Teacher effectiveness policy stirs up more controversy and debate than any other education policy. Two camps, each with charismatic leaders and top researchers, battle to win over public opinion. Both camps agree that classrooms should be lead by effective teachers. But, they disagree on how to make that happen.
A decade ago educators, researchers and lawmakers agreed that low standards caused the poor performance of America’s public schools. That consensus let No Child Left Behind pass with full bipartisan support. Now, education reformers say the problem is less about standards and more about ineffective teaching.
Even though research shows that student achievement is most closely tied to family factors, of all the possible school factors, the quality of teaching is the most important to student learning.
From Highly-Qualified Teachers to Teacher Effectiveness
Research shows that certified teachers produce higher student achievement than uncertified teachers. But certified teachers are not distributed fairly throughout America’s schools. To address this, No Child Left Behind required states to put a “highly-qualified” teacher--one with a college degree, certification, and subject expertise--in every math and language arts classroom or risk losing federal funding. This rule made little sense to educators at ground level who knew qualified teachers, especially in math, were in short supply.
Why don’t rural schools and urban schools serving poor neighborhoods get a fair share of highly-qualified teachers? For the straightforward, free-market reason that these schools lack funds to make competitive offers. The short supply of certified teachers compelled the Education Department to waive the highly-qualified rule and allow teachers with track records of effectiveness to continue teaching. The education community began focusing on a new question, “How do you determine if a teacher is effective?”
Teacher Effectiveness and Value-Add Assessment
Everybody knows that qualified teachers are not equally effective. When economists started working on how to identify effective teachers, they figured effectiveness should be defined as student “learning growth” since that was the goal. The best measure of learning growth available was the standardized test score. The most effective teachers, they reasoned, would be those who increased test scores the most.
Economists and statisticians began to apply “value-add” measures to the data generated from years of NCLB testing. They developed models that took a student’s year-over-year test scores, figured the before-and-after difference, filtered out family and peer factors, then matched the differences to specific teachers. Teachers could then be given percentile scores based on how much value they added to students’ tests scores.
Researchers could also determine each student’s “learning gain.” Was it the expected year’s worth? More than expected? Or less?
Teacher Effectiveness and the Achievement Gap
The results from value-add studies inspired economists and statisticians to make bold statements. A few years in a row of effective teachers, they said, could close the achievement gap. Various studies put the time needed to close the gap between 3 and 5 years. These claims fueled optimism in one camp and incredulity in the other.
Are value-added assessments of teachers reliable? The research is still inconclusive. Most everyone understands that some teachers produce stronger gains in test scores than other teachers. But, year-to-year, a teacher’s effectiveness can swing from the highest to the lowest quartile, or vice versa. Research is also unclear if a succession of strong teachers accumulates to close achievement gaps.
Teacher Evaluation and Compensation
The way we evaluate and compensate teachers currently is based on verifiable paper credentials and was negotiated over decades by teacher unions and school districts. A policy shift from qualifications to effectiveness requires a whole new evaluation and compensation system. That’s why teacher effectiveness policy is a game changer.
One camp argues that value add assessments are too unreliable to use in the high-stakes personnel decisions of firing and pay. The other camp argues that the current system based on qualifications is even less reliable, if the goal is to reward effectiveness.
What Teacher Effectiveness Means for Parents
Teacher effectiveness policy is being hashed out right now at the local level. In your kids’ schools, the district might be wrangling over value-add assessment, Last In First Out tenure policies, merit pay, and teaching to the test.
Both camps include parents and teachers, and Democrats and Republicans. To better understand the issues, ask yourself three questions:
- How do you determine the effectiveness of a teacher?
- Do value-add measures identify effective teachers?
- Should standardized tests be the measure of student learning?
Maybe just reading these questions clarifies where you stand. If not, additional information below on the pros and cons of value added assessment might be useful.
What Studies Say About Teacher Effectiveness, by the Education Writers Association, summarizes over 40 different studies, as well as interviews with researchers, to better understand the relationship between teachers and student achievement.
Passing Muster: Evaluating Teacher Evaluation Systems, a report by the Brookings Institute, presents the pros of using value add measures to evaluate teachers.
Problems with the Use of Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers, a report by the Economic Policy Institute, presents the cons of using value add measurements to evaluate teachers.