As more state legislatures across the nation pass laws requiring teacher evaluations, the debate over what to actually do with the data is heating up. Many districts are using these evaluations – many based on narrow, value-added data – to label teachers “ineffective” and subsequently remove them from the classroom. Scrutiny of this approach, however, is increasing and many experts are calling for more constructive and fair approaches to promoting teaching quality, especially in schools that face serious student achievement challenges.
But what strategies work? Is there any role for value-added test scores? Do professional development programs work and are they cost effective? These were some of the key questions addressed at a panel discussion last week at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
The panel consisted of Craig Jerald, president of Break the Curve Consulting, Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Segun Eubanks, Director of Teacher Quality for the National Education Association, and Stephanie Hirsh, executive director of Learning Forward. The panel was moderated by Cynthia Brown, Vice President for Education Policy for the Center for American Progress.
Much of the discussion centered around presentations given by Jerald and Pianta.
Jerald outlined his model to improve teacher effectiveness called “Moving it and Improving It,” a hybrid approach that integrates two strategies. First, use evaluation data to identify effective teachers and keep them in the profession while weed out some who are having difficulty – but also use proven and targeted training to support teachers in the classroom.
The first strategy generally views teacher quality as essentially a fixed attribute while the second views effectiveness as a quality that can be improved. Jerald conceded that the two may appear to be in competition with each other, but he argued that districts should utilize elements of both strategies to produce the best results.
“Student achievement doesn’t care where teacher effectiveness comes from,” Jerald said, “Student achievement only cares that there is teacher effectiveness. And policymakers shouldn’t leave any potential effectiveness on the table.”
Segun Eubanks suggested to Jerald that he include a third, equally critical component to his model.
“I would add ‘Ensuring It.’ What are we doing to ensure that those who are entering the profession have the skills, knowledge and preparation necessary to be successful on day one?”
Eubanks added that the false choice between the two strategies outlined by Jerald is a result of the “silver bullet” mindset that has undermined the dialogue over evaluation and effectiveness.
“Too long, everyone was looking for the One Thing that we hoped would work and make everything better,” Eubanks explained. “Usually it was cheap and easy. For many folks, it was the “moving it” agenda – ‘Let’s get rid of the bad teachers.’ Now we need a system that is more meaningful and comprehensive.”
Getting to this system, Eubanks said, requires less emphasis on basing effectiveness solely on a teacher’s ability to raise student scores on statewide tests.
Using multiple measures and helping teachers “survive and thrive” in the classroom is a key platform in NEA’s policy statement on teacher evaluation and effectiveness released in July. The statement lays out rigorous standards and identifies the multiple indicators of teacher practice that must be taken into account in any evaluation and accountability system. It also calls for a well-designed system for improving a struggling teacher’s practice.
In presenting the key findings of his new policy paper, however, Robert Pianta argued that many of the most prevalent professional development tools, which receive significant funding, are known to be largely ineffective. Instead, with budgets at a breaking point, Pianta said districts must direct their attention and resources to a few evidence-supported models, examined in his report.
“Unless investments are targeted for and deliver proven results for students,” Pianta warned, “opportunities both for the improvement of the public education system and for the millions of children it serves will be squandered.”
Stephanie Hirsh of Learning Forward agreed with many of Pianta’s points but cautioned that professional development has been too easily dismissed by some critics and that teachers are already demanding standards and evidence-based strategies.
“All teachers can and want to learn and improve,” Hirsh said. “Access to quality professional development matters greatly to teacher effectiveness. But evidence does matter and we all need more of it.”
“It doesn’t take a lot of research,” Eubanks agreed, “to know that teachers aren’t exactly jumping up and down defending the quality of professional development they receive – especially the ‘drill and kill’ and Saturday workshops.”
Cynthia Brown asked the panelists why little tangible progress has been made deploying better teacher effectiveness strategies.
Dr. Pianta said a proper auditing has to be done first to establish the effectiveness of these programs.
“That’s the next step in moving forward,” Pianta said. “Figuring out how to redefine and redeploy existing models.”
Eubanks cautioned that an obstacle to progress is the fact that professional development is a major industry in education and many decisions are being made at the local level that reflect that influence.
“It’s quite the industry,” Eubanks explained. “A lot of money is being made so there’s momentum in the current system. We have to tease out the companies who are not doing good work and make decisions based not on vested interests but what is best for teachers and students in the classroom.”