Why We Need Teacher Evaluations that Pass the Smell Test

Getting rid of poor performers is good not only for students but also for taxpayers.
January 8, 2015
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

In a letter to his state's education commissioner last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signaled that he'll push to make it easier to fire low-performing teachers. The move comes after 96 percent of the state's teachers received one of the two highest ratings on new state evaluations and only 1 percent were rated as "ineffective" despite students' lackluster performance on tests and graduation rates.

This month's results from what was supposed to be a tough new teacher evaluation system in Indiana was even harder to take seriously: Less than 0.5 percent of Hoosier teachers -- that's one-half of 1 percent -- were rated as "ineffective."

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Cuomo's letter is good news not only for students and parents but also for taxpayers. A new Government Accountability Office report predicts that it will be 2058 before state and local tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product return to 2007 levels. And last month, a Boston Globe report demonstrated why taxpayers should demand teacher evaluations that pass the smell test. The Globe reported that 72 Boston public school teachers were not assigned to classrooms but remained on the payroll at a cost of $6 million a year. This new teacher purgatory is the byproduct of a 2013 change in the city's contract with the Boston Teachers Union that allows principals to bypass internal candidates if ones from outside the system are a better fit.

That change is a step in the right direction. Previously, principals couldn't hire from outside until the internal pool was depleted, even if the available teachers were a poor fit for the students to which they were assigned. But that same collective bargaining agreement prohibits tenured teachers with satisfactory evaluations from being laid off if a position for which the teacher is qualified is being filled by someone with less seniority.

Co-teaching positions have been created for most of the 72 teachers who are in limbo. In some cases that's a good thing because they might be able to progress to a satisfactory level by working with high-performing colleagues.

But many of the teachers were not rehired after their schools were designated as underperforming, which gives principals more leeway to hire and fire teachers under Massachusetts law. It's likely that a high percentage of them are proven low performers, yet even among the 72 teachers without their own classrooms only four were rated as "unsatisfactory" and 10 as in need of improvement. Had a serious evaluation system been in place, some of those teachers could have been removed and the money saved or funneled back into the classroom.

An earlier version of Boston's evaluation system was far from serious. A 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and conducted by the National Center for Teacher Quality found that over two school years half of Boston's public school teachers had never been evaluated and that one-quarter of the city's schools hadn't turned in a single evaluation. Since then a new system has been implemented under which nearly every teacher has been evaluated each year.

The argument has long been that determining teacher quality is highly subjective. But so-called value-added assessments now allow school leaders to measure a teacher's impact on the achievement of various cohorts of students over time.

The educational benefits of using rigorous evaluations to make it easier to jettison low-performing teachers -- and reward strong performers -- undoubtedly outstrip its fiscal impact, but the change would save money and send an important message in an era of scarcity for state and local governments in which there is less and less margin for error.

Less than 10 days after the Globe's report on the 72 teachers without classes who could not be terminated, another story ran under the headline, "Boston schools brace for more cuts." The city's public schools sure would like to have that $6 million now, and that's why New York taxpayers should get behind Gov. Cuomo if he moves to make it easier to fire poor teachers.

This column has been corrected to note that Boston's earlier teacher-evaluation system has been replaced by one under which nearly every teacher has been evaulated.