Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good
January 13, 2011
Kevin Carey of Education Sector has a great post out today looking at the use of teacher quality data in personnel decisions. He's writing about higher education, but the point applies to K-12 as well:
If you're trying to evaluate teacher effectiveness for the purposes of deciding who is most likely to help students learn, the information needs to be accurate enough so the decisions you make are likely to be better decisions than those you would have made without the information?and that's all. If, for example, you had to choose between hiring Teacher A and Teacher B, and you had evidence that Teacher A was much more effective that met P < .10 standards of accuracy but not P < .05, that evidence might not be good enough to get into a peer-reviewed journal but you'd be an idiot if you ignored it in choosing who to hire. That's because while evidence of teacher effects can theoretically wait forever until it's good enough to enter the scholarly record, someone needs to be hired for teaching?today.
We hear the same kinds of criticisms in K-12 about value-added data and other metrics for assessing teacher quality. Just today, Bruce Baker has been tweeting about how, in his opinion, the problems identified by the initial findings from the Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching project mean using value-added data is worse than doing nothing; he'd rather continue with quality-blind layoffs and professional development policies.
I came to education from the corporate world, and this belief that we have to define teacher quality with perfect academic rigor strikes me as making mountains out of molehills. Defining what makes a star corporate HR professional (for example) is almost as tough as identifying universal hallmarks of good teaching. The measures you can track ? the performance and turnover rates of employees they recruit, morale measured by surveys, etc. ? are imperfect at best and are rarely under the perfect control of the staff member being evaluated.
Corporations strive to make good personnel decisions despite all this. They develop cultural expectations for what good work looks like, they adjust their metrics and rules of thumb as they go, and, most importantly, they trust managers to coach low performers ? and fire them if they don't improve. It's not perfect, but it leads to an environment that cultivates hard-working and effective professionals most of the time.
We shouldn't be afraid of teacher quality metrics just because they have flaws. Instead, we should continually refine those metrics, expect superintendents to articulate local standards of teacher quality for instructional leaders, and give principals the tools and responsibility to apply them in place of the quality-blind personnel policies we have in so many districts around the country. With fiscal pain likely to continue for years to come, we need to get better quality for the same buck if we want to see student outcomes improve.