Soundings: Grading our teachers

Soundings: Grading our teachers

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I visited with Jim Weiss, our superintendent of schools, not long after the flap that played out on the front pages of both Island newspapers over a few students who wanted to wear their Brazilian national colors on graduation day. I didn’t want to hear any more about that dust-up, except that it provided a perfect opportunity to ask: Why doesn’t the press cover public education better?

Mr. Weiss had a ready reply: “Controversy makes news. The fact that we do a million things every day with 2,400 kids doesn’t matter — it’s when something goes awry.”

What I did want to ask about is the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, which is offering millions of dollars in prize money to states that follow its prescription for school reform. Central to that reform effort is teacher accountability — the idea that school districts need better ways to assess teacher performance, and that administrators need authority to remove teachers who aren’t getting the job done.

To appreciate how revolutionary this is, you need to understand that seniority is a pillar of teacher union contracts across the United States. Last hired, first fired is the mantra — and after years of this approach, most efforts to assess teacher performance have withered away.

A year and a half ago, the Vineyard schools quietly established new policies for teacher assessment —policies which Mr. Weiss calls an important step in the right direction. “We’ve done two things, in general terms. We’ve tried to make teacher evaluation a partnership between the evaluator and the evaluatee. It’s not, here’s what I’m going to do to you; it’s what we’re going to do together. And we try to make it more than just a classroom observation visit. We try to make it a way to look at a person’s total work over a period of time.

“This is a work in progress until everybody gets the bugs worked out, but I think it’s a much more significant way of looking at teacher evaluation and supervision.”

Teacher evaluation in the Island schools, Mr. Weiss says, is a story with two chapters: What administrators can do during the first three years of a teacher’s tenure, and what they can do after teachers attain what the system calls “professional status,” which makes them much more difficult to remove.

“I think we make some good decisions early on,” he says, “in terms of inviting people back or not inviting them back. At that stage it’s simpler to do, and you don’t need such huge documentation. I think we make those decisions relatively well.”

In the past, Mr. Weiss says, evaluations of Island teachers have suffered from the Lake Wobegon effect: “Everyone was more wonderful than the next person.” Breaking with this approach, he says, will take awhile. “Change is not going to happen overnight — because we have 25 years of, everybody’s wonderful. But I believe we now have the tools in place where, if we have a teacher who’s not doing the job, we can take care of that.”

Taking care of a weak teacher doesn’t have to mean firing. It can mean professional development, or a lateral move within the school system. “Just because someone is no longer doing a great job in one role,” says Mr. Weiss, “doesn’t mean there can’t be another role for them. We have enough staff positions that we could find things for people who are at a point where they need to continue working a few more years, to take care of their finances, but doing a different kind of job. We need to find ways to do that.”

Across the United States, school districts seeking tools for teacher evaluation have seized on standardized test scores. But Mr. Weiss warns that MCAS tests are ill-suited for assessing teachers. “The MCAS looks at last year’s group of third-graders, and then at this year’s group of third-graders, and it says, ‘Last year’s group and this year’s group weren’t at all alike.’ Well, tell me something I don’t know.”

He’s heartened by the push for what educators call “value-added testing,” an approach that measures student progress through a school year. With value-added testing, “You look at little Johnny at one point this year and at another point next year and you ask, how much progress has he made?”

Asked to give the present MCAS tests a letter grade, Mr. Weiss suggests C-minus or D-plus. “The potential is there, but we’re not reaching it. I think that if the MCAS continues to move toward measuring the progress of students over time, it will be much better than it is now. But the way it has been, to date, has been less than helpful.”

Mr. Weiss wants to be clear: He does not believe that giving Island administrators the tools to move weak teachers out of the classroom is an urgent priority. “Speaking from my perspective of 40-odd years in this business,” he says, “Martha’s Vineyard is blessed by one of the better staffs I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I didn’t say the best — I didn’t say everybody is great — but one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

“I don’t think this is as significant an issue here as it is in some places. I think we have a handful of folks who probably should be doing something else. If there’s even one person, we should do something about it, but I don’t think it’s this pervasive problem for us.”

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