The evolution of “grading” teachers

Why we need to reconsider the “value-added” that value-added measures supposedly lend to teacher evaluation.

Joe Nocera’s New York Times op-ed, “How to Grade a Teacher” (June 16, 2015), reflects the growing recognition that our nation’s current teacher evaluation systems are not working. He rightfully acknowledges that the vast majority of teachers want high-quality feedback, but the system imposed by Governor Cuomo of New York, fueled by the federal government’s Race to the Top initiative, is actually failing students and those who teach them.

However, Mr. Nocera’s piece could have gone a bit deeper. He notes that it’s more appropriate to judge teachers based on the growth in their students’ test scores—not just one or two absolute measures. Mr. Nocera points out that teacher unions believe that value-added (or growth) measures are “simplistic” and “unfair.” But serious academics recognize these statistical facts of teacher evaluation “life.” The work of Jesse Rothstein is very instructive—surfacing the reality that value-added results for state tests are poorly correlated (0.5 or less) with alternative assessments, meaning that many teachers whose value-added for one test is low are in fact quite effective when judged by other factors.

When asked why he believes politicians are so focused on value-added, Mr. Rothstein noted:

There’s been a tendency to prioritize statistical computations based on student test scores, because all you need is one statistician and the test score data. Classroom observation requires having lots of people to sit in the back of lots and lots of classrooms and make judgments.

However, top-performing nations like Singapore know how to assess teachers without rigidly using test scores. Master teachers, working closely with principals, lead the way. They use multiple measures—none of which include standardized test scores. They create time for the most accomplished teachers to mentor and assess their colleagues. And principals insist that teachers assist them in conducting evaluations.

Singaporean principals and teachers use professional judgment in determining who is effective and who is not. Perhaps President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Governor Cuomo might take a cue from these professionals. They might also consider reading Mr. Nocera’s op-ed and then exploring Mr. Rothstein’s work. But most importantly, they should pay attention to the wisdom of our nation’s three million teachers to determine if our approach to grading teachers is evolving in ways that make sense for improving teaching and learning.

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