Business leaders and teachers unions appear to agree broadly on the need to establish a reliable method to evaluate educators, providing hope that the two sides will be able to resolve their many differences and improve the prospects of Massachusetts students, panelists at a recent AIM Public Affairs Council meeting said.
The meeting featured a discussion between Linda M. Noonan, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), and Paul Toner, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. MBAE is the principal business voice on school reform in the commonwealth, and has been AIM’s partner on k-12 education issues for two decades. The MTA is the state’s largest teachers’ union with 107,000 members (including retirees) in communities of all kinds.
AIM and employers throughout Massachusetts have long advocated for improvement of the public schools as a key element of growing the state economy. But many employers accustomed to evaluating business processes and employees with strict, evidence-based systems have been puzzled by the lack of a coherent system to rate teachers.
MBAE has called for a robust statewide educator-evaluation system to produce valuable data and achieve efficiencies in training and implementation, weeding out or remediating ineffective teachers and rewarding effective ones.
The MTA, while protective of its members’ rights and of the collective bargaining process, has supported participation in Race to the Top and issued a report acknowledging the need for an improved educator evaluation system with a student performance component.
MBAE and MTA both participate, along with AIM and other groups, in the Working Group for Educator Excellence, which advocates for a research-based approach to professional teaching.
Educator evaluation is a hot issue – hot in terms of both urgency and controversy. Recent reports highlight the inadequacy (and sometimes absence) of evaluation in our schools, even at the point of tenure; the irrelevance of seniority and advanced degrees, the factors currently rewarded in compensation systems, as measures of effectiveness; and the lack of support for teachers seeking to improve their skills. The costs of sub-par teaching are estimated in the trillions of dollars. Race to the Top and other federal initiatives compel development of evaluations based in part on student achievement, and compensation reform lurks in the background.
Both Noonan and Toner served on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Task Force on Educator Evaluation. Toner voted for the commission’s just-released report; Noonan did not, primarily because she considers the report too weak on the issue of including student achievement in teacher evaluation.
The most striking element of the discussion was the broad agreement between the two discussants on a range of key issues, offering substantial hope that meaningful progress is possible. There are evident differences, but not diametric opposition on the most important points. The devil will surely be in the details, but they may well be susceptible to negotiation and resolution.
The Education Reform Act of 1993 focused on inputs (funding), outputs (student achievement – MCAS) and to some extent leadership (strengthening administrative autonomy), treating the classroom itself as a “black box.” The subsequent years have brought increasing awareness of the centrality of teaching, and teachers, to educational effectiveness.
The time is right to develop and implement statewide evaluation system closely tied to ever-improving measures of student achievement. Because those measures are still evolving, and districts are starting in different places, and credibility takes time to build, this is not something that can be done overnight. There will have to be extensive negotiations, in which teachers (and their organizations) must be participants. Some important issues, notably ties to compensation, may come later. But an agreed-upon foundation for meaningful and much-needed reform appears to be in place.