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Is 'Teacher Accountability' Ready for Prime-Time?

Though Rahm Emanuel wants to put student test scores at the center of teacher evals, there's little proof such measuring sticks make any sense.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Goodluz | Shutterstock.com

 

It was bound to happen, whether in Chicago or elsewhere. What is surprising about the Chicago teachers’ strike is that something like this did not happen sooner.

The strike represents the first open rebellion of teachers nationwide over efforts to evaluate, punish and reward them based on their students’ scores on standardized tests of low-level basic skills in math and reading. Teachers’ discontent has been simmering now for a decade, but it took a well-organized union to give that discontent practical expression. For those who have doubts about why teachers need unions, the Chicago strike is an important lesson.

Nobody can say how widespread discontent might be. Reformers can certainly point to teachers who say that the pressure of standardized testing has been useful, has forced them to pay attention to students they previously ignored, and could rid their schools of lazy and incompetent teachers.

But I frequently get letters from teachers, and speak with teachers across the country who claim to have been successful educators and who are now demoralized by the transformation of teaching from a craft employing skill and empathy into routinized drill instruction using scripted curriculum. They are also demoralized by the weeks and weeks of the school year now devoted to gamesmanship—test preparation designed not to teach literacy or mathematics but only to make it seem that students can perform in an artificial setting better than they actually do.

I suspect, but cannot prove that the latter group of teachers is more numerous and that teachers in the discontented group are more likely to be seasoned, experienced, and successful. I suspect that teachers in the group supportive of standardized testing are more likely to be young, frequently hired outside the usual teacher training stream, and conditioned to think of education as little more than test preparation.

The research evidence is weighty in support of the discontented view; two years ago, EPI assembled a group of prominent testing experts and education policy experts to assess the research evidence on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. It concluded that holding teachers accountable for growth in the test scores (called “value-added”) of their students is more harmful than helpful to children’s educations. Placing serious consequences for teachers on the results of their students’ tests creates rational incentives for teachers and schools to narrow the curriculum to tested subjects, and to tested areas within those subjects. Students lose instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music, and physical education, and teachers focus less on development of children’s non-cognitive behaviors—cooperative activities, character, social skills—that are among the most important aims of a solid education.

Recently, however, some have made claims to the contrary that there are great benefits to holding teachers accountable for standardized test scores. One study, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, administered a higher quality test of reasoning and critical thinking skills to students who had also taken their state’s high stakes standardized test of basic skills. The Gates researchers found that teachers whose students had high value-added scores on the standardized basic skills test also tended to have high value-added scores on the test of reasoning (i.e., teachers’ value-added on the two tests were positively correlated). This was a potentially important finding because it suggested that narrowing the curriculum as a consequence of high stakes testing is not something about which we should be concerned. If we know that teachers who are effective at teaching basic skills are also effective at developing reasoning skills, then we can hold teachers accountable only for basic skills and be confident that their students are getting both.