‘Fix’ public education, not teachers

Guest Editorial
(Editor’s note: This editorial is reprinted from the Battle Creek Enquirer, where it was first published.)

For a state determined to “fix” public education, Michigan does an astonishingly effective job of setting teachers up for failure then vilifying them for the results. We’re a long way from convinced, then, that the Legislature should be trusted to impose new standards for measuring teacher performance.

The recommendations of the Council on Educator Effectiveness entered the legislative process Wednesday, with a joint legislative committee hearing taking testimony from their architects.

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature created the commission, chaired by University of Michigan School of Education Dean Deborah Ball, in 2011 as part of the state’s teacher tenure-reform efforts.

The chairs of the House and Senate committees have promised a slow approach, and, candidly, that’s the best thing we’ve heard about the effort to standardize teacher evaluations.

Like most education-reform proposals, a lot about the council’s recommendations sounds good. Nobody would argue that we don’t need to uphold high standards in our public schools, and we’re encouraged by the recommendation’s emphasis on trained observers using carefully piloted strategies for assessing effectiveness in the classroom.

The authors recommend a strategy that includes identifying specific opportunities for improvement, and providing teachers with the resources they need to improve — resources that have been sorely lacking.

We’re also encouraged that the authors recommend these performance assessments not be tied to merit increases at this time — a welcome departure from the narrative that “reform” means punishing bad teachers.

We oppose, however, the continued use of standardized testing — and so-called “value-added model” scores — in teacher assessments. The council recommends that “at least half of the teachers’ student growth component should be based on state-provided VAM scores.”

Although the recommendations say factors such as student attendance should be taken into account when assessing teacher performance, we’ve simply had enough of the testing regime that along with charters and Schools of Choice has done immeasurable harm to our public schools.

Value-added modeling in the use of assessing teacher effectiveness was developed more than 40 years ago, but its use expanded with the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002.

By any measure, No Child Left Behind was an unmitigated disaster for the nation’s public schools, and in our judgment, Common Core standards, upon which the council’s recommendations hinge, promise to be no better.

Value-added modeling is junk science. It ignores a myriad of factors that influence students’ performance on standardized tests while placing the blame where it least belongs — on the teachers themselves.

The results? A teach-to-the-test mentality in our classrooms coupled with a high rate of turnover in the teaching ranks. About 40 percent of all teachers leave within the first five years of starting their jobs — more than any other profession.

What should that tell us? To us, it means that policymakers should be taking a hard look at the environment in which our educators are forced to operate.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that at least 34 states are providing less funding per student for the 2013-2014 school year than they did before the recession hit. In Michigan, the cut is 9 percent, and when adjusted for inflation, our expenditure per pupil is still less than a year ago.

Variations in teaching performance flow largely from variables that have little to do with the qualities of teachers themselves, one of the reasons schools in economically ravaged communities suffer the most.

The deprivation of financial resources coupled with a regimented approach to measuring outcomes will by design sort out winners and losers. It’s a system that preordains kids and teachers to failure.

Teachers didn’t break this system. A new teacher-
assessment tool won’t fix it.