Effective teachers are the most valuable education asset that Ohio (or any state) has. Statistics don't lie when it comes to their impact on children's learning. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who recently testified before a joint hearing of the Ohio House and Senate education committees, reports that "having a high-quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background." Similarly, a weak teacher can blight a child's prospects.
Given how powerfully teachers can alter students' life trajectories, it is not only prudent but imperative to push reforms that enable education leaders to distinguish effective teachers from ineffective ones. With a fair and rigorous system that measures gradations of teacher effectiveness - not just binary ratings such as "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" - school systems can reward their ablest instructors and put them in the classrooms where they are most needed, target support to teachers who need it and weed out those who are not a good fit for the profession. For Ohio, where low-income and minority children reach proficiency at far lower rates than their wealthier peers, the stakes are enormous.
But the evaluation system isn't working nearly as well as it needs to. As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has noted: "Everyone agrees that teacher evaluation is broken. Ninety-nine percent of teachers are rated satisfactory and most evaluations ignore the most important measure of a teacher's success - which is how much their students have learned."
In Ohio, districts pay long-serving but mediocre teachers more than they pay less senior high-fliers. They reward teachers for credentials and advanced degrees, as well as years on the job, yet they offer the same pay for teachers whether their pupils thrive or languish. Layoffs are based on seniority. This may once have been acceptable, if only because there were few valid alternatives. But many states and districts have begun to craft evaluation systems that move the profession forward. It's Ohio's turn to do the same.
Gov. John Kasich's budget and the recently enacted Senate Bill 5 seek to move the state toward evaluations that identify the impact of individual instructors on student learning, in order to inform decisions around retention, pay, hiring and dismissal. This is a huge opportunity to raise the needle on student achievement. But Ohio has to get the details right. Systems that measure and reward performance are still at the pilot stage, and no jurisdiction has yet developed a perfect system.
The good news is that Ohio is better positioned than most places to build a modern and fair system for gauging teacher effectiveness because it has a relatively sophisticated system of value-added analysis of student achievement in reading and math in grades four through eight, and has accumulated these data since 2007. Value-added data - how much a child learns during a given school year - should be an important component for measuring teacher effectiveness.
Second, some Ohio districts, with the cooperation of their teachers unions, have been working to create better approaches to evaluating the effectiveness of classroom instructors. One of the best is Cincinnati's Teacher Evaluation System. It helps identify which teachers are more effective - and a recent study found that it has contributed to teachers significantly improving their instruction. In other words, it doesn't just judge teachers; it makes them better at their craft. Cincinnati's efforts and others like it need to inform where Ohio goes with it teacher-evaluation efforts.
Third, Ohio's Race to the Top proposal for federal funding committed the state and participating school districts to creating quality teacher-evaluation systems that incorporate student performance. The Ohio Department of Education has money, expertise and a mandate to develop such systems.
Creating better teacher-evaluation systems in Ohio is not as daunting as some would have us think. The key will be to encourage district and teacher participation. Don't wait for the state to do it - and don't expect to create a one-size-fits-all evaluation system to cover every local circumstance. Instead, press districts to come up with systems that incorporate common data elements from the state while also incorporating measures such as expert and peer evaluations, building- and district-level performance metrics, and even student evaluations.
Ohio is well-positioned to lead the nation in the development of high-quality teacher-evaluation systems. It has many of the necessary pieces already in place and it has the political momentum to get this done. Now is the time to do it.
This post originally appeared in Saturday's Columbus Dispatch and Dayton Daily News.