Officials want teacher evaluations based on test scores

Unions disagree, cite other factors

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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MALDEN — State education officials made a forceful case yesterday for tying teacher evaluations to students’ MCAS scores and other performance measures, contending it would root out subpar teachers and lead to better schools.

“We can’t condemn successive cohorts of students to ineffective teaching,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner, who said rigorous teacher evaluations are infrequent.

In two-thirds of urban public school districts in Massachusetts, administrators are not allowed to consider student performance in assessing teachers, Chester said. Many teachers go several years without being evaluated.

At a meeting yesterday of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the first official discussion of the plan since it was proposed earlier this month, Chester and other supporters called stricter oversight of teacher performance an overdue component of school reform.

“This is really a culture change,’’ Chester said. “For students who are behind, not having an effective teacher is going to keep them behind.’’

The plan, which the state board is scheduled to vote on in June, has renewed a fierce debate over whether teachers should be held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests and other achievement measures.

It marks the first time the state has proposed using student outcomes in judging teachers, but is in keeping with the adherence to data-driven policies in other recent education changes.

Teachers whose students make strong progress would be rewarded, while those whose students do not would be placed on improvement plans and could eventually be fired if their students do not make progress.

Critics, including many teachers unions, say the plan places too much stock in scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams and penalizes teachers whose students are struggling for reasons beyond their control, such as turbulent home lives and personal troubles.

Timothy Sullivan — vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which generally supports the plan — said the lack of clarity in the regulations is worrisome.

“What do these mean to real teachers?’’ he asked.

Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said the group supports rigorous teacher evaluations, particularly by observing relatively new teachers in the classroom, but opposes using MCAS as a factor.

“It was never meant to evaluate teachers,’’ he said.

Detractors said it is difficult enough to quantify how much students are learning, much less what role teachers played.

“An excellent teacher might lay the foundation for a really big leap two or three years later,’’ said Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Other critics said the evaluations would intensify a trend toward teaching to the test.

State officials pointed out that more than 80 percent of teachers do not have students taking MCAS in any given year, because the tests are administered only to certain grades and in certain subjects.

The officials said teacher evaluations would consider a number of achievement measures and signs of progress.

Still, MCAS scores — already used to judge school systems, individual schools, and students — would be a key barometer, they said.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said the plan sends a “loud, clear signal that evaluation is singularly important.’’

Reville said regular evaluations would provide teachers important feedback, a departure from the current system of inconsistent evaluations.

“It borders on negligence,’’ he said.

A report last year by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and policy organization in Washington, found that about half of Boston public school teachers had not been evaluated in at least two years and that few were designated as unsatisfactory.

If the board approves the plan, low-performing schools would be required to create new teacher evaluation systems that pass state muster by the fall. All districts would need to comply by 2013.

The state plans to develop a blueprint for evaluations that school systems would be encouraged to follow.

Other states have tied evaluations to test scores, often in the face of stiff opposition from teachers.

Tom Fortmann, a former education board member and member of the task force that crafted the proposed regulations, said that opposition to the plan is misguided and that teachers need to be held accountable for results.

Melissa Granetz, assistant principal at the Donald McKay K-8 School in East Boston, said the changes will help improve schools so that “student outcomes are no longer determined by the teacher they are assigned.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at