What does it take to get teachers so angry that they are willing to let more than 350,000 public school students go uneducated for days? In Chicago, where striking public school teachers have done just that, it took more than money, although the teachers want more of that, too. What Chicago’s 25,000 teachers are really up in arms about, along with demands to work a longer school day, is a new system that proposes to determine how well they are doing their jobs.
The district is calling for a new evaluation system in which 25 percent of a teacher’s rating – a score that would determine promotion, pay, and tenure – would be based on student test scores. The figure would increase to 40 percent within five years. The district’s rationale, widely supported, is that a teacher is the greatest in-school driver of a student’s academic achievement. But the Chicago teachers, along with their peers nationwide, argue that test scores owe just as much to factors like poverty, behavioral problems, and homelessness as they do to instruction, and that these factors lie well beyond a teacher’s reach. According to a recent survey by Education Sector, only one in three teachers is open to a system of rewards that relies on higher student test scores.
Teachers are, of course, right to expect that the measures by which they are evaluated be fair and equitable, and what little research there has been on the subject shows that existing value-added models suffer from a number of flaws. In Tennessee, for instance, teachers in non-testing grades were judged heavily by the test scores for their entire schools – something over which the teachers had little control. In the District of Columbia, where teachers can be fired on the basis of the three-year-old IMPACT evaluation system, teachers complain that test scores are weighted too heavily and don’t correlate well with scores from observations. Both systems are being tweaked.
The leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools need to work together to get the metrics right. That means agreeing on a holistic model that combines impartial classroom observation and test scores, that accounts for student background factors, and that uses a formula that isolates and accurately captures the value a teacher actually adds. Coming up with such a system isn’t easy, and it seems reasonable to ask that it be tested for at least a year before being deployed in a high-stakes way. Teachers should also demand that the results of the evaluations be used to significantly improve professional development. If districts are going to hold teachers to higher standards – as well they should – they need to give those teachers the resources they need to meet them.
But fighting the whole idea of test-based evaluation is a losing battle. The Obama administration has called for districts to include test scores in evaluations as part of its Race to the Top grant program. And 24 states now require districts to include some measure of student growth in teacher evaluations. In virtually every other field of endeavor, employees are rated and reviewed, and their jobs rise and fall on the outcomes of their performance. Teachers grade their students, too, with equally consequential results.
At the very least, resisting test-based evaluation is bad PR at a time when labor unions can least afford it. As Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has helpfully noted, unemployment is over 8 percent, and the average Chicago teacher makes $76,000 a year. It’s time for Chicago teachers to get with the program – and for Chicago kids to get back to school.