09/26/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Supporting Our Children's Future by Grading Teachers

Co-written by Dr. Leila Sadeghi and Dr. Kathe Callahan, Department of Educational Leadership, Kean University

Every parent wants their child to learn in a nurturing, caring environment that is largely dependent on dedicated, passionate teachers. Achieving this ideal requires supporting teachers to reach their potential, and identifying those teachers who do not serve students' best interests. The Chicago teachers' strike last week reignited a national debate on teacher effectiveness and school reform, sorely needed in the face of some $2 trillion in federal education spending since 1965 that has resulted in minimal gains in our children's learning. What is the best way to grade teachers?

On one side of the debate, it's not fair to hold teachers accountable for standardized tests scores because there are so many factors outside of their control that have a profound impact on educational achievement. Of course, standardized tests are not the only way to hold teachers accountable for performance and student learning. On the other hand, there are those who want to improve educational outcomes for all students by ridding public schools of "bad" teachers, given that tenure -- viewed as a "lifetime job" -- is essentially guaranteed after three years of teaching. Everyone agrees that we need to provide the highest quality public education possible. How that should happen, however, has prompted heated discussions about how to evaluate teachers that is fair, reliable and objective.

Twenty-one states are now implementing new teacher evaluation systems that will enable school districts to objectively document teacher performance with a system that has teeth: ineffective teachers can lose their jobs, even if they are protected by tenure. However, pure objectivity can be an elusive goal, especially when dealing with people, politics, and personal relationships. Evaluation becomes all the more difficult when performance is linked to an outcome over which the person being evaluated has little direct control, such as student performance on standardized tests. While teachers certainly influence student learning, they do not control it.

Some believe that these new evaluation systems are rigged from the onset, claiming that they are designed to weigh a significant percentage of the evaluation to student performance on standardized tests -- in many states more than 50 percent -- and less on actual evaluations conducted in the classroom. Holding teachers accountable for the results on standardized tests, some argue, will not only result in teaching to the test, but also to a "dumbing down" of the curriculum to focus exclusively on tested subjects. Students lose instruction time in some areas, including the arts and music that can enhance creativity and nurture social skills.

Performance-based teacher evaluations must be approached and measured in realistic ways. Teacher evaluation systems are not perfect and effective teachers are not the product of formulas. Research shows us that much of what effective teachers do cannot be measured by categorical ratings. However, that is not to say we should not attempt to define what effective teachers do and make every effort to replicate it.

While we have many concerns about the new teacher evaluation systems, we believe that:

• Student learning is more than performance on standardized tests, and linking that performance to teachers reinforces teaching to the test.
• Imperfect assessment measures can demoralize teachers and derail promising careers.
• Outside factors that have a significant impact on student learning, such as poverty, parental involvement, class size, and absenteeism, are beyond the teacher's control.

Therefore, we recommend that:

• Multiple measures of student performance should be used to reduce a potential over-reliance on test scores.
• The teacher evaluation process should be a communicative process that is open and transparent and fosters trust. This process should be a collaboration with school administrators to promote a positive feedback loop.
• Evaluations should assess teaching weaknesses and attempt to make improvement; not just label teachers.

While there is no such thing as a perfect performance evaluation system, steps should be taken to objectively evaluate teacher performance to support their professional development and to identify those who are not serving our childrens' best interests. In Chicago, where roughly 25 percent of high school students do not graduate on time, and 33 percent of fourth graders are not reading at grade level, 99.7 percent of teachers are evaluated as satisfactory to distinguished. Something's wrong with that picture.