True or false: The presence and power of a single teacher in a single classroom can have a lifetime impact on a student. The answer, of course, is true. But the question of just how to make sure teachers measure up is stirring a battle on Beacon Hill that clouds the loftiest educational goals in the state that more or less invented public schools.
Since adopting standardized testing almost two decades ago, Massachusetts has compiled a wealth of data on student performance. But the insights that might be gleaned from such testing data seem destined to elude teachers who are members of the Commonwealth’s two most powerful unions, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union. Their members have successfully lobbied senators on Beacon Hill to include an amendment in the Senate’s version of the budget that would eliminate a state regulation instructing school districts to use student performance data, such as improvement in MCAS test scores, when evaluating teachers. The amendment should be rejected.
Leaving out gains or losses in students’ scores to measure the impact a teacher has on students perpetuates a purely subjective evaluation system.
In Boston, for instance, teachers are now evaluated only by administrators who observe them in the classroom. The Boston Public School system has been trying for the past three years to get the BTU to comply with the state requirement for data-based performance evaluations. But the BTU walked away from such discussions earlier this year in protest.
Both the BTU and the MTA argue that use of test scores to rank educators is misguided and can be skewed by classroom demographics. A class’s performance might be influenced by having a higher number of special education students, for example, or highly engaged parents. But school officials counter that there are sophisticated ways of analyzing improvement in test scores that control for student demographics and other factors. And they point out that standards would also be developed to evaluate important skills not measured by the MCAS, such as art.
Schools need great teachers, at all grade levels, and ought to reward those who excel. If Massachusetts is to continue leading the way in education in the 21st century, officials cannot ignore the impact that each teacher has in the classroom, and should take advantage of the rich pool of data available through standard testing to set benchmarks.