Column: U.S. a failure at evaluating teachers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Three education stories that caught my eye this week:

Item: Federal officials announce that not one single state will meet a key requirement of the No Child Left Behind law: that all teachers in core academic subjects will be deemed “highly qualified” by this fall.

This comes as a surprise to no one. The teacher-quality portion of the law is among its most ridiculed, since its strange network of rules says some tremendous 20-year veterans aren’t good enough to teach but declares many rookies “highly qualified” before they’ve ever set foot in a classroom.

Item: A group called the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has come up with a process designed to recognize top-notch teachers: a much-touted credential it calls National Board Certification.

Hundreds of millions of public dollars have been spent promoting it.

So the board hires a noted researcher to prove that National Board teachers really produce better results in their students.

But the researcher finds the opposite: Kids whose teachers had National Board certification didn’t score any higher than anyone else.

The National Board, despite paying for the study and helping design it, declines to release the results publicly.

Item: The Washington Post reports that suburban kids, as an alternative to high-priced tutors, are hiring their homework helpers offshore. Companies are now hiring smart folks in India and elsewhere to offer one-on-one tutoring sessions to American teens over the Internet.

But American teacher unions say they think those overseas tutors should have to meet detailed American teacher-certification requirements before getting their hands on a big pot of federal money.

Three different stories, but one consistent theme: The ways we have to judge a teacher’s quality aren’t very good.

Check that: The ways the government has to judge a teacher’s quality aren’t very good. After all, wasn’t it always pretty easy to tell which teachers were good when you were a kid?

Miss Johnson always had a good lesson plan, had answers to all your questions and made you interested in the subject she was teaching. Miss Smith always took naps during “quiet time,” lectured in a dull monotone and sometimes seemed a textbook chapter behind her students.

Not too hard to tell the difference, is it? So why is it so hard for the government?

The problem is that teacher quality gets evaluated on credentials, not quality. How many hours of math classes you took in college. Whether you’ve filled out the paperwork for a certain certificate. Whether you’ve gone back to get a master’s degree.

The federal “highly qualified” standard, for instance, is primarily about what hoops a teacher has jumped through, not how good of a teacher she is.

But there are awful certified teachers and terrific uncertified ones. There are amazing teachers with just a bachelor’s degree and terrible ones with a doctorate. Plenty of research has shown that quality doesn’t align neatly with credentials.

Differentiating good teachers from bad ones has always been a touchy subject. Take salary. Great running backs get paid more than benchwarmers. Great trial lawyers get paid more than mediocre ones. So shouldn’t the best teachers get paid more than the worst?

In Dallas ISD, an amazingly talented 15-year veteran teacher makes $46,176. And a thoroughly mediocre 15-year veteran teacher makes…$46,176.

(There are a few ways those figures can budge by a couple thousand bucks. But they’re tied to things like job titles and credentials – not individual performance.)

There have been a few stabs at “merit pay” proposals around the country, but most have flopped. Teachers, rightly, have complained that most such plans would reward teachers primarily on their students’ test scores. That’s not fair because teachers in Dallas get different kids to work with than teachers in Highland Park or Plano.

But why can’t a teacher’s quality be judged the way everyone else’s is? Not on some mechanized system tied to test scores, but by their bosses’ evaluation of their performance.

Once a year, their bosses evaluate their performance and adjust their pay accordingly. A top-notch teacher might get a 10 percent raise. Someone struggling might get none at all. Educators talk about wanting to give principals more autonomy – why not give them the power to reward good work?

Sure, some principals might play favorites. (Some schools tend to have a whiff of All My Children about them, full of feuds, alliances and backbiting.)

But some bosses play favorites in the private sector, too. We don’t respond by saying every American gets the same 2 percent raise every year. And there’s no reason the folks in a school district’s central office can’t watch their principals and make sure they’re not giving out raises inappropriately.

The point is to reward excellence. And the great thing about a system that rewards excellence is that it attracts the excellent.

If a teacher knew she could be making $70,000 if she did an amazing job, wouldn’t that attract some talented folks who otherwise might not consider teaching?

And if a teacher knew her raise was tied to her performance, wouldn’t that push her even harder to do the best job she possibly could?

The point is that principals know who their best teachers are. They should be rewarded for being the best – not for jumping through bureaucratic hoops.