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HARRIS: Evaluating all teachers is critical, regardless of subject

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David HarrisQUESTION: When compensating teachers based on test scores and other performance measures, how should teachers in fine arts be reviewed?

ANSWER:
Teachers are by far the most important factor in students’ and schools’ success, as much research has shown. A 2006 study of 150,000 students in Los Angeles found that having a teacher ranked among the top 25 percent for four years in a row would be enough to close the test-score gap between white and African-American students. And a 2011 study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities showed students taught by highly effective teachers are more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, and save for retirement.

Simply put, outstanding teachers change lives. That’s why we must do everything we can to help more teachers be excellent. And that means thoroughly evaluating teachers’ performance to support them in their professional growth and reward great work.

Traditionally, teacher evaluation systems have been woefully insufficient. They have been conducted infrequently and have not provided teachers with the thorough feedback they need to reach their potential.

A 2009 study by The New Teacher Project, “The Widget Effect,” showed that nearly every teacher—more than 99 percent in some districts—is labeled “good” or “great,” no matter how much progress their students are making. The study also noted that teachers rarely receive meaningful feedback that helps them improve. Our teachers deserve better.

Systems for evaluating teachers have improved dramatically in the last few years as more states have begun to require rigorous evaluations and factor them into compensation. Evaluation systems are not perfect—no more than evaluations for other professions—but they are becoming significantly better tools for measuring teachers’ effectiveness.

Indiana has made great strides to ensure all teachers get fairly evaluated. State lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 to require that teachers be evaluated annually and that student performance play a significant role in evaluations. In Indiana, evaluations now also influence teacher compensation.

States that implemented thorough evaluation systems in earlier years have shown they produce excellent results. Tennessee revamped its system in 2010 to base half of teacher evaluations on student achievement data and the remaining half on measures such as classroom observations. The state also gathered input from thousands of teachers on the new systems.

As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in a recent Huffington Post column about Tennessee’s overhaul, the state’s students made their biggest one-year gain in achievement after a year under the new system.

Various arguments are used against teacher evaluations, including that it’s difficult to evaluate students in subjects such as fine arts. But several districts have come up with clever and effective methods for doing it.

At some schools, portfolios that include samples of students’ work are evaluated. Art students might showcase their artwork, while music students might perform recitals to demonstrate content mastery.

At Achievement First, a network of 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut, teachers in subjects such as fine arts work with a coach at the beginning of the school year to determine what they expect their students to achieve over the course of the year and how they will measure it. The measurements typically include evaluating student skills, as well as written exams.

At the end of the year, a content expert reviews student performance and evaluates teachers based on how far students advanced toward the goals set for them. Principals, who have close contact with teachers and coaches, also can weigh in to add points to teachers’ scores, based on other student data.

These examples show it’s possible to evaluate teachers fairly, even in challenging subjects. And it’s important to make doing so a priority—for the sake of teachers’ advancement and the success of their students.•

• Harris is CEO of The Mind Trust, a not-for-profit focused on K-12 education reform in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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