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Bill brief: Teacher & Administrator evaluation

MIPFS testimony on teacher and administrator evaluation bills

Delivered to the Michigan House Education Committee on 26 February 2014, by Steven Norton (MIPFS) and Jennifer Kangas (Friends of Dexter Community Schools)

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to speak to HB 5223 and 5224. Our remarks will focus on the larger picture rather than the details of the bills. I’d like to begin with two thoughts that explain where we are coming from:

  1. We are coming at this issue as parents, who want our schools to serve all students well. Teachers and administrators are, ultimately, our employees – the people we are asking to teach and help nurture the children of our communities. How do we want to treat these people who are caring for those most precious to us? Our priority is not to sort people, or find ways to “get rid” of people. Our priority is to have all our children’s teachers be outstanding. Any kind of evaluation system needs to be entirely focused on that goal.
  2. This is really the first opportunity the public has had to comment on the rules set down in 2011. We appreciate the effort made to translate the Michigan Council’s recommendations into actual legislation, and we especially value the efforts of Dean Ball and her colleagues in developing a proposal based on sound practices and research. However, their work was itself constrained by the provisions passed into law in 2011, when the standardized testing “fetish” was still on the rise. We are sadder but wiser now, or at least we ought to be, and our policies ought to reflect that subsequent experience.

With that said, we wholeheartedly support fully developed systems to assess and improve the actual practice of teachers and administrators. It may be difficult to predict the impact a teacher will have on any one student, but we can and should build systems that help all educators grow as professionals and make it clear that we expect educators to be partners in the improvement of our schools. The observation tools and other methods of assessing practice are a critically important first step. Even more important is what happens after the evaluation: how do we provide our educators with the knowledge, tools and resources to improve and fine-tune their practice? The bills only touch on this critical work.

Mandating the creation of this kind of observation system without a firm commitment to provide the necessary resources would turn a promising policy into another, hollow, bureaucratic requirement stealing time and resources from our children.

As to measures of student growth, however, we have been and remain opposed to the continued and expanded use of standardized tests as the primary or sole measure of teacher, school or district performance. Standardized tests can be useful, but Michigan parents are weary of the constant rounds of testing and the narrowing of the curriculum that has resulted from that. We know that these standardized tests tell us only a little about our children’s learning, and usually do not touch on the most important parts: thinking clearly and creatively, learning to ask the right questions rather than focusing on memorizing pat answers, working constructively with others, and learning to be a citizen as well as an employee.

Using plain test scores to assess teacher performance raises obvious problems. Value added modeling, while it tries to correct for those problems, is itself an uncertain procedure still very much argued over by the specialists who developed it. Most importantly, evaluation systems based on value added modeling or similar methods are aimed almost entirely at ranking teachers rather than helping them improve. Even if the statistical results were completely reliable, we do not see how it helps our children for their teachers to be measured by a system that gives them no information about what they could be doing better. And if the rankings produced by the model are misleading, we risk doing great damage to the schools we are trying so hard to build up.

Michigan should make a wholehearted commitment to helping all public schools serve their students well. Any evaluation system required by law should focus on helping our educators grow as professionals and hone their craft. Such a system would also need to be accompanied by the tools and resources to make it work effectively without diverting further resources from the basic purpose of our schools – educating our children.

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