Measurement Is Not Destiny

Monday, March 9, 2009
Stephen Sawchuk has written an excellent cover story ("Stimulus Bill Spurs Focus on Teachers") in this week's edition of Education Week. It discusses the federal stimulus legislation which directs states to abide by the equitable teacher distribution provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act -- as well as to improve teacher effectiveness -- in exchange for state stabilization funds and the opportunity to apply for competitive grants as part of Secretary Duncan's "Race To The Top Fund."

With regard to teacher effectiveness, there's just one little problem. There's no definition in federal law -- let alone in state laws -- about what that actually means. From Education Week:

Several states, and some districts, now endorse performance-based teacher evaluations that define good teaching, determine which teachers exhibit such practices, and identify those who fall short for assistance. Others are reorienting professional development toward sustained school-based approaches that researchers say are more likely to change teacher behavior and improve student achievement than “one shot” workshops.

Some efforts to improve teacher effectiveness have proved politically challenging. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a performance-pay program, has promoted interest in using test scores to estimate teacher effectiveness. That approach has generally not been favored by teachers’ unions. The tif program received an additional $200 million in the stimulus.

Additionally, a limited number of states have the ability to match teacher records to student data, and even those with the technical capacity have not always used their data to estimate teacher effectiveness. The unions fear such links could ultimately be used to establish punitive policies, and they have successfully lobbied legislators to curb the use of “teacher effect” data in some states. ("Growth Data for Teachers Under Review," Oct. 12, 2008.)

But the possibilities of “value added” are enticing to policymakers. Officials in Tennessee, the lone state that has incorporated teacher-effect data into personnel decisions, are awaiting new data that will reveal whether efforts to attract effective teachers to the most challenged schools have improved results, said Julie McCargar, the state director of federal programs.

This is a huge issue – and it will be interesting to see if the U.S. Department of Education focuses its regulatory definition and its expectations of states – like so many others – simply on measuring and identifying and perhaps rewarding effective teachers. The logical and more purposeful next step, of course, is to look at what behaviors, characteristics, or knowledge make certain educators more effective and then determine how to scale up approaches to initial training or on-going professional development programs to help make the vast majority of teacher candidates, beginning teachers and veteran teachers better. I have no insider knowledge about the Department's thinking around all this, but I’m always astonished at the wealth of policymakers, policy organizations, and foundations that never seem to get past square one on this topic.

Measurement is not destiny.

If all we do is use value-added metrics to determine who the best teachers are and pay them more money for being better, we will be sacrificing the quality of public education for a short-sighted reform. While more money might keep some effective educators from leaving a particular school or district, or from leaving the profession entirely, it won't do anything to make existing and future teachers a whit better.

The teacher effectiveness conversation must be about more than value-added measurement and performance pay, although it can certainly include those elements. It can't be simply about rewarding the good and getting rid of the bad. Fundamentally, it must be about a concerted human capital strategy to use existing knowledge as well as future data and research to strengthen teacher preparation, induction and professional development to improve the skills and abilities of all teachers. Hopefully, the Department's focus on teacher effectiveness will impel such an effort.

We can do better -- by learning from the best teachers and finding ways to replicate their success. Now, that would be effective.