Ross: Data Is Key to Helping Teachers Improve — & Dismissing Them, When Needed. States Must Use It in Evaluating Educators

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A recent investigation by The 74 sheds important light on the tiny number of teachers in New York City’s public schools who lose their jobs for incompetence. While New York has earned “best practice” status for its strong dismissal policy in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s biannual review of all 50 states’ teacher policies, New York City dismissed a shockingly small percentage — less than one-quarter of 1 percent — of its 58,000 tenured teachers during a recent 16-month period.

However surprising this small percentage may be, even more shocking is that most states do not maintain policies that require a teacher’s ineffectiveness to be grounds for dismissal. In a majority of states, it might not be possible to replicate the type of investigation The 74 conducted because, unlike New York, most states’ policies do not specifically require districts to consider a teacher’s effectiveness when making high-stakes personnel decisions.

As of December 2017, more than half of states — 27 and the District of Columbia — did not maintain this type of policy, meaning that dismissals in a majority of states cannot necessarily be based on whether a teacher is successful in his or her most important job: contributing to increased student learning. This is indefensible, particularly as research has consistently demonstrated — and The 74’s investigation substantiated — that our most vulnerable students are most likely to be taught by poor-quality teachers.

But all hope is not lost. All but 12 states are implementing systems that require districts to include objective measures of student growth — necessary for measuring a teacher’s impact on student learning and, therefore, the teacher’s effectiveness — in their evaluation systems. This means that in more than 75 percent of states, data on whether a teacher is effective are available for teachers to use to improve their practice. It also means that these underlying data, when coupled with corresponding policy changes, could be used by policymakers to make personnel decisions.

Still, the majority of states fail to explicitly direct districts to use this information when making not only dismissal decisions but also decisions about layoffs and tenure.

This is not only counterintuitive but also contrary to teachers’ expressed perspectives in recent surveys. Although many people assume that teachers automatically support policies that protect ineffective teachers from being removed from the classroom, that is not the case. In a recent nationally representative poll of 4,601 adults, including 641 teachers, educators said they consider 12 percent of the teachers in their local schools to be “unsatisfactory.” Additionally, more than one-third of teachers surveyed indicated that they oppose tenure, after being provided with the following definition: “[t]eachers with tenure cannot be dismissed unless a school district follows specific procedures.” In another survey of teachers, 64 percent cited student growth measures over time as the single most important factor in determining teacher effectiveness.

Considered together, the surveys strongly suggest that educators themselves recognize not only that effectiveness data are important but also that not all teachers are effective.

Of course, dismissing teachers will never be the path to a higher-quality workforce. Instead, states must invest in developing, implementing, and continually improving teacher evaluation systems that provide the necessary feedback to help all educators improve their practice or, ultimately, exit the profession. Well-designed and -implemented evaluation systems that include objective measures of student growth and measure teacher effectiveness can do just that.

Our collective hesitation to engage in a full discussion on this issue — let alone implement policies that explicitly enable districts to determine teacher effectiveness and use those data to make personnel decisions — needs to end. The current state of affairs doesn’t just hurt students, though that in itself should be enough to force lawmakers to act; it hurts good teachers.

Among the myriad aspects of education about which reasonable minds can differ, teacher quality stands apart. It is widely and firmly acknowledged to be the single most influential in-school factor impacting student learning and lives. All teachers deserve better than systems that fail to provide the information necessary to enable them to improve their practice, or policies that fail to explicitly require districts to use these data to inform teachers’ career trajectories. And all students, particularly our most vulnerable, deserve better than school systems that fail to provide data on how effective their teachers are — or use that information to ensure that every child has access to an excellent educator.

Elizabeth Ross is managing director, teacher policy, for the National Council on Teacher Quality.

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