Teacher evaluations | Globe Editorial

Too much jargon, too few fixes

March 22, 2011

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THE TEACHER evaluation process in Massachusetts is broken. Principals conduct drive-by classroom observations of teachers who know there will be no consequences for poor performance and no rewards for excellence. Federal officials are fed up.

Today, the state Board of Education is scheduled to receive a state task force report on teacher evaluation. The report — a product of 40 contributors from offsetting educational constituencies — is long on jargon and short on recommendations. Members finally acknowledged that student performance on the state MCAS exam and other tests should count toward a teacher’s evaluation. But they couldn’t agree on how much.

Education commissioner Mitchell Chester will need to be a lot more specific next month when he makes his own recommendations to the board. It’s not enough simply to expand the current satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating system for teachers. The first goal of any new evaluation system should be to identify incompetent teachers and give them a set period of time to improve. If they don’t improve sufficiently, they should be dismissed without red tape. Teachers who are weak in some areas and good in others deserve careful feedback and time to improve. And superior teachers deserve bonuses and a greater say in the overall direction of the school.

What would a good teacher evaluation system look like? Student test scores and academic growth over the school year would play a large part. But that measure should be paired with student evaluations, which are rarely included in this debate. Harvard professor Thomas Kane found a strong correlation between student academic growth and student perception of teacher quality. In his recent study of six urban school districts, students who fared best also gave their teachers high grades for managing classroom time, providing homework help, and explaining material in multiple ways.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for observing a teacher in the classroom. Kane’s study made wide and creative use of videotape in the classroom, which has distinct advantages over observation by harried headmasters. Videotape can be viewed at a headmaster’s leisure or provided to outside experts. And teachers and their supervisors can examine it as an improvement tool.

There is need for improvement in every aspect of teacher evaluation in Massachusetts. The report of the task force failed to communicate the urgency of the problem or to offer enough practical solutions.