The need for school reform has never been greater in this country. A student drops out of school every nine seconds, and the risk of dropping out is at least twice as great for African-American, Latino, and Native American children. Further, prison statistics reflect consistently the relationship between dropping out of school and incarceration. But teacher effectiveness is a greater factor in student success than other predictors such as race, class size, and socioeconomic status.
We know good teachers matter. But who do we consider to be good teachers? This question needs to be answered by a rigorous and comprehensive evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness through student achievement using multiple measurements over time.
In recognizing this need, the New York State Education Department recently joined other states in approving a new teacher evaluation system. Like many new teacher evaluation systems across the country, some parts of the new plan appear promising.
Currently, teacher evaluations systems often rely heavily on isolated, unreliable data from mandatory tests scores. The new evaluation guidelines in the state plan increase the emphasis on test scores from 20 percent to 40 percent of the total teacher evaluation.
One of the problems with mandatory tests is that they often fail to account for growth of all students. For example, the achievement growth of English language learners and students rates with exceptional needs are often not accurately interpreted using test data.
This potential inaccuracy in achievement data increases pressure for teachers to seek classes with only high-achieving students. And they will undoubtedly flock to these higher-achieving classes if there is extra, merit pay attached to higher test score data.
Good teachers are needed most where students are struggling with low test scores and evaluation systems may well penalize teachers who work with underserved students with special needs, English language learners, and students of color clustered in impoverished urban centers.
In the new evaluation plan, there are also requirements for more frequent teacher evaluations conducted by principals and other administrators. This is a welcome addition, because more frequent observations will yield more accurate, comprehensive evaluation. However, this still does not address the lack of conformity in what administrators consider to be good teaching.
Further, evaluators vary in their teaching expertise as well. For instance, fine arts teachers structure classes differently than their math and English Language Arts colleagues. Many administrators, most former teachers in a specific academic area, simply do not know how to assess all classrooms with the same accuracy. More frequent observations will not improve objectivity or consistency. It will still be incumbent upon school districts to institute fair and consistent guidelines for observations.
There will also be much more additional time needed for these extra evaluations that most administrators do not have given other myriad responsibilities regarding student safety, management, and clerical responsibilities.
Cash-strapped districts must provide the resources for more observations. The state plan should identify funding sources that will be required in providing this extra time.
The state does identify comprehensive teacher evaluation rubrics, but these do not address the issues of time and training. However, there are evaluation systems that can address these critical issues. Syracuse City Schools currently offers National Board Certification as an alternative evaluation option instead of classroom observations by administrators.
The certification was originally instituted as a credential that would place teachers on par with other professions that had rigorous national accreditation such as those in law and medicine. Consequently, the certification is the most advanced credential in the teaching profession. Teachers who opt for the National Board evaluation must complete rigorous analysis of their teaching focused on student achievement.
For those focused on test results, research has shown that National Board Certified teachers demonstrate a net gain of 12 percent on test scores. Another finding is that their teaching performance is equivalent to an additional month of instruction every year. Research also indicates that gains by National Board Certified teachers are the greatest with struggling students in underserved areas like urban centers.
Aligned with the current state plan, the National Board Certification process is an evaluation system that employs multiple measures of achievement of diverse students and accomplished teaching well beyond test scores.
There are also certification requirements specific to every tenure area recognized by New York State. The process also does not require any additional time or expertise by administrators. And critical to many schools crippled by budget deficits, there is funding available to help defray certification costs.
The rigorous National Board Certification needs to be incorporated into teacher evaluation systems. I understand how challenging the certification can be from personal experience, having earned the credential in 2009 while teaching in a Syracuse school situated in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. I also taught instrumental music, a discipline unfamiliar to most administrators, yet I demonstrated accomplished teaching defined by experts in the music education field.
National Board Certification was the most profound professional development I had ever undertaken because it clearly and comprehensively showed me parts of my teaching practice that were effective and those that were not. The process also clearly indicated ways that I could improve. This is the goal of the new state evaluation system, and though it is not specifically mentioned at the state level, it is possible to incorporate National Board Certification in local districts. National Board Certification addresses many of the gaps in the new state plan, and most importantly, can serve as clear evidence of teacher effectiveness as we confront the crisis in low student achievement.
New York State teacher evaluation reform will fall short if it relies too heavily on the same old misleading test score data. A comprehensive system is needed that includes multiple measures of student growth and credits teachers for reaching the most challenging or underserved learners. When implementing this expanded evaluation process, evaluators and teachers need enough time, training, and resources. Comprehensive evaluation processes like National Board Certification provide ready-made solutions to these problems.
Kevin Mixon, a National Board Certified Teacher from Syracuse, N.Y., is the Fine Arts Coordinator for Syracuse City Schools, author of Reaching and Teaching All Instrumental Music Students, and co-author of Teaching Music in the Urban Classroom.