With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chicago forum on teacher evaluation

I even put a tie on

It's the day after Halloween so I didn't feel so bad about putting on a tie and dressing up like a downtown school reformer. The reason? It's the first of this year's Schools Policy Luncheon Series, organized jointly by BPI and Catalyst. This one, titled: Teacher evaluation and compensation: Getting it right, grabbed my interest for obvious reasons. The biggest crowd ever, packed the main lounge at the Union League Club (business attire required). Thus the tie.

Lunching on sliced chicken, salad greens, chocolate cake with a blackberry next to it, and lots of coffee, I heard Susan Moore Johnson from Harvard, CTU prez, Karen Lewis, and Peter Martinez, the head of UIC's Urban Leadership Program.

Johnson, coming from Harvard, of course had a Power-Point nobody could read. But her assessment of Value-Added based on standardized tests, "which measure only part of what teachers are expected to do," was great. She basically argued that VA and standardized tests should NOT be used to make important decisions about schools firing or paying teachers; that VA doesn't show teachers how to improve; and that it doesn't improve collaboration within schools. She hit hard on the L.A. Times publication of teacher names next to student scores. What we need, said Johnson, is more peer evaluation and review with support from skilled experienced master-teachers, set up with oversight by a labor-management review panel. Wow! Not bad.

She was followed by Lewis, who spoke with passion and conviction about the role of the teachers union in leading school improvement. Her main points followed seamlessly from Johnson's research and she concluded, "you can't test or fire your way to good schools." This got some applause from about 20% of the room and some eye-rolling from about another 20%. But she seemed to have consensus when she pointed out that the system of teacher evaluation as we know it, was broken.

Fix it, yes, she said.. But even that won't do without a wrap-around system of social services to improve the conditions kids and families face outside of school.

Martinez seemed to be the least critical of standardized testing--"that's what people understand." But he did call for a more collaborative approach based on high standards and the need for good instructional strategies. Okay! No arguments from anyone there, I suppose.

So I left the meeting full of buzz from all the caffeine and chocolate in my system, wondering why, if all these movers and shakers, union leaders and business reformers could reach basic agreement around the need for improved teacher evaluation, and a critique of value-added and standardized testing, why are we still reinforcing merit-pay based on a faulty standardized testing regimen here in Chicago?

Why are the union and a handful of us activist types the only ones speaking out in opposition? Maybe it's too dangerous given Race To The Top and the crack-down on school districts that step out of line.

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