Friday, August 27, 2010

Keeping Score

The Los Angeles Times will publish evaluations of over 6,000 elementary teachers on its website (story here), which reflect their students' improvement on test scores.  The union, predictably, rages against the injustice of it all, and attacks the administration, the evaluations' statistical process, and the media.  What the union does not do is suggest how to properly evaluate teachers.

Education is difficult to quantify, especially with so little agreement on educational goals.  Teachers have a justifiable fear of both individual principals' reviews, which can reflect political and personal issues, and calculated scores which cannot capture a teacher's full impact.  What does?  Probably some combination, much like other professions.  I get scores and commentary on my reviews - we don't calculate our numbers, but some companies do.

I can't put into words how much I respect teachers (and am frustrated that I lack the skills to be one), but we need a way to eliminate the bad, reward the good, and spread best practices to help the rest.  Educators should lead the charge with effective accountability that parents and taxpayers can understand. The current system obstructs this kind of effort, but if teachers don't find a solution, they'll have to live with the system's.

1 comment:

  1. Charles, this is an issue that we struggle with in medicine too. There is a strong push to rate doctors, but there is huge disagreement as to how to do it fairly. Every doctor, when faced with being ranked on their outcomes, claims that their patients are sicker than their colleagues', and so any comparison would be apples to oranges. This is of course true of some of them, but can't be true of all of them, logically. So we need a way of ranking just how sick the patients are to begin with (or, for teachers, just how much "potential" each student might have?). Another thorny problem is the fact that teachers and doctors and other professionals deal with human beings (as opposed to, say, widgets), and that humans have a way of doing what they want to do regardless of what their teachers or doctors try to persuade or "make" them do. We just don't have the same control over our "product" as many other workers do. Thirdly, the measurement process cannot be more burdensome than the job itself, however to really do it in ways that capture all the qualities you want in a teacher or doctor or whatever, it seems like it might have to be. Test scores are easy to measure, but don't tell the whole story, just as blood glucose levels or cholesterol levels or scores on a depression questionnaire are easy to measure but don't tell the whole story about what makes a good doctor. But the data is easy to get, so this is what is measured. It's like the old joke about the drunk guy looking for his keys under the streetlight, when he lost them 50 feet away. When asked why he was looking there, he replied "because that's where the light is."
    I agree with you that teachers, and doctors, should be evaluated to encourage improvement in quality. The measurement problem, however, is formidable.