By Alex Rodriquez
Wisconsin needs a new way to evaluate teachers, and Doug Harris just may have figured out how to do it.
Harris is developing a new evaluation system that is meant to eventually replace the No Child Left Behind, the contentious test-based program implemented by President Bush in 2001. The UW-Madison associate professor of educational policy studies believes that a properly implemented value-added model could be the answer to high-stakes testing.
Value-added measures help sort classroom, teacher and outside influences from each other, creating a more accurate picture of students and teachers’ performance. If used in moderation and correctly, value-added measures could herald a brighter future of teacher evaluations in Wisconsin, according to Harris.
“This is a good starting point,” says Harris. “It’s accounting for those differences that are outside the control of the teacher.”
With the advent of the new teacher evaluation system in Wisconsin, a long-fought battle comes to the forefront once again. Opponents fear the new evaluation system could create more problems than it can solve and it could spell the end of careers. Proponents hope this is a step in the right direction for evaluating teachers by comprehensively looking at student and teacher progress using a complex system of student testing and observations to create a complete profile of a teacher.
However, the plan is still in its formative stages and all proposals right now are not final. As the evaluation system is currently still under development, the proposed system is raking up more questions than answers for educators.
Created so that Wisconsin may receive a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Program, some officials hope the new teacher evaluation system could be implemented by 2014. (This spring the state learned its request for a waiver needed to be revised with more details.) This year the state has entered a pilot phase of the program, which spans from this year until 2013, to test out the larger techniques of the new system.
The value-added system is a measurement tool that combines student-standardized test results with past test results to create a map of students’ progress and predict how students should advance in the coming years. Teachers’ performances are then based off of whether the student reaches his or her predicted potential.
However, the details of the value-added system proposed are vague; the state is waiting for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to create a manual on how the value-added system would be fully implemented.
The dispute over teacher evaluations is not a new one. Just last year, California was heavily criticized for not adopting a more ‘modern’ evaluating system, while others applauded their resistance to change citing insufficient research on the merits of the value-added system, according to this Los Angeles Times article.
Michael Apple, the head of the department of Educational Policies, is convinced the state of Wisconsin is taking a step in the wrong direction.
“The value-added system has some merit, but it cannot be fully and properly perfected and implemented fairly for at least another 20 years,” says Apple.
Apple has seen value-added systems used in other countries—like the U.K. and New Zealand—fail.
“You know what they found? It doesn’t work,” he says. “The [value-added] measure simply doesn’t work. There is a lot of research on this and we should be looking to them, but we are not.”
Many are worried about the weight given to student testing, especially if the value-added system hasn’t yet been fully developed. Student test scores count for half of the proposed teacher evaluation system. A first-year Wisconsin teacher who asked not to be fully named, is concerned about test scores and how they will reflect on good teachers who teach difficult students.
“I know that they are wanting to use students’ scores to evaluate how a teacher gets paid and how they are as a teacher. This is the worst idea ever,” says the teacher. “I work with lower math students and in all their tests they are going to be lower. That does not prove that my teaching is not effective. I work above and beyond for my students just to move an inch. And what do we do with the students who refuse to take a test seriously and don’t even try? How does that reflect on a teacher and their way of teaching?”
Teacher Bryenne Alesch is worried about what the system will mean for her special education students and her fellow teachers.
One of her students is severely autistic. In her cross-categorical class where she has a mixture of kids that need special education and those who don’t, she has worked hard to give him the attention he needs. When he came into her class, he would hit others and was completely non-verbal. But, he has made progress. The child has stopped hitting and can now sit still for 10 minutes at a time. For an autistic child, this kind of progress is exemplary. Alesch is proud but worried: If the new teacher evaluations get passed, in which the teachers are based on data alone, then Alesch’s student’s progress will not be seen as a giant step. It instead will be seen as an underachieving, below-average number—a number that could get Alesch fired.
“If it gets to the point where the tests are completely data based and each child is either proficient or not proficient, then these teachers are not going to want to carry these cross-categorical loads where most of these kids, most—not all—are not proficient,” Alesch says.
Apple, although strongly opposed, does have faith in one proponent of value-added measure: Harris. However, as hopeful as Harris is, even he still holds qualms about the system.
“It’s not quite there yet,” Harris says. “Along with the testing, there needs to be peer reviews by principles and colleagues from other schools, but it’s better than nothing.”
But for many, the value-added system offers some key ingredients to what an ideal system might look like: Namely, a move away from solitary reliance on test scores.
Music Teacher Timothy Gruber is relieved the old system seems to broaden the measures by which he might be evaluated. He would rather have a value-added system where outside variables are factored into the equation when figuring out test scores.
“We need to have a test where each child is measured from where they started not just based on a national average, because every student comes from a different place. Value-added is the real fair way to test,” says Gruber.
Harris has written of the merits of value-added, and believes that the new system is a vast improvement on the old high-stakes testing model previously used.
“There’s been a lot of criticism with the [current] teacher evaluation system, where around 95 percent of teachers are judged as highly effective and nobody really believes that to be true,” he says.
Harris believes value-added measures can be used effectively if also combined with in-class observation and peer reviews. Those elements are what would make up the ideal evaluation method, and Harris believes this new evaluation system is getting closer to that ideal.
Midvale Principal Teresa Carranza understands how educators are concerned about the new system, but she thinks that a new evaluation system holds merit. Carranza sees how the new system could push teachers to make new goals for themselves and step back to look at objective data that would improve their teaching methods.
Many solutions to problems with teacher evaluations have been suggested, but not every educator’s ideal system is a shared ideal.
“There is an ideal system,” says Alesch. “We just haven’t found the right balance yet.”
Alesch believes a combination of mapping students’ progress through testing and reviewing teachers’ performance from outside teachers and the principal, will strike the right balance.
There is a broad consensus that teacher evaluations cannot rely on student testing alone, that current and future systems should put much less weight on them.
“We can’t rely on test scores or they should comprise a small part,” says Harris. “They might show a teacher is doing poorly, but it doesn’t say why or how to improve.”
The ideal system for most educators is some combination of peer reviews, observations and testing with the weakest emphasis on the latter.
“Checks and Balances. Utilizing all the administrators within a district to check each other and other teachers,” says the anonymous first-year Wisconsin teacher.
Anu Ebbe, principal at Shorewood Elementary School, sees the new teacher evaluations as a starting point. The system can be helpful, she says, but only if given context. It does not take into account the socio-economic status or life-altering changes in a student’s life. These are factors that tests cannot distinguish and are factors only the teacher would know. If these tests factor in these variables, Ebbe can see them as a good thing for her school.
“I don’t know what the perfect system would look like,” says Ebbe. “I can guess, but I just don’t know the answer. I don’t think anybody truly knows, and that is a problem.”