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lawrence harmon

Boston teacher ratings don’t add up

Boston’s teachers are succeeding swimmingly in their chosen profession, with 93 percent landing in the exemplary and proficient categories on a new teacher-evaluation system. Yet about two-thirds of the city’s schools rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide based on student test data. What’s going on here?

“There’s a disconnect between our teacher ratings and how the schools are performing,’’ explains Boston School Committee member Mary Tamer. “The responsibility rests on the principals.’’

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Let’s hope that Tamer is right and Boston is experiencing a contagion of grade inflation within the ranks of its principals and other teacher evaluators. Otherwise it suggests that good teachers are unable to compensate for poverty, social ills, non-native English status, and other difficulties associated with urban education.

Teachers may complain that they are being singled out once again for criticism. But the attention is in proportion to their overriding importance. Meanwhile, no one should ignore that central administrators in Boston rated only 3 percent of principals and headmasters in the unsatisfactory or needs improvement categories. That, too, doesn’t comport with reality.

If everybody is so talented, why do only about a third of Boston’s third graders in district schools read at an advanced or proficient level? The stakes couldn’t be higher for Boston families that can’t afford private education or miss out on lottery opportunities at high-achieving charter schools.

Student scores on standardized tests weren’t incorporated in the latest evaluations. They will be in the next few years, however. And that time can’t come too soon. Progress in public agencies requires acceptance of objective measurements. Great urban police departments, for example, take responsibility for the crime rate and seek ways to lower it. They don’t get sidetracked by the fact that people in poor neighborhoods commit more violent crimes than people in wealthy ones. Challenges come with the territory. Boston’s school system hasn’t fully embraced that philosophy.

Some of the school findings beggar belief. Nearly two dozen schools, including the Lee, Ellis, and Condon elementary schools, reported no teachers in the needs improvement or unsatisfactory categories. Surely these schools are rich in teaching talent. But student test scores on standardized exams, for the most part, don’t reflect the sky-high reviews of their teachers.

Some of the school findings beggar belief.

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“It [teacher evaluations] shouldn’t be seen as a barometer of how the schools are doing,’’ said School Department spokesman Brian Ballou.

Tamer disagrees. “I don’t understand how the data points aren’t connected,’’ she said. Tamer also noted that many of the city’s higher-ranking schools display a broader range of teacher ratings. Yet perversely, that may discourage parents from choosing schools where some teachers are rated unsatisfactory or in need of improvement.

Tamer, whose term is expiring, is one of the School Committee’s more astute and outspoken members. She is especially tough on administrators in the School Department’s central office. And she can be a thorn in the side of politicians. Still, Mayor-elect Walsh would do well to reappoint her. He needs to hear strong, independent voices as he tackles the job of improving Boston’s schools.

One thing is certain: No one is more important in reaching that goal than great teachers. They are the ones who display both mastery of their subject and the ability to make the material come alive. They nurture their students without coddling them. And they never play favorites. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that 13.5 percent of Boston teachers display such brilliance, as the data suggests. What’s shocking is the contention that only 5.8 percent of Boston teachers need improvement and just 1.2 percent are unsatisfactory.

Nicole Bahnam, headmaster of Boston International High School, is widely admired by both teachers and administrators across the city. She observed her teachers an average of six times and required them to submit curriculum outlines to determine if they were on the right path to reach the school’s academic goals. Bahnam rated 15 percent of her teachers as in need of improvement. Now she is working with them to determine which types of professional development they need to get on track.

“These are the richest conversations that schools can have,’’ said Bahnam.

Similar conversations need to take place throughout the city’s school system. And they need to be honest, unvarnished interactions.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com
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