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.

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