The Way Forward In Teacher Evaluation

Education in Hawaii is now at a tipping point. We can move forward or we can continue on our destructive path.

The battle lines are now in place: the Governor, Legislature, State Board of Education, Department of Education, certain Media, Hawaii Business Roundtable and supportive land-trust foundations (most in alignment with the federal government) versus teachers and the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA).

Unfortunately, a manini U.S. federal grant — $75 million “Race to the Top” grant over three or four years inside a nearly $2 billion DOE annual budget – seems to be the cause of this strife. So much for, oh, so little! Has anyone asked why we here in Hawaii should be held hostage to the federal government for Hawaii's constitutional power over education? Why should a tiny federal initiative be driving educational policy in our islands?

Hawaii political power, for whatever reasons, is behind “Race to the Top.” And what power has targeted most is none other than teachers. The issue of high stakes teacher evaluation has become the central issue of “Race to the Top” reform, an initiative that actually covers many other topics, and only the powers in the state have made teachers so targeted.

Unsurprisingly, the HSTA is fighting back. After helping the current governor into office and generally supportive of the Democratic Party, it has been reeling as a result of the attacks by its former allies. Leaning on the number of teachers, it has power of its own to cause the legislature to stand down, as it did recently. Moreover, the Board of Education’s passage of new policies concerning teacher evaluation, in the wake of the defeat of the similar legislative bills, will be hotly contested in the courts by the HSTA.

Generally speaking, teachers themselves (apart from the HSTA) prefer not to exert power, nor are they power brokers. But when teachers are pushed to the wall – watch out!

We are now very close to the most destructive battle over education that this state has ever seen. The teachers will be leading the HSTA, rather than the opposite. It will be a battle that no one will win, and certainly no teachers want. And all will be hurt – especially our keiki. It is difficult to imagine that this is something that anyone could rationally desire.

So, is there a way forward? I think so.

First, the Hawaii powers have to give up on the inane insistence on including student test scores as a significant measure of teacher worthiness.

Test scores on a given day are a mere reflection of student test-taking willingness and the quality and coverage of the tests themselves. Since we have no high stakes testing for students, high stakes testing for teachers alone is a travesty.

Teachers can inspire, but only students can learn. Unfortunately, we know from national studies that up to forty percent of middle and high school students are disengaged from learning. While we should hold parents seriously responsible for their part in this sorry state, there is no easy mechanism to do so.

But there is no way that teachers alone can be fairly held 100 percent responsible for student test scores. Students, not merely teachers, are centrally important in learning outcomes. A failure of students to exert effort to learn and be concerned about their own education cannot be overcome by even the most skillful educators.

But this does not mean that teacher performance cannot be evaluated. There simply is a difference between good teaching and successful learning. We should be measuring good teaching, but pushing for successful student learning – which means a focus on and partnership among schools, students, and parents as keys to success – not merely teachers.

For their part, teachers should be evaluated on their classroom and school-wide prowess. Measures of (1) content-knowledge, (2) instructional strategies in dealing with all students, (3) skill in student learning assessment and address, (4) ability to inspire student learning, (5) capacity to work productively in school learning communities, and (6) professional learning self-enhancement are entirely appropriate and realistic.

Moreover, the Board of Education is correct in pushing for an extended period of probation prior to tenure for teachers. Good teachers cannot be made in less than three years of practice; excellent teachers in less than five. With realistic performance evaluations of teachers, and strong DOE support for probationary teachers, we can provide part of the answer to better student learning. We should recognize, however, that this is a good part, but far from the whole answer.

Thus, we can either continue this power-centered war on teachers and the HSTA (now including Business Roundtable “gifted” iPads to the DOE pre-loaded with “teacher evaluation” software). Or we can step back, take a deep adult breath, and try to figure out the way forward for our children. Unfortunately, to date, that deep adult breadth is the one most missing in action.

About the author: David P. Ericson is a Professor of Philosophy of Education and Educational Policy Studies in the Department of Educational Foundations, College of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa. With research and scholarly interests in philosophy of education, educational policy analysis, and comparative and international education, he has published widely on education issues, the logic of social science research methodology, and educational policy and reform issues in the U.S. and Asia. He is particularly noted for his work on the structure and behavior of national educational systems in the U.S. and Asia. Currently, he is a Fulbright Senior Specialist Award holder (2007 – 2012), an award that has enabled his research efforts on educational reform issues in lower and higher education in Denmark and China.

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