State Looks To Student Learning For Teacher Evaluations

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The Massachusetts Board of Education is revamping a broken teacher evaluation system. A task force has recommended making student test scores a significant part of a teacher’s review, something that is not currently done.

But there are unanswered questions about how much this should be weighted against other factors, such as classroom observations.

Grading teachers in part based on student grades is a revolutionary concept in the field, says state Education Secretary Paul Reville.

"We are going to introduce the notion that student performance is relevant to a teacher’s performance and should be considered, and for the first time we are going to establish that as a policy of the commonwealth of Massachusetts," Reville said. "I think that’s a huge step forward."

But it’s a step into a minefield. The task force that gave its recommendation to the board Tuesday says teachers should be judged in three categories: classroom observation; feedback from staff, students and parents; and multiple measures of student learning and growth.

Task force member Linda Noonan, who represents the business community, says they purposefully did not assign percentages to each factor. But Noonan says they agree that student performance should be a “significant factor” in evaluation.

"There is no definition of significant factor," Noonan said. "It is up to the commissioner because the task force did not define significant factor. It’s extremely vague and undefined."

The task force recommends using MCAS scores over a three-year period and other evidence of student growth, such as in-class writing assessments or math tests that show progress. Reville says MCAS alone wouldn’t be enough, as only 17 percent of teachers have administered the test for three or more years.

The state’s largest union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, supports using test scores to rate teachers, but union President Paul Toner doesn’t want it to be weighted.

"The task force was right in not to put a specific percentage on this measure because the research is very clear that growth scores can provide some useful information, but they are also subject to high errors rates," Toner said.

Toner says tests results can falsely identify excellent teachers as weak ones. But Jason Williams, head of the grassroots group Stand for Children, says results matter.

"We are also very disappointed that student outcomes were not chosen to be the most significant factor in how we evaluate those who are charged with the duty of ensuring that our children have that equal chance in life," Williams said.


The proposed new evaluation structure also takes a stronger stand on what to do about bad teachers. If a teacher is given an unsatisfactory rating and doesn’t improve after one year, they will be demoted or fired.

"So it shortens the period," said Deputy Education Commissioner Karla Baehr. "Right now it’s not entirely a clear process of how long it takes. The task force is describing a one-year process."

If the Board of Education adopts this recommendation, the Legislature may have to change the collective bargaining law to take the evaluation process out of teacher contracts. That could meet union resistance. Others also warned this would be a hollow system without more money for better training principals how to be effective evaluators.

The recommendations now to go Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who will present his proposal in April.

This program aired on March 23, 2011.


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