Evaluations: boon or burden?

Recently, major national news sources covered topics which Thesis has been following for some time now: teacher evaluations and national standardized testing norms.  First, on December 18th,  Al Jazeera America drew its readership’s attention to how schools all over the country have had to postpone (or even sacrifice) designing and implementing unique, student-tailored curricula in favor of conducting cumbersome teacher evaluations and introducing new norms and standards mandated by the Common Core.  The article particularly highlights the plight of schools in New York City, where teachers had to administer Common Core assessment tests without having received proper training beforehand; where 40% of a teacher’s evaluation score can depend on students’ performance on such assessment tests; and where students as young as five years old were subjected to examinations lasting as long as two hours for the sole purpose of establishing baselines.  The costs to students’ nerves, teachers’ preparedness, and even environmental resources (the article states that “Teaching Matters, a leading nonprofit professional development organization, calculated that a school with 1,200 students will ‘churn’ out 12,000 pages for the social-studies test alone, ‘with no compensation for the paper, for the time’”) have been significant if not detrimental.

Similarly, on December 17th, the New York Times covered the controversy surrounding new teacher evaluations in New Mexico, which base 50% of a given teacher’s score on, you guessed it, standardized test results.  Bemoaning the lack of an interim period wherein the evaluations could have been introduced gradually (instead, they were introduced when teachers were already familiarizing themselves with the Common Core), opponents have suggested that to help offset the initial rapidity of including these evaluations, classroom observations should be weighted more heavily under the system.  Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s education secretary-designate and author of the evaluation system, points to improved test scores among fourth- and eighth-graders in Tennessee and Washington, DC whose schools used evaluation systems which were heavily reliant on assessment tests.  Her critics, though, point to her lack of career experience as a teacher and nuanced understanding of complex teacher-student dynamics and endemic poverty, two factors which, in their eyes, can certainly skew both evaluations and test results.

Texas may not be bound to the Common Core, but all the same, it is no stranger to the controversy surrounding evaluations and standardized tests. As Thesis has previously reported, the DISD will soon be introducing a new seven-tier pay grade system which is based on student achievement (35%), students’ evaluations (15%), and principals’ observations (50%). However, as part of a new amendment for states like Texas which have received waivers on certain No Child Left Behind provisions, in lieu of submitting nationally-mandated evaluations, schools will have to rectify problems that government officials identify over the course of monitoring calls and visits. So in the end, while the DISD is exempt on the national level from conducting evaluations, locally-generated evaluations emphasizing standardized testing will still play a significant role in assessing the components of a successful teacher.

It remains to be seen how these new evaluations and waiver regulations will impact student performance and teacher quality in the DISD.  As the 2013 Nation’s Report Card shows, there is plenty of room for improvement in the district; despite having improved their scores, Dallas fourth and eighth graders still fall behind the national average in math and reading. The DISD may not feel the tug of war between government oversight and local autonomy as acutely as other districts that fall under the Common Core, but all the same, several questions persist: will teacher evaluations help break the cycle of underqualified teachers educating at-risk students, or will they put an undue burden on teachers to “teach to the test”?  Similarly, should all students be expected to learn and perform uniformly, or is there room for individualized curricula and teaching methods that treat each class as independent entities?

Overall, the issue appears to be less focused on whether or not evaluations are necessary (most would probably agree that evaluations are very necessary) and more directed towards how they should be conducted and what exactly they should constitute.  It will be interesting to see how information gleaned from monitoring will influence assessments of both teachers and students in the DISD; maybe this kind of living, breathing, speaking data will prove more informative than pages of Xeroxed black and white test scores. It could very well provide a more holistic and nuanced picture of the students’ quotidian reality, academic and extracurricular alike.  However, as schools across the nation teeter under the weight of additional nationally-dictated evaluations and curriculum norms, the willingness to take on yet another assessment method may, sadly but understandably, wane before it ever even peaks.


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