8:46 am
Wed July 24, 2013

New teacher evaluation system is a move toward accountability

Lessenberry commentary for 7/24/2013

Many years ago, I had an unscrupulous high school algebra teacher, and the misfortune to have him the last hour of this day. His passion was horse racing, and his deal with the class was this:

He would give us a bunch of problems to solve, breeze through the basic concepts, and then take off for the race track. The understanding was that we wouldn’t squeal on him and everyone would pass. Somehow, he got away with this.

I have no idea if he ever got caught. Now most teachers aren’t like that. For years, I was married to a woman who was ranked one of the nation’s three best AP History teachers. Nor are teachers the only factor in educational achievement, But finding a way to distinguish good teachers from bad is important, and the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness has just submitted new recommendations I think are worth considering.

Unfortunately, some people may have a problem hearing what they have to say. There’s an ideological divide polarizing the way we feel about many things these days, education included.

Teachers and the education community have the feeling that the legislature has had a vendetta against teachers and, especially, their unions, and frankly, there’s evidence they are right.

Nor do I think good teachers are paid enough for the work they do for the service they render to society.

On the other hand, it is hard to be sympathetic to union bureaucrats who dig their heels in at any suggestion of change or fight the removal of any teacher, no matter how incompetent.

That’s why the Michigan Council’s recommendations deserve strong consideration. Now, some are going to be inclined to close their minds because the council was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature.

But it is made up of independent education experts and has been chaired by Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the University of Michigan’s school of education, a renowned expert on math teaching who it would be hard to caricature as a right wing stooge.

Under the plan, teachers and school administrators would be rated “professional, provisional or ineffective.” Anyone receiving an ineffective rating for two straight years would be fired. There are details to be worked out, but there would be strong incentives for all schools to adopt it, so there would be one consistent statewide system.

The evaluations would be based in part on measurable student learning. A small part of the teacher’s grade—no more than five percent, could be based on student growth in the entire school.

This system seems to make a lot of sense. Those who fear this is just a trick to move to a merit pay system should note that compensation would not be tied to these evaluations. The evaluations would also be treated as confidential personnel information not open to the public.

There are still a few areas for concern. It would be unfair to judge student success by the same standards in East Lansing, say, where half the parents may be professors, and Highland Park, where kids may lack much in the way of parental support.

But teachers, parents and especially kids deserve accountability. And this seems like a good way to start.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.