Do Teachers Make the Grade?
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Mitch D’Olier, CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, has been working on improving public education in Hawaii for years, and says that quantifying teacher performance is difficult, but vital to ensuring the success of students. “It’s all about what happens in a classroom between a teacher and those kids,” he says. “All this other stuff is periphery, and it’s easier to work on, because nobody quite knows what makes an effective teacher. We have NCLB’s definition, and we have our licensing definition, and I would tell you that both of them are B.S. That’s my own personal view. They’re both ridiculous.”
The Castle Foundation has a real stake in this matter—it’s donated $8.9 million in the form of 99 education-related grants in Hawaii since 2004, and D’Olier and his colleagues have been intensely focused on tracking down hard data that would demonstrate how effective, or ineffective, specific efforts have been. As foundation executive director Terrence George explains, education reform needs to hinge on real data, rather than optimistic theories. “Let’s actually look for evidence at the output side of this machine we call public education, and then learn from the people who seem to have output values that are better than the norm,” he says. “What are they doing different?”
To that end, Castle Foundation has been assembling an online dashboard that collects statistics such as third-grade reading comprehension, and presents the data in a useful way to administrators, teachers and parents. It’s a work in progress, and one of the missing pieces is a way to track individual student growth—a crucial element in quantifying teacher performance.
If the Castle Foundation is this concerned with proving the effectiveness of the millions it’s spent on education, shouldn’t the DOE be similarly focused on measurable results for the $2.4 billion it spends per year?
But just as it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the manini details of NCLB requirements, it’s a mistake to pin Hawaii’s educational hopes on an as-yet undeveloped assessment system that could take 10 years to start spitting out usable data. We as a state need to make concrete steps toward being able to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance. Metrics are a big part of that, but there are three factors contributing to teacher quality that we can tackle right away:
• We can do better at bringing in and keeping more new and highly qualified teachers.
• We can make it easier to get rid of underperforming, inflexible teachers.
• We can do a better job of training and mentoring the current body of Hawaii educators.
Since the DOE can’t link student outcomes to teacher performance, it relies on school principals to assess each teacher via classroom walkthroughs and interviews. The current system is called PEP-T (professional evaluation program for teachers), and lets principals rate a teacher annually as “satisfactory,” “marginal” or “unsatisfactory” in five categories:
• Designs and implements effective strategies to develop self-responsible/independent learners.
• Creates and maintains a positive and safe learning environment.
• Uses assessment data.
• Demonstrates professionalism.
• Reflects on practice.
But while principals are responsible for evaluating their teachers and maintaining high quality instruction in the schools, they’ve been stripped of the tools to carry out that mandate.
Thanks to restrictions in the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association’s collective bargaining agreement, even if a principal encounters an ineffective, unresponsive teacher, the process of getting rid of that teacher has been made cumbersome and time-consuming, often prohibitively so.
Gerald Teramae, then principal of Jarrett Middle School, spoke with us three years ago on this topic, frustrated with a system that has turned the firing process into a two- to three-year ordeal. Now at Kalani High, he says nothing has changed. “I still feel that, as administrators, we give up a lot of our management rights,” he says. “We’re fair and professional in what we do, and yet we don’t have the control to hire and terminate who we need to.
“In the business world, if you don’t do your job, if you don’t show up to work on time, meet your deadlines, the process is not going to take three years. What if that was your kid, and they had to be in that teacher’s class for two years? We need to do what’s right for kids.”
Teramae echoes a message being delivered on the national stage. In his March speech on education, Obama said, “We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. And that means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. … Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high.”
We spoke with Roger Takabayashi, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, to get the union’s perspective on the situation. He maintains that the problem isn’t that the firing process takes too long, but that principals’ schedules are so hectic. “I don’t think it’s too difficult; I think [principals] don’t have enough time,” he says. “They’re so busy running the school, being curriculum leaders.”*
*Ironically, while Takabayashi is fine with the current, convoluted method for dismissing ineffective teachers, he thinks it should be easier to get rid of problem students. “We don’t have enough programs to remove disruptive students; we need a lot more of those,” he says. “As a student services coordinator, when I had a disruptive student, I had to take weeks before I could have the student placed in any type of program.”