The idea is fascinating. Consider an evaluation system that isolates the effect an individual teacher has on student learning from the effects of other variables known to affect achievement, such as prior performance or socioeconomic status. This approach considers how a particular student is expected to perform: If the student performs better than expected, the teacher must be better than average. If the student performs worse than expected, the teacher must be worse than average. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
Attempts to create such an evaluation system use a statistical technique known as value-added modeling. VAM is better than simply ranking student scores to evaluate teachers, but research consistently shows that VAM is not precise enough to accurately measure the effect of individual teachers. VAM is only as good as the assessments and data on which it relies, and it has yet to find a way to account for the power of teachers working together to support students.
To make the problem more complex, current discourse around the use of VAM to assess teachers is not constructed in a way that encourages teacher improvement – rather, it is part of a larger national educational policy that relies on high-stakes assessments to reward and punish educators. From many years of No Child Left Behind, we now know that high-stakes policies narrowly focused on assessment data create incentives for pushing low-scoring students away, narrowing the curriculum to focus on test-preparation and diminishing the breadth of educational programs offered in schools – all for the purpose of getting higher scores.
We already know all this – so why is this discussion important again? Feb. 2 was the last day of public comments on a proposed policy from the U.S. Department of Education that will expand to teacher education the same policies that focus educational decision-making on high-stakes tests. As with schools and teachers, the proposal will measure and rank teacher education programs and teacher educators using VAM.
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The rhetoric in favor of such a policy is powerful. Don’t we want to know how well are teachers prepared? Don’t we want to know which areas require further attention? Of course, the answer to these questions is yes – knowledge is power, and accurate assessment information is necessary for improvement.
University-based faculty in teacher education programs welcome data used to improve teacher preparation. But the regulation is neither designed for nor capable of providing the needed information. Instead, it adds costs to programs already deeply affected by budget cuts and runs the risk of penalizing programs that encourage future teachers to teach in high-poverty schools. The proposed policy ignores the knowledge and professionalism of teacher educators and years of research on how to improve teaching and teacher preparation.
Professional associations across the nation and faculty from many programs are opposing this policy. And we stand with them. Make no mistake. We do not oppose knowledge, data, rigorous teacher preparation or the concept that teacher education programs need to consistently monitor student growth and improve programming. In fact, we welcome all of these and have been seeking and investing resources to support the development of more accurate ways to evaluate our programs and improve our assessment systems.
Currently, teacher candidates we work with undergo rigorous training. They must maintain a 3.0 GPA, intern in classrooms for at least a year and pass the Teacher Performance Assessment designed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, as well as other content-related tests, prior to being recommended for licensure. In many ways, it has never been more difficult or rigorous to become a teacher in North Carolina. And we do continue to collect data on our students once they graduate.
There is no evidence that the No Child Left Behind policies, with a focus on high-stakes tests and accountability, improved schooling for students in our nation. Similarly, there is no evidence that the new legislation will improve the preparation of those who still want to serve in this most noble profession.
Instead of attracting the next generation into teaching, the proposed regulation runs the risk of making it even harder to staff schools with great professionals. Teachers, teacher educators, school districts and the state Department of Public Instruction must not be distracted by the rhetoric. Rather, we must continue to work together to design quality programs and continuously improve teacher education in North Carolina.
Paola Sztajn is the chairman and Beth Sondel is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at N.C. State University. Meghan Manfra, an associate professor in the NCSU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Jimmy Scherrer, an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education, also contributed.