Michelle Rhee, former D.C. schools chief, created an evaluation system including classroom observations and student test improvement under which 206 teachers were fired last month.

By Rita Giordano

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer


In the fall, New Jersey and Pennsylvania plan to launch pilot programs aimed at reforming the teacher-evaluation process. A key goal: more emphasis on student achievement on state tests.

Across the country, states are changing laws and policies to require school districts to judge educators in part on how their students fare on standardized tests.

"Teacher evaluation is a hot topic," said John Tyler, an assistant professor of education, economics, and public policy at Brown University who studies evaluation systems.

Linking student achievement to teacher performance got a big boost with its prominence in the $4 billion federal Race to the Top grant competition.

Grading teachers on how their students perform remains controversial.

Critics argue that it may discourage teachers from taking on the neediest students, push educators to teach to the test, weaken non-tested subjects, and fail to account for outside factors that affect students.

The tests, critics say, are imperfect measures of student learning and were not designed to evaluate teachers.

"The hope is by improving the quality of teachers, you will increase learning," said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia Graduate School of Business professor who researches evaluations. "We don't have the definitive study saying this policy will work."

Consensus is also lacking on how much - or how little - test scores should count.

"That is very much up for debate," said Sabrina Laine, director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, a federally funded technical-aid organization.

She said her group advised using multiple measures of teacher effectiveness.

Tyler said a study he did of Cincinnati's observation-centered evaluations showed links between high teacher marks and student achievement.

Another recent study found student surveys another promising evaluation tool.

Many officials and education stakeholders feel the need to act now. The desire to weed out bad teachers and help others improve is fueling a sense of urgency.

Studies say the most important school-based factor in children's success is good-quality teachers.

There is a widespread perception that many current teacher evaluations are flawed. Some research has found the vast majority of teachers get positive reviews.

In May, New York's Board of Regents voted to make student progress on state tests count for up to 40 percent of teachers' evaluations.

In a rare move in public education, Washington last month fired 206 teachers for poor performance according to an evaluation system brought in by former chancellor Michelle Rhee. In that system, teachers are evaluated in several areas, including classroom observations and student test improvement.

"Our kids deserve the best teachers, but currently our schools do a poor job identifying the most effective educators," said Rhee, who went on to found the pro-education-reform group StudentsFirst. "We need fair and rigorous teacher evaluation systems that are linked to student progress."

Pennsylvania and New Jersey's evaluation proposals do consider multiple measures, including class observation and score data over time.

Pennsylvania hopes to get 20 percent of its approximately 500 school districts to participate and soon will request volunteers. Half of the scoring will be based on student performance on standardized tests, according to state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.

In New Jersey, 31 of nearly 600 districts submitted applications to be in the state's pilot program. Later this month, the state will name about nine districts that will split $1.1 million to work with officials to develop evaluations.

"It's very much about our learning and their learning," said Jessani Gordon, the state Education Department's director of evaluations.

State guidelines to districts say 35 percent to 45 percent of teachers' total evaluation should be based on student performance on state assessments.

Both states say they also want to develop ways to assess teachers in subjects not on standardized tests.

Legislation to mandate the use of student performance in teacher ratings has already been introduced in Pennsylvania. New Jersey would require legislation or action by the state Board of Education, spokesman Justin Barra said.

In Cherry Hill, district Superintendent Maureen Reusche and Martin Sharofsky, the teachers' union president, don't agree with everything the state is proposing; the weight to be given to test results strikes them as high.

But they agree on why they want Cherry Hill picked for the pilot program.

"I felt this was an opportunity for Cherry Hill to come in on the ground floor and influence the process," said Reusche, who noted that the pilot would be done in four of the district's 19 schools.

"That's key," Sharofsky said. "Having as much input as possible."

Proposed Criteria For Evaluation


50 percent based on student progress on state tests or other approved assessments.

50 percent based on classroom observation, school performance on state tests, and other measures.

New Jersey

50 percent based on student progress on state tests, schoolwide performance, and other measures.

50 percent based on teacher practices, including classroom observation and at least one other measure, such as student surveys.

SOURCE: State Education Departments