Education Wonks had this post about Florida's new merit pay system, which evaluates teachers based on students' scores on tests. Since I think there are people who get bored with long posts, I'm going to do this in two parts. In the first one I'm going give my opinion about the evaluation of teachers, and in the second one, I'll throw in my two cents worth about how teachers should be paid and retained.
I know that many teachers believe that we place too much emphasis on high school sports, and I don't want to turn anyone off, but my experience in coaching hockey gives a great illustration of why being evaluated solely on the basis of our students' performance is a bad idea. There are a number of hockey coaches in the state of Minnesota who have had winless seasons, and there are a number of them who have had undefeated seasons, but I am reasonably certain that I am the only one who has had both.
In 1979-80 I coached a team in Mt. Iron that went 0-17. It was my sixth year of coaching, and none of my teams had ever come close to having a winning season. Looking at my record, I would have seemed to be a prime candidate for firing. But the athletic director and the other administrators at my school--the people who were familiar with the players and the conditions I had do deal with--didn't think so. They knew that our senior leadership was terrible. In fact, I had to dismiss most of them from our team because they were more interested in drinking and partying. They knew the the players who remained on the team were very young and that some of them had little talent. They knew we were one of the few high schools in the state who had to practice outside instead of in an arena. So rather than firing me, these administrators supported me, and we followed up our winless season with six seasons in a row that were .500 or better.
In 2004-05, twenty-five years after my winless season, I was co-head coach of a team that went 29-0-2 and won a state championship. Although I think our staff did a good job, coaching was definitely not the major reason for our success. We had an outstanding group of student-athletes that included the best senior leadership I've ever seen. Our players were talented and incredibly dedicated. We also had a practice situation that might have been the best in the state of Minnesota. Our undefeated season in 2004-05 didn't mean that I was a great coach any more than our winless season in 1979-80 meant that I was a "failing coach."
You see the same kind of thing in classrooms around the nation. Some teachers work in wonderful schools in affluent communities with highly motivated kids who have supportive parents. Others are working in impoverished neighborhoods with an intolerable number of kids who could care less about learning.
The differences between some schools are drastic, but sometimes there are even big differences between classes within a school. Anyone who follows high school sports knows that schools tend to go through cycles of athletes. Obviously, in 2005, our school was at the top of a very good cycle of athletes. Not coincidentally, we were also at the top of a very good cycle of students. That year, I taught A.P. American Government for the first time. At the end of the year my students took the A.P. test and did very well, at least by our school's standards. Eleven of my 21 kids got 3s, five earned 4s, and one earned a 5. If you wanted to base merit pay on the performance of those students, I'd tell you to be my guest. But last year, with a year of experience under my belt, I definitely did a better job teaching the class. Despite that, my students didn't do nearly as well on the A.P. test at the end of the year. It didn't help that three girls in the class decided to go on a two-week "senior vacation" to Hawaii in the middle of the school year.
And it doesn't look like things are going to get better any time soon. As a group, the sophomores I had for American history last year were poor students, and this year's group isn't any better. They are terrible at paying attention, so many of them seem to never know what's going on or what is due or when, they're disorganized, and they're terribly inconsistent when it comes to doing any homework no matter how easy it is. Yes, there are some good students mixed in there, but there aren't enough of them. If you are going to pay me based on the performance of these classes, I'd better pick up a part-time job at the Holiday Station Store.
I understand that when it comes to things like merit pay, evaluations of teachers are based not just on the performance of the kids, but on their improvement they make during the year. The problem with that is that it is good students who improve, not bad ones. More than anything else, I take pride in teaching kids how to become good students, but the kids have to have some desire to do that. Many poor students at the high school level have none of that. School simply is not on their list of priorities. And anyone who thinks that there is no difference between natural intelligence and being a good student has never been a teacher.
Am I saying that the performance of students should be ignored in the evaluation of a teacher? No! In fact, it is an important factor, but it isn't the only one. In order for teachers to be fairly evaluated it has to be done by someone who knows how the teachers' kids are performing but who also knows the type of kids the teacher is working with and any other factors that are relevant. If teachers are going to be evaluated for the purpose of merit pay or for anything else that matters, I think the only reasonable way for it to be done is by their principals. I know that if a teacher has a lousy principal that doesn't sound like a very good idea, but if that is the case, the school needs to get a better principal. Whether we're talking about teachers or principals, once they're hired we need to trust them to make decisions. If they're making too many bad ones, we should have the freedom to find somebody else.