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Taxpayers invest a lot in their teachers, and good ones are worth every penny. Nothing affects student performance more than great teachers. Conversely, weak teachers can do irreparable damage to children and their learning. This alone should prompt Ohio to glean as much information as possible about teacher effectiveness.

But in the face of Ohio's impending budget cliff and the teacher layoffs it will cause, defining teacher effectiveness has become that much more urgent. Consider two pots of federal money that have propped up Ohio's education spending: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the August 2010 infusion of "Ed Jobs" money. Ohio received nearly a billion dollars for education from the recovery act - funding that dries up in July 2011 - which saved or created upward of 9,000 education jobs. Ed Jobs funding, to expire in 2012, funneled $361 million to Ohio and saved an estimated 5,000 teaching jobs. To say that layoffs will occur en masse is an understatement. Ohio must come up with strategies to keep the most effective teachers in classrooms.

We actually know little about the effectiveness of teachers in the Buckeye State. Current teacher evaluations do not distinguish highly effective teachers from the rest, nor do they weed out poor performers. Further, archaic human-resources practices in public education prevent us from retaining, rewarding and supporting teachers based on their effectiveness. In fact, we pay long-serving, but ineffectual, teachers more than we pay less-senior high-fliers. We reward teachers for their credentials and advanced degrees, but offer the same pay for teachers whether their students thrive or languish. We lay off teachers based solely on seniority.

Since 2007, Ohio has collected value-added data in both reading and mathematics that can be used to help determine teacher performance. These data already are used to measure school and district performance, and play a key role in determining whether persistently low-performing charter schools should face automatic closure. Further, the well-regarded Battelle for Kids has been doing excellent work to help educators use value-added data as a diagnostic tool for improving instruction. So, the data and its power to inform decision-making are not foreign to educators or policy makers in Ohio.

It is time to start using value-added data as a key component of teacher evaluations. With budget shortfalls and subsequent teacher layoffs looming, district leaders need the tools to dismiss or furlough their least productive teachers while keeping their most successful ones. Although not perfect, the best metric for measuring teacher effectiveness is value-added data, and this works in the same fashion as the state's current value-added model for assessing school performance.

According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, if student test achievement is the outcome, value-added is superior to other existing methods of classifying teachers. Classifications that rely on other measurable characteristics of teachers, considered singly or in aggregate, are not in the same league in terms of predicting future performance as evaluation based on value-added.

Critics argue that since these systems aren't perfect, or since they currently apply only to math and reading in grades 4-8, that they shouldn't be used to measure teacher effectiveness. Such logic is upside down. As value-added measures of teacher effectiveness are the best tool currently available to school districts that teach math and reading (core subjects pivotal to success in other subjects), this is the best time to accelerate adopting them as central components of modern teacher evaluation systems. Value-added measures should be supplemented by other factors when it comes to making decisions about teacher dismissals, tenure, remuneration or school placement.

As Ohio begins debate on how to tackle a historic budget deficit, it is imperative that school districts have the tools necessary for ensuring that they keep their best teachers. Value-added data for gauging teacher effectiveness must be part of the conversation.

This op-ed previously appeared in the Columbus Dispatch.

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