The Value of Releasing Value-Added Ratings of Teachers

Nobody would ever advocate making personnel decisions through public posting of evaluations in the newspaper. The public release of value-added scores for 18,000 New York City teachers last week should not be taken as a model for how to run the human resource departments of the schools.

But that is not what is going on there. The public release of these ratings — which attempt to isolate a teacher’s contribution to his or her students’ growth in math and English achievement, as measured by state tests — is one important piece of a much bigger attempt to focus school policy on what really matters: classroom learning.

A key element of this effort is developing evaluation systems that identify both the highly effective and the highly ineffective teachers and administrators — and then actually uses that information to make personnel decisions.

To understand why the release of this data makes sense, you must step back and see the intense, broader battle underway all throughout the nation.

The fight is between those who want to improve the schools and those who like the system as it exists today. Those who want to preserve the status quo have historically had the upper hand. For generations, they have been able to control policy change by focusing attention on the adults in the schools through the contract bargaining process, through labor laws in the legislature and through a supportive media environment.

This political balance has, however, taken a sudden and somewhat surprising turn. Within the last few years, a surprising number of states have made some dramatic changes – Colorado, Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Idaho, and more.  Each has revisited the historic system of teacher tenure that is not based on any true evaluation of the teacher’s contribution to students’ learning but instead is based solely on a couple of years on the job.

These recent changes in law quite generally prescribe new evaluations based on classroom performance, using student achievement where feasible.  There has also been valuable movement to finally begin to base personnel decisions, including both rewards and dismissals, on the basis of real measures of teacher quality.

These changes have also filtered into collective bargaining agreements.  Washington, DC, is perhaps the most advanced in developing a rigorous evaluation system that links directly with personnel decisions.

In each of these instances, the development of a rigorous and comprehensive evaluation system is essential.

The sorry state of evaluations in the schools has been known for some time. The perfunctory evaluation in which 99% of the teachers are excellent — or, in New York City, 97% are deemed “satisfactory” — fed a system that defied ever removing a teacher because of ineffectiveness.

When pressed, everybody in the system nodded knowingly and said sanctimoniously, “we need to develop a better evaluation system.” That agreement led to endless numbers of meetings and statements that said “we must do better.”

But the reality of the status quo continued.

With the development — finally — of better measures of student learning that came from tracking achievement across grades comes the ability to see where success and failure reside. Turns out, many teachers are doing a fantastic job. But some are doing lasting harm to their children.

For them, mentoring and professional development aren’t enough. They must find a different line of work.

Contrary to what Bill Gates argued in on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, the release of value-added scores of teachers is not a way of shaming the ineffective teachers. It is a prod to insisting that teachers who harm their children should finally be removed from the classroom.

Everybody who has looked at the problem agrees. Evaluations should not be based exclusively on test scores but should — as a new agreement in New York State affirms — use a combination of evaluation methods that include test scores and other observational methods.  The forces trying to stop the evaluation of teachers try to paint the picture of narrow, error-prone evaluations, but that is really just political spin designed to mobilize support for the status quo.

The issue raised by the release of value-added information is simply how quickly and how assuredly we get to a more rational system of evaluations – for both teachers and administrators – and to a more rational personnel system that guarantees an effective teacher in every classroom.

-Eric Hanushek

An early discussion of these issues was found in the New York Daily News.

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