read Randi's speech on the AFT website, I discovered that the media stories were wrong. In fact, Randi offered a far more complicated and nuanced proposal than what was widely reported.

She laid out a far-ranging plan for evaluating teachers, which I suspect most teachers would find fair and reasonable. Here is what she said:

First, states should set out clear professional standards that describe clearly what teachers should know and be able to do. Then, to determine whether teachers meet these standards, districts should use "multiple means of evaluation," including classroom observations, self-evaluations, portfolio reviews, appraisal of lesson plans," and a variety of other tools, including student test scores. But the scores should be based on "valid and reliable assessments" and they should not be derived "by comparing the scores of last year's students with the scores of this year's students, but by assessing whether a teacher's students show real growth while in his classroom."

What this means is that districts would have to test students when they enter a specific classroom in the fall and again at the end of the school year to see how much progress they have made in that teacher's class. Hardly any district does this now. Most do exactly what Randi said was inappropriate: They test students in the spring and compare this year's students to last year's students. This is not a reasonable way to measure the teacher's effectiveness, since the groups will vary considerably from year to year.

Randi also said, as part of her package of prescriptions, that the goal of evaluation was not merely to identify teachers who were good or bad, but to help teachers get better at their work throughout their careers. So she proposed that every district should offer "solid induction, mentoring, ongoing professional development, and career opportunities that keep great teachers in the classroom."

In other words, Randi Weingarten laid out a very serious policy proposal, not a simplistic concession to allow schools to judge teachers by their students' scores. It is also an expensive proposal and very far removed from the now popular but simpleminded idea that teachers can be graded by whether their students get high or low test scores. Randi also made clear that the evaluation system must be adopted simultaneously with a fair system of due process. Neither alone is sufficient.

Only a day or so before Randi gave her speech at the National Press Club (January 12), the superintendent of schools in Houston and the Houston school board announced its intention to fire teachers based on their students' scores.

Houston, and other districts, should review Randi's ideas before proceeding.