Compass: Student performance must be part of teacher evaluations

By MIKE HANLEYDecember 12, 2012 

No one describes a teacher as great without talking about how well his or her students are learning. It just doesn't happen, because you can't have one without the other. Teachers teach kids -- both in areas of academic knowledge as well as other important skills like critical thinking, problem solving, working independently, working in groups, and citizenship. I would argue that these latter skills are foundational to academic success.

Unfortunately, Alaska has always had a teacher evaluation system that doesn't recognize, nor differentiate between, great and struggling teachers. I strongly disagree with our current system, which sets a subjective bar low enough that everyone is deemed fine, excellent teachers aren't recognized, and new and struggling teachers aren't challenged to improve. I didn't like the system as a teacher or a principal, and I don't like it as commissioner of education.

As a teacher, my subjective evaluations allowed me to be considered proficient early in my career. Only my pride and inward drive pushed me to improve. I believe that most teachers have that same drive.

As a principal, I could score a teacher proficient or exemplary and never once consider whether their students learned what was needed to be successful. When I brought student data to the table for conversation, it was a new concept for some teachers and it wasn't a criterion I could use in the evaluation.

As commissioner, I hate the idea that many people feel that teachers are the cause of society's ills and they should be considered failing because not all children are above average. Teachers have never before been challenged as they are today.

The struggles that many students face before they ever arrive in school have put them behind the curve through no fault of their own. Teachers take them all and take them as far as they can. It is time to recognize the work that they do and recognize the gains our students make, often in the face of incredible challenges. And it's time to recognize those challenges, not as excuses but as a way to focus all the key players in students' lives on helping them be successful.

The recent regulation passed by State Board of Education & Early Development ties student growth in learning to teachers' annual evaluations. For once, good teachers will be validated by their efforts and their students' success. Teachers who aren't moving their students forward will be rated as basic rather than proficient. If those teachers are rated basic in two or more of the eight teaching standards, their school district is required to offer support and assistance. Our kids deserve at least this much.

I believe that blaming teachers is a mistake. We need to acknowledge the work that they do, and we can only do that by validating quality teachers and challenging low-performing ones to improve. Our current system does neither. The new regulation does both.

The passage of this regulation requires us now, as leaders in the classrooms, schools, districts, and the state to work side by side to develop and implement a tool that meets this goal. We owe it our students, and we owe it to our teachers.

Mike Hanley, the Alaska Commissioner of Education & Early Development, is a former teacher and principal in the Anchorage School District.

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