Thursday, February 9, 2012

How to Measure Teacher Quality? Ask Parents

Posted in The New York Times at :

Feb. 8, 2012, 5:50 p.m.

Teacher quality is like baseball and apple pie. All of us who care about education can embrace it — in principle.

Last month the education blogosphere was awash in excitement about the latest study showing that having high quality teachers boosts a child’s lifetime income.

The study arrived the day before Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s State of the City speech, and the mayor cited it as supporting his policies.

But how we measure and strengthen teacher quality is where consensus quickly falls apart.

DESCRIPTIONLorraine LeveyMatthew Levey

Differences in approach are at the root of the continuing standoff over 33 under-performing city schools that the mayor — making the argument that higher quality instruction is the cure for the schools’ ills — now wants to close and immediately reopen with, in most cases, a new administration and as many as half of the teachers replaced.

But how do we identify high quality instruction?

An expert panel advised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that student test results should make up 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The governor decided to double this.

In August a judge ruled against the governor. Oral arguments in the case, now before the Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court, were heard on Tuesday in Albany.

Meanwhile, principals, whose autonomy and independence form another important plank of the mayor’s reforms, are growing more skeptical of the proposed evaluation system.

Whether 20 percent or 40 percent is the “correct” answer, the bigger question is what makes up the remaining 60 or 80 percent of the teacher’s review. Answering this question also helps us think about those teachers who do not teach tested subjects (think science, art, gym, music, English as a second language) and who are therefore not subject to the new formula.

Councilman Al Vann of Brooklyn recently argued on these pages for a parent voice in decisions to close schools. But shutting down a school is an extreme measure, taken in response to myriad failures that have occurred over several years. Why not involve parents before we get to that point?

I know the Department of Education has struggled to figure out how to involve parents effectively: I stepped down several years ago as president of my local Community Education Council, in frustration with our lack of meaningful influence.

Albany is not much better in this regard. The number of parents who participated in developing the state’s teacher evaluation rubric? Zero. The number of times the word “parent” appears in the 71 pages of guidelines for implementing the state’s new evaluation formula? Twice.

Meaningful parent feedback should be part of the evaluation of teacher quality. If reform is really about empowering parents, tools like school closings and vouchers are blunt instruments. By intervening early on to ensure a school has the best teaching staff it can assemble, parents are less likely to have to resort to extreme measures like pulling a child out of the school, or shutting it down, as advocates of so-called parent-trigger laws would like.

Most parents see their child and the work their child brings home every day. Even when they answer “nothing” in response to the query “what did you do in school today?” parents’ observations and intuition are a source of feedback on the teacher’s impact on their child.

Since the 1960s, universities have used student evaluations of faculty members in tenure decisions. These evaluations are imperfect; so are elementary school test scores and principals’ observations of teachers.

Useful parent evaluations would focus on objective criteria, not just whether the parent “liked” the teacher. Parents are not in the classroom with their children every day, so their information is often second-hand. But their feedback should count for more than the 0 percent we currently use.

Idaho and Connecticut are moving to give parents a voice in the process; is it too far-fetched to think Gotham could try it, too?

Matthew Levey is the father of three New York City public school students. He is the co-founder of an educational assessment service, and a former Community Education Council president.

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