Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Friday, October 19, 2007

Reward Good Teachers. Dump the Bad Ones

If we can put a man on the moon, then we can create a formula for evaluating and rewarding teacher performance. Yeah, I know that’s stupid, but it feels good after all these years to turn such a ridiculous comparison back on liberals who said that moon landings were proof that we could eliminate poverty.

Gratuitous lunar associations aside, I do know this: Contrary to the prevailing wisdom among teachers and their unions, developing a system that can accurately evaluate teacher performance in the classroom is not impossible. It might not be easy. It might require coarse adjustments or fine tuning as we gain experience with it. But measuring teacher performance is possible. And it’s an essential first step toward honest education reform.
As the Idaho legislature moves forward with proposals to link pay raises to teacher performance, teachers insist that they do not want to be judged and don’t believe that they can accurately be judged anyway.
“Your performance as a teacher isn't necessarily reflected in your product,” said Nancy Amos, president of the Potlatch teacher’s association. As for standardized testing that would measure student performance she said, “You're not necessarily measuring what should be taught.”
As I understand it, standardized tests measure reading, writing and arithmetic. But, what makes the parents and taxpayers think they are qualified to judge what should be taught?
This is a bit like a car manufacturer saying that we, the consumers, are unqualified to judge the quality of the cars we buy and that we should trust the carmaker to decide what’s best for us. The carmaker might say that reliability, durability and gas mileage are not the measure of a good car. It’s the celebrity endorsements that matter.
For as long as I have been paying attention, there have been three incontrovertible truths about education. First, the quality of elementary and secondary education in the United States has been almost uniformly poor when compared to the rest of the world. Secondly, in spite of what teachers’ unions have argued, class size and per pupil spending have little correlation with student performance. And finally, teachers have resisted every attempt at accountability for the quality of their work.
A quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan proposed merit pay increases for teachers nationwide. The unions let it be known that they would prefer no raises at all to raises that rewarded quality work. In 2007, unions still oppose any system that would make teachers accountable for the quality of their work. In a country that surpasses the rest of the world in just about every endeavor (with the notable exception of education) precisely because it does reward excellence, the contrast should gain somebody’s attention. We have Soviet level performance in our schools because we have a Soviet style system of rewarding performance – we don’t and they didn’t.
A couple of decades ago, a baseball fanatic with entirely too much free time on his hands created a mathematical discipline that he called “sabremetrics.” All winter long, Bill James would pore over player statistics and eventually developed equations that assigned a numerical value to a player’s contribution to his team. Originally dismissed as nonsense, sabremetrics is increasingly used by Major League general managers in medium to small markets who are trying to assemble winning teams by assembling rosters with the highest value to salary ratio.
Undoubtedly turning a few professional mathematicians loose on the problem of evaluating teacher performance should yield at least as good a system of evaluating teachers as Bill James created for evaluating baseball players. The formulas would be entirely dispassionate and would insulate teachers from capricious or vindictive administrators.
I don’t see why teachers should be so skeptical of a system that evaluates the quality of their work and rewards them accordingly. I have no doubt that if I were to poll Idaho teachers about the reliability of mathematical models used to predict global warming, a large majority would express their faith in those forecasts. When Al Gore’s acolytes warn that if we don’t give up our cars and replace our incandescent bulbs, then our coastal cities will be submerged and polar bears will die of sunburn, the majority of teachers believe it. Many probably teach this instead of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Forget the moon. If baseball and climate can be modeled mathematically, then we can evaluate teachers.

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