Teachers in Missouri and Illinois returning to the classroom this fall will be contending with new performance evaluation systems that will focus more closely on student achievement benchmarks. In response to pressure from all levels of government – local, state and federal – lawmakers and district leaders have started taking a closer look at what being an effective educator really means.
The new generation of teacher assessment systems places more weight on standardized test scores, or other objective metrics of student success, rather than on the traditional evaluation methods of in-class observation and in-person interviews. The systems follow a national trend of greater reliance on test scores and general accountability in the education sphere.
The push for greater use of hard data comes straight from the top — it represents a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's education reform agenda. Under guidance from the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education made such assessment systems a prerequisite for the approval of applications for waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act requirements.
Even before the federal government tied numerous education grants to a requirement that districts rewrite teacher evaluation programs to be based on student exams, some states were already exploring the feasibility of using this data to assess teacher quality.
Illinois, in particular, passed a teacher evaluation law in 2010 that reinvents teacher evaluations, eventually using student performance as a factor. The Legislature followed up last year with a law that uses the evaluations as the basis for defining who gets tenure protection. Some have called the legislation a stunning political compromise that could be copied elsewhere.
"Other states have called us saying, âHow did you actually accomplish this?'" said Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch.
It's no wonder that Illinois would take the lead on the issue, considering that the current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a long-time supporter of standardized testing and served as the head of the Chicago Public School district — the largest in the state — before he was appointed to his current position. Still, getting an agreement from all stakeholders on going ahead with designing such system is still a long way from putting it into practice.
The attempts to link performance evaluation to raises, promotions and tenure decisions have a host of critics, not least among them teachers unions.
Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director of the Missouri National Education Association, said the group generally supports Missouri's plans for new teacher evaluations, but fears some school districts will fixate too heavily on state exams that were never designed to be used as a yardstick of teacher performance.
"They only test a small slice of what teachers are expected to do," she said.