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Oliver: Test scores belong in evaluation equation

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

The strike by Chicago’s public school teachers offers an interesting lesson in a controversy that is being played out in school districts throughout the nation.

One of the most contentious issues between CPS and the teachers has been Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s desire to institute teacher evaluations that would be tied to student performance.

This comes in the wake of Obama administration efforts to push education reform through its $4 billion Race to the Top competition, as well as waivers of the federal No Child Left Behind law to encourage states to change the way they evaluate teachers.

Illinois lawmakers in 2010 voted to require all public schools to use student achievement as part of teacher evaluations by the 2016-17 school year.

Emanuel is just accelerating the timetable in Chicago, which has some of the nation’s worst test scores and a 40 percent dropout rate.

So what’s so bad about tying teacher evaluations to the test scores of students? On its face, it would seem to be a no-brainer.

Yet, teachers across the nation consider such evaluation systems to be inherently unfair.

Teachers unions argue that many things can affect a student’s test performance, many of which are beyond a teacher’s control.

For instance, poverty, a student’s ability to speak English and even the conditions in the school on test day can affect outcomes.

For instance, 87 percent of CPS students come from low-income families. And the headlines provide graphic evidence of the challenges that exist in many neighborhoods.

Even in McHenry County, many school districts are grappling with persistent student achievement disparities between white and minority students, as reporter Stephen Di Benedetto outlined in a recent story.

Still, with the nation’s students lagging behind those in other countries and the increasing need for highly skilled workers in the job market, something must be done.

In the past, teacher evaluations were based on spotty scheduled observations, perhaps at the beginning of a teacher’s career and then rarely after that. Unsatisfactory ratings were rare.

So change is long overdue.

Teacher evaluation systems have been changed in at least 33 states since 2009, according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But little consensus exists on just what such a system should look like.

Holding individual teachers accountable runs the risk of pitting teachers against each other, say some who argue that a system that is based on rewards and sanctions would undermine school teamwork.

Others call for a system of holding teachers and school staff collectively accountable. Still others would expand that to include district officials and state policymakers in that equation.

Yet, no matter the system, it’s hard to imagine test scores not being a factor.

It remains to be seen how well programs in places such as Tennessee, Florida, Boston, Los Angeles and Cleveland will fare.

For now, the grade is incomplete, with more work required.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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