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A Metaphor for Teacher Effectiveness

Marc Waxman, who is opening a charter school in Denver, and Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School in Queens, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.


Let’s shift gears slightly from teacher incentives to a connected topic — teacher effectiveness. As with so many terms in education, this is a bit of a jargony term and also one that 20 people might give 20 different definitions for. The concept of teacher effectiveness as currently used as part of the dominant narrative seems to be pretty straightforward — the more academic growth students show while the responsibility of an individual teacher the more effective that teacher is. Of course, this definition opens up a slew of questions. Here are just a few: What data are used, and how are they used, to measure academic growth? How is an individual teacher’s impact on a student or group of students differentiated from other variables that might also impact growth?What happens in those subjects and/or grade levels where standardized assessments don’t yet exist?

The concept of teacher effectiveness has been used by schools and districts as the underpinning of merit pay and incentive systems. I found it interesting to learn through your last post that your school does not tie incentives to individual teachers’ effectiveness. I wonder if this is because of the difficulties in evaluating effectiveness or because the potential impact on the culture of collegiality you have built or for some other reason.

A new trend in public education is to use teacher effectiveness as a concept to underpin teacher evaluation. I won’t claim to be an expert on all the current plans across the country or even in Denver (where legislation was recently passed on this topic specifically). At schools I have helped start and run we have never considered using student growth data as part of a teacher’s evaluation, and I don’t think we will any time soon even though the schools themselves have to meet very specific benchmarks in order to remain open. (Among other issues, I have definitely seen years where weak teachers have students show strong growth in test scores while the students of great teachers show little growth in test scores. It happens.)

I have started to spend time thinking more deeply about the idea both as it might play out in the larger public school system and how it could play out at an individual charter school. With new concepts I usually try to develop a metaphor that helps me makes sense of the idea as well as to help me communicate my thoughts to others. The NBA season recently got underway, and I am a big Celtics fan (growing up in Massachusetts and all) so here’s a basketball metaphor for teacher effectiveness.

What if all the players on the Celtics were subject to a predetermined evaluation at the end of the season of their individual performances that would determine whether they would be rehired and/or how much compensation they will receive for the next season?And let’s say that this evaluation/analysis needs to be done cheaply and quickly and has to have clearly defined metrics at the front end. I would probably pick something easy to quantify like points scored, and I would create some thresholds that players would need to meet in order to keep their jobs. (Of course, I could definitely imagine much more intricate evaluation systems that tracked many more data points and was based on an individual’s position on the team, number of years in the league, etc. But, the algorithm to make sense of all the data I would collect would get pretty complicated, and it would be pretty cumbersome to collect and work through all the data, so I would certainly imagine being constrained to keep my system simple.)

What would be the intended, and more important, the unintended, consequences of my evaluation system? Would players start looking to score first, no matter what? Would we start to see five individuals trying to go for personal bests as opposed to a team of five individuals working toward a common end? Would everyone start to practice just their shooting at the expense of other skills, like rebounding and passing? Would defensive effort totally stop because defensive statistics are not part of the evaluation plan and the team winning isn’t as valued as much as their individual success (in terms of points scored)?

Obviously, these questions are somewhat rhetorical. Yet the parallels with what could happen to teachers in a similarly designed evaluation system are pretty obvious as well.

Let’s leave it at this — implied in this metaphor is that teachers at a school are part of a team that has group goals as opposed to individuals out to achieve something on their own. Teamwork (in education-land we might call this collegiality and collaboration) is essential to a great school (or any organization for that matter).

Stacey — do you use student achievement data to evaluate teachers in any formal way?What’s your metaphor for the concept of teacher effectiveness?

Take care,

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.