Don't stumble in Race to the Top
By RICHARD C. IANNUZZI
First published: Monday, July 19, 2010
In the coming days, when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveils the next round of Race to the Top finalists, the question of how to best measure teacher effectiveness will again make headlines.
From the ranks of those loosely defined as education experts, a new breed of reformers will no doubt be critical of those states not chosen, contending they didn't demand enough from teachers and teachers unions. At the same time, hard-core teacher activists will wail that states picked as Round 2 finalists went too far, undermining what they believe is most important in education. The use and misuse of standardized tests will be rallying cries for both.
I spent 34 years as an elementary school teacher. After brushing aside the rhetoric, the issue for me is simple:
Whenever I marked a paper or graded an exam, I wanted to know how my students performed. I felt pride when I saw progress and angst when I did not. I wanted to know I made a difference -- and couldn't hide the disappointment from myself when I didn't. Like all teachers, I wanted my students to grow and to learn. I wanted to be given credit when my students made progress, and I had to accept the reality I wasn't without responsibility when they did not.
I taught in a school district with little tax base and significant poverty. Sometimes the district was overwhelmed by the consequences of deprivation and transience while neighboring districts flourished, benefiting from more than adequate household wealth and stability.
We knew that comparing test results unfairly labeled our students and wrongly criticized our efforts. We were angry that test scores were used to blame teachers for society's failure to meet its obligation to those most in need.
Similarly, our colleagues in wealthier districts were angry because they saw the reliance on test scores as bogus and stifling.
For better or worse -- mostly worse -- the Obama Administration has seized upon standardized tests as central to evaluating educational progress and measuring teacher effectiveness.
How teachers are evaluated -- through the use of test scores and other measures -- will undoubtedly weigh heavily in Round 2 of the Race to the Top's scoring.
New York State United Teachers and the state Education Departmently agreed on legislation, now signed into law, that changes how teachers are evaluated. Standardized test results will account for 20 percent of a teacher's and principal's evaluation, later moving to 25 percent.
When standardized tests are not given, locally designed tests will be used. Other measures -- some already in use, such as classroom observation, and some new ones, such as a student's body of work -- will make up the rest of the evaluation.
A number of teachers in my union worry that we went too far; many of our critics say we didn't go far enough.
Ultimately, I fear that all that will matter is how New York's percentages compare with those states that made the Race to the Top cut and those that didn't -- and that's unfortunate.
Far too many will ignore the full impact of all that is gained by New York's entire plan to improve teacher effectiveness, and how it supports teacher and student growth.
Lost in the posturing will be the renewed emphasis on teacher preparation, mentoring and ongoing professional development.
Overlooked will be the collaborative support for teachers as they meet the challenges they face every day, and the recognition for those who excel, including providing highly effective teachers the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with others. The goal of having practitioners control their own profession and define excellence will be lost in rhetorical frenzy.
Research points to teacher effectiveness as the most critical factor in improving student performance. Teachers overwhelmingly take pride in that, and most accept the converse -- that ineffective teaching hampers student growth. Measuring that growth must play a part in understanding what makes an effective teacher, but it must be measured in a reasonable and appropriate way that takes into account all that goes into the learning environment and the art of teaching.
When the finalists are announced, we will find out if Race to the Top is a comprehensive strategy for improving education for our country's students or just a race about numbers and dollars.
Richard C. Iannuzzi, who taught fourth-grade in Central Islip for most of his 34 years in the classroom, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.