Compass: Teaching for test scores doesn't educate students

It is with great sadness and frustration that we write this letter. We five former Alaska Teachers of the Year opposee the December 2012 changes to the Alaska teacher performance review system. We believe this new policy will fail to improve student learning and instead bring harm to our children, their teachers and our schools.

The decision to base as much as 50 percent of teacher evaluations on test scores represents a major shift from the recommendations of the Alaska Teacher Quality Commission that met for two years prior to draft a new teacher performance policy. By unilaterally dismissing the committee's recommendation, the state has weakened support from professionals who are necessary to make any reform succeed.

We believe the recommendation to use student data to determine 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation is fair and appropriate. However, basing a teacher's evaluation on 50 percent student data is extreme and short-sighted, repeating the mistakes from 10 years of No Child Left Behind which used standardized test scores as a catalyst for educational reform with little progress in closing the achievement gap.

In a December 7, Anchorage Daily News article on Alaska's new teacher evaluation policy, Governor Parnell said, "I would like Alaska to lead in this, not bring up the rear." We too agree that Alaska should lead the way in educational reform, but resurrecting and magnifying the mistakes under a flawed NCLB paradigm is a poor policy to effect meaningful, lasting change.

If Alaska leaders were to look at the highest performing nations and provinces -- Finland, Singapore, Japan, China, Ontario, Canada -- as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), they would realize that none of these countries have adopted the punitive evaluation system that Alaska has chosen. Attracting and retaining quality teachers into Alaska's classrooms is a complex problem with many moving parts. The state should investigate how these nations reward their teachers, promote creativity and innovation in the classroom, and create schools where teachers are intrinsically accountable to each other. We need to emulate success, not failure.

Alaska's new teacher performance system will create what have been called perverse incentives," by education expert Marc Tucker. Tucker wrote a piece for the National Center on Education and Economy entitled "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform." Alaska will further narrow its curriculum at the expense of the arts, music, history, and physical education -- the very subjects that help promote creativity and innovation. It will dramatically increase the amount of time students devote to test preparation, leaving less time for creative problem solving or the development of higher level thinking skills.

Furthermore, this policy is based on the assumption that individual teachers working alone are responsible for student performance, when most of us know that great schools are a result of many adults collaborating for the benefit of their students.

Alaska's finest teachers flourish when they are treated as professionals, and accorded the status and respect to work creatively with their students. We recommend the state pursue a more holistic teacher evaluation system, one that includes peer evaluations, the review of student artifacts and the teacher's contribution to the profession.

We also believe that this new evaluation policy will drive away some of Alaska's best teachers. Basing 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation on test scores that were never designed to evaluate teachers will increase stress in a system where already one-third of teachers leave the profession within three years, and one-half are gone within five years.

It is time for Alaska to promote success rather than failure. It is time to look toward the nations that are leading the way in education reform, rather than rehashing the failed policies of yesterday. Although the state's new teacher evaluation policy may be politically popular within certain factions, it is time for our state to transcend politics, and to develop a teacher evaluation system that promotes the best in our teachers and our children.

Bob Williams (2009, math, Colony High School, Palmer), Ina Bouker (2007, K-12 multiculture/bilingual, Dillingham Elementary, Middle and High schools), Cara Heitz (2012, advanced health care practics, King Career Center, Anchorage), Lorrie Heagy (2011, music, Glacier Valley Elementary School, Juneau) and Ray Voley (2008, 7-12 social studies, writing, technology, Kenny Lake School) are all former Alaska Teachers of the Year.