Two weeks ago Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York proposed yet another way to test teacher competence that, while it can’t hurt, also won’t help much. The idea is a rigorous professional test for new teachers, something like the bar exam for lawyers. The idea comes on the heels of another well-intended but problematic effort to improve schools, and when we talk about making sure teachers are competent and dedicated, there are a few simple truths we need to consider.
Evaluating teachers is easy, as is coming up with a system that weeds out the bad ones and rewards the good ones. The teachers’ unions don’t want a system that weeds out the bad ones and rewards the good ones. Lots of smart people do not want to be teachers.
The teacher evaluation system being implemented in New York has a huge flaw. The 40 per cent of evaluations to be based on student progress will have a margin of error of about 25 per cent, plus or minus, because classes are not large enough to provide statistical reliability. So when a teacher rates out at 70 per cent on improving student performance, it will mean that educator deserves something between a 45 and a 95. We’ll then conclude, decisively, that this teacher’s performance falls in the range between horrible and heavenly.
For evaluating principals, though, schools generally are large enough to provide a meaningful measure of student improvement on these tests, experts say. Such measures, then, can tell us quite clearly what kind of ships principals run. So if we punish or reward principals on these results, they would keep and promote the best teachers, right? In my day, teachers took their bar exams at an actual bar, and we turned out fine). They wouldn’t play favourites and ineffective teachers, because they’d care more about their own careers than the jobs of even the most delightful suck-ups. They wouldn’t fire the talented pains in the neck unless these teachers were so disruptive it actually hurt the school’s results, because the principals would be more psyched by big bonuses than they would be aggravated by the pesky but effective employees.
If principals were allowed to fire and reward teachers, that is. But enacting such a system, and streamlining the process of firing teachers, known as Education Law, because it involves 3,020 steps, is not in the best interests of teachers’ unions. Union leaders don’t earn their pay protecting the best teachers: The best teachers don’t need protecting. This system of evaluating principals would make it impossible to protect the cruddy, loopy teachers, and thus remove a main union task. But I also think such a system would help address the other problem, which is that so many smart people don’t want to be teachers.
One reason they don’t is that the profession comes under so much fire. We can keep dreaming up bar exams and performance, but they’re all intended to show something parents, students and principals already know: who the good and bad teachers are. What we need to do is use the performance standards to evaluate the principals, and let the principals deal with the teachers. Do that, and New York will have the best schools, and the other states will be playing catch-up.