The right way to assess teachers

Laid off after her first year of teaching algebra, geometry and humanities at a California high school, Michele Kerr is open to judging teachers on performance rather than seniority. But she’s only willing to be judged on her students’ success under certain conditions, she writes in a Washington Post op-ed.

First, she proposes that teachers be judged on the students with 90 percent or higher attendance. “Teachers can’t teach children who aren’t there.”

Second, teachers should be allowed to remove disruptive students.

Two to three students who just don’t care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up — sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Administrators can decide “what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them,” she writes.

Third, Kerr would forbid students to move on to the next course if they score below “basic” proficiency in a state test.  Teachers wouldn’t be blamed if students who don’t know algebra can’t learn geometry or those who can’t read at a ninth-grade level can’t keep up in sophomore English, history or science.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.

If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

Finally, teachers should be judged on student improvement rather than meeting an absolute standard. That sort of “value-added” measure is what’s proposed in performance plans, so it’s her easiest condition to meet.

No one’s willing to admit how many students “are doing poorly because they simply don’t care, their parents don’t care, their cognitive abilities aren’t up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven’t figured out — with no regard to teacher quality,” Kerr writes. It’s easier to write tests that nearly everyone can pass and blame teachers if they can’t get semi-literate students through a college-prep English class or teach algebra to students who never learned arithmetic.

Is this doable? Letting teachers kick out disruptive students would be very useful, I think. Holding back students who lack basic skills would be painful, but it would force an intense effort to teach them what they need to know. I think that would help students more than dumping them in classes they can’t understand and hoping for the Clue Fairy to touch them with her magic wand.

I’d bet many teachers would be willing to be judged on the progress of on-track, in-class students.

About Joanne


  1. Cardinal Fang says:

    Shorter Kerr: I can *totally* teach kids who are easy to teach.

  2. One of the measures that Cleveland schools took, back in the late 1990’s, was to give teachers the “right of removal”. Admins couldn’t dispute it for their favored little darlings.

    It worked unbelievably well, for those teachers that used it.

    Last school year, I had an unusually difficult time removing students who were disruptive. They said that I had to work harder to motivate them (they were already motivated – to disrupt). After refusing to take them out, or suspend them, guess what happened near the end of the year? After, of course, it was too late to affect the high-stakes tests?

    They expelled them.

    So, why couldn’t they have done that earlier, and salvaged the chances of the rest of the class to pass?

  3. Shorter Cardinal Fang: I have no idea what I’m talking about.

  4. IntegratedMath says:

    It is increasingly hard to teach Geometry, Algebra II, Trig, or even Calculus, when the student can’t do fraction sums, difference, or division. This past year, I spent an abnormal amount of time going over addition fractions with different denominators. Explaining how to find Least Common Multiples. The rules for dividing by fractions. Why PEMDAS is so important in solving problems. Most students are being promoted before they actually learn the basic materials. It’s harder to teach kids more advanced math when they never learned the basics.

    While holding kids back may be detrimental to social development and self-esteem development, students need to the learn basics in order to advance forward. Juniors and Seniors taking freshman 1st semester math just because they never learned the basics is never a pretty picture. It isn’t right. Anyone that believes high school teachers should be held accountable for students who never learned the basics is someone that should give teaching a shot for a few years.

  5. Right, Mike. Even when there’s 90% attendance, chronic disrupters are elsewhere, and students have to have basic proficiency in last year’s content in order to enroll in this year’s course, there is LOTS that is hard about teaching low income kids, or any kid with a learning disability, or any kid with trauma going on at home, or . . . . .

  6. Walter_E_Wallis says:

    Several years ago, a new Frisco Sup of Schools announced hat teachers with high rates of suspensions and expulsions would suffer in salary reviews. The next year, violence in Frisco schools doubled.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    As a parent I say Amen…my question is “basic” –this only works if that means mastery which I truly doubt. So…hold the kids back until they are proficient and at grade level. Nothing else is reasonable for the kids in the next class, the teachers or more importantly the ill-prepared student.

    But…I add…I want this to whole thing to be a more fluid process…once the student demonstrates mastery of the full year subject matter they should be able to move ahead to the next level even if this is in the middle of a school year. Same time if they need more than a year to master the subject they should be that, too.

  8. Bingo! Game, set and match to Michelle Kerr. Attendance and behavior are biggies. While some of the issues at hand might be special ed-related, my experience is that given proper support and encouragement, sped kids can be some of the hardest workers out there. It doesn’t take many kids in a class of over 30 to disrupt things so thoroughly that a teacher can’t reach the struggling kids who would otherwise shut down. Two or three bad actors are all it takes. And when a kid is gone as frequently as once a week (some students are gone more than that) it takes even longer to catch up.

    Walter also has it right.

  9. I want to highlight the fact that leaving the disruptors in class is doing just as much a disservice to the disruptors as the the rest of the class. Removing them to a different environment would not only allow the rest of the students to learn, it might also move them to an environment in which they (the disruptors) could learn.

  10. Of course, no administration on the planet actually has the intestinal fortitude to pull this off. All the parents who are unreachable when you’re attempting to deal with their children, who make it impossible for the properly behaved children to learn, will come out in force the minute you try to apply any real consequences for their behavior. District-level administrations generally collapse faster than a mortal man encountering Raquel Welch.

  11. Michelle Kerr makes sense.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    Let’s see. Suppose I’m a teacher. I get a bonus if my students do well on high-stakes tests. I get to remove students that I deem disruptive. Also, students who aren’t there 90% of the time don’t count against me as far as my bonus is concerned.

    Hmmm, if things look a little dicey as far as my students’ prospective test scores are concerned… isn’t Jimmy over there, the one who can’t seem to learn fractions, disruptive? Why yes, I think he is. He’s certainly disrupting my bonus, anyway. Out, Jimmy.

  13. In California, the education code already gives teachers the right of removal.

    “Calif. Ed. Code, Sec. 48910 (Teacher Suspension)
    48910. (a) A teacher may suspend any pupil from the teacher’s class, for any of the acts enumerated in Section 48900, for the day of the suspension and the day following. …… The pupil shall not be returned to the class from which he or she was suspended, during the period of the suspension, without the concurrence of the teacher of the class and the principal.”

    I’ve had students I’ve kicked out of class sent right back to me from the office. I don’t let them in the door. Sometimes I give them a print-out of the ed code to take back to the office with them.

    One time a secretary called me and said, “The principal and the the vice principal are at the district office and I’m not able to watch him.” I said, as nicely as I could, that it wasn’t my problem.

    There’s a lot of pressure on teachers not to suspend students and something should be done about that. But if a teacher is willing to hold his ground, the law is clear. We do indeed have the right of removal.

  14. Teaching is one of the few industries where much of your job approval comes from things that are completely out of your control.

    Another one that comes to mind is pro sports coaches. Notice how the turnover rate for both is really high?

  15. Mike Miles, the superintendent of Harrison District #2 in Colorado Springs, has this problem licked. The traditional step and column pay scale is *gone* in his district, and after three years of establishing the program, teachers will be paid on *performance* starting this year.

    Before you poo-poo it, learn about it:

  16. tim-10-ber: Something similar to this went on in the district where I grew up. It’s all gone back to social promotion now, but then if you didn’t do well enough you were invited to attend summer school. Once you mastered the material, whether it was during summer school or during the school year, you got to move up. Of course, moving up during the school year meant you actually had to be caught up to the class you were moving into and I have no clue how that worked, but the kids who participated really did catch up and were able to perform with their peers when they rejoined the group. It’s doable.

    Few parents used outside tutoring even though it was a wealthy district, perhaps because that wasn’t part of the educational culture at the time. Sometimes the kids in question just needed more one-on-one teaching as well as some coaching in learning skills.

    Disruptive children were removed as well. Since the principal and vice principal took the time to get to know as many children as possible, they were roughly aware when a child was causing trouble or when a teacher was just having a bad day. Measures taken usually seemed appropriate. I had 255 in my graduating class so it wasn’t a huge school. I’m not sure how you’d have administrators get to know the kids in the mega schools of today.

    Anyway, I’m all for giving teachers the responsibility to be evaluated on things that are within their control. Isn’t that why in our society we demand that teachers get trained and licensed? If we’re going to tell them how to do their jobs and then evaluate them based on things which aren’t in their control, why not simply hire people who can read a script and then not evaluated them at all? It would be cheaper.

  17. Teaching difficult students is an incredibly demanding task. It’s easy to give in to the temptation to write them off. But we all know that teachers vary widely in their ability to handle tough students. A student who is a little hellion for some or even most of his teachers, can be focused and on task on one of his classes. We all know and admire these master teachers. Why shouldn’t they be rewarded for their abilities?

  18. tim-10-ber says:

    Darren — thanks for the links.


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