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Here's a question many school districts are asking: How do you measure an effective teacher? Well, more and more states are doing it by evaluating test scores and observing teachers in the classroom. The Obama administration is actually encouraging these methods as a way to rate teachers. The question, though, is whether these are the best measures. And then what happens when those results are made public? Well, New York City recently did just that, and it's triggered widespread controversy.
Here's Beth Fertig of member station WNYC for more.
KATHERINE MOLONEY: What are you working on?
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: As a principal, Katherine Moloney knows a good teacher can make almost any subject engaging.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: We're making Mexican-style hash, chocolate chip ice cream cake.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: And triple Play Do.
FERTIG: These fifth graders at PS 100 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn are using recipe books provided by their teacher to show how fractions are used in daily life. They won't actually make their recipes, but they will use them to create mathematical problems. Moloney is delighted by the creative touch.
MOLONEY: The work that's going on in there, the discussion, the excitement, that's what good teaching is about.
FERTIG: And yet, when the city released its ratings, the teacher, Nicole Weingard, got one of the lowest scores in the school. She wound up in the bottom 20 percent citywide. But most of Weingard's students easily passed their state exams.
NICOLE WEINGARD: I was very upset about the rating. I don't think it reflects any way, shape and form how I am as a teacher. I've been teaching for eight years. I can probably count on one hand how many of my students didn't perform well.
FERTIG: That's just one reason why the ratings were criticized. The system gave less weight to student performance than to how much progress students made on the state exams from one year to the next. And because Weingard teaches an honors class, her high-scoring kids don't have a lot of room for improvement.
The ratings didn't affect Weingard. But during the three years in which they were calculated, principals did use them to make tenure decisions. And the city acknowledges they had huge margins of error by as much as 30 to 50 percentage points. Principal Moloney says that bothered her.
MOLONEY: The data itself that this is based on is so disproportionate to real, actual teaching practices. And the data itself is not good.
FERTIG: Moloney says these problems could explain why no parents voiced concerns about their teachers when the ratings were released to the public in February. Although a poll found most parents approved of releasing the ratings, only 20 percent said they trusted them. Jeff Jacobson, whose daughter attends an elementary school in another part of Brooklyn, says he sympathizes with the teachers.
JEFF JACOBSON: I'm sure they're under a lot of pressure. You know, I hate to see good teachers go just because a couple of kids didn't test well and that determines whether they get to keep their job or not.
FERTIG: New York City's experiment has given new ammunition to critics, especially teachers' unions. But the Obama administration is making some federal funds contingent on the adoption of new teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores. Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says scores can be useful in identifying teachers who are consistently at the top and bottom.
ERIC HANUSHEK: There are systematic ways that you can get the error rates quite low and within reasonable bounds. And most systems that talk about using this information would not make a judgment on a teacher based upon a single-year observation. Most have an appeals process that goes along with it to ensure that the data were correct.
FERTIG: The ratings in New York City were released to the media when the teachers' union lost a lawsuit to keep them private. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says parents have a right to see them.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The arrogance of some people to say that the parents don't have the ability to look at numbers and to put them in context and to make decisions is just astounding to me.
FERTIG: Some state lawmakers have begun to question whether they should be seen by everyone or just parents. Despite warnings that the ratings weren't complete, tabloid headlines still singled out the so-called worst teachers. New York State has given its school districts until next January to implement their teacher evaluation systems or risk losing state education aid. Many districts have yet to negotiate the final details and the prospect of sharing these ratings with the wider public has made some of the parties more cautious. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.
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