Evaluate Teachers? Let Students Also Do It


In more than 60 years reporting on public school districts here and in other cities, I’ve often found students to be useful evaluators of their teachers and schools.

During the current tumultuous debate on determining which teachers must be fired for incompetence, the New York City and State teachers’ unions are fiercely resisting the insistence of Governor Cuomo (now a self-declared lobbyist for students) and Mayor Bloomberg (always a lobbyist for himself) that a significant measuring base for teacher competence is student test scores.

Indeed, the ultimate decider, the boss—State Education Commissioner John King—has decreed, no matter what compromises are achieved, “teachers whose students don’t improve on standardized tests are prohibited from receiving good ratings.”>

So, there will be no input from students with long-range direct knowledge of their teachers. One such high school student, Nikhil Goyal, in the January 26 New York Times letters column is nonetheless being heard. He writes: “It’s time to acknowledge that test scores are not a correct indicator in determining quality teachers.” I would add: Teachers who change students’ lives are those whose students love learning.

That quality can be determined when a teacher knows each of his or her students and the problems each might have in learning. You can’t find that out, Goyal says, “by their students’ ability to fill in bubbles.”

Confirming this real-life, real-time analysis in a January 29 letter to the Times (part of my education is in letters columns) Randi Priluck, a professor and director of learning assessment at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business, tells Cuomo and Bloomberg: “Testing, particularly standardized testing, does nothing to enhance knowledge and hinders the development of an appreciation for learning that should begin in school and last a lifetime.”

What can really change students’ lives while they’re in school is getting the confidence in themselves that they can learn and then begin to frequently experience the joy of learning.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew Cuomo knows that from his own life—and not from taking standardized tests. But now, with his brimming confidence in himself as he’s talked of as a future presidential candidate, along with such plaudits as the January 28 tribute in The Economist to his record as governor (“Next, walk on water”), he champions himself as an educational reformer, demanding that teachers be measured, in large part, by their students’ standardized-test scores. Think again, governor.

Now let’s go to one of this city’s teachers who strongly agrees with her union’s attack on students’ collective test scores deciding who gets fired.

In a January 21 letter to the New York Daily News, Kris Tapper writes: “As a teacher for almost 20 years, the last five in the city schools, I have no objections to being evaluated. However, I would like to see the parent-home component evaluated as well. Let’s remember that students spend only about seven hours a day in school. As a teacher, I can’t guarantee that every home environment is conducive to a student’s maximum learning potential. For this, I should not be held accountable.”

I agree with her up to a point. But Cuomo, Bloomberg, and her union should be held accountable for their not learning what more schools and systems across the nation are actually doing to learn about students’ home environments. And also adding to their schools’ medical care for students’ hearing, vision, and other health problems, some of which also might not be cared for in their home environments.

Has this need yet begun to be a demanding concern for our Education Mayor and Chancellor Dennis Walcott? (The latter is indeed beginning to pay other active attention to students with special needs.)

As for Bloomberg, he wants to reward highly effective teachers with $20,000 raises. But you say, your honor, that these raises will be based largely on standardized-test scores? Bad move.

And dig this from the Daily News, January 28: “Bloomberg also seeks to axe half the teachers at the city’s 33 lowest performing schools, which could free up $60 million in federal funding for the city.”

The reporter doesn’t mention the high percentage of black and Hispanic students in those schools who will be affected by the sweep of the mayor’s ax.

Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a big fan of standardized tests, like the mayor, but has it occurred to either of them to talk to the students in those schools to find out whether individual students are benefiting from the fact that some schools on the doomed list have actually demonstrated improvement in more than a few of these students?

Yoav Gonen, an excellent education reporter at the New York Post reports on January 24: “Seven of the 33 schools where the city is seeking to fire half of the staff were rated an ‘A’ or ‘B’ on their latest city-issued report cards, a review by the Post found. That means roughly 260 teachers are slated to be cleared out from schools that were celebrated just last fall for making significant gains.”

What do you say to that, Education Mayor, Rising Star Governor Cuomo, and Boss Education Commissioner King? Some students in classes taught by these to-be-discarded teachers would like an answer. And, I bet, so would some of their parents.

A New York Times January 28 editorial, “Cuomo’s Slow Education,” quotes from Andrew Cuomo’s recent state of the state address that in his first year up there, he “learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyists. Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists. The only group without lobbyists? The students.”

But there he is, kids, your own big-time lobbyist!

Encouraging the governor to be the students’ lobbyist, the Times notes: “Mr. Cuomo’s approval rating is near 70 percent, which is political capital he could use to take on the education status quo.”

Wait a minute. This most engaging governor since his father, Mario, includes in his lobbying team Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Walcott, and the rest of the city and state enforcers of the status quo!

You have shown, governor, that you’re a learner, but, sir, you have a lot more to learn about education that can change lives and not create more dropouts. I believe you’re serious about this, so start learning how to really learn about it through the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum)——and its daily The latter, which I never miss, will educate you about schools, teachers, and even some school systems across the country that do teach teachers how to create lifelong learners.

You have to be an ASCD member to join, but it’s not expensive, and it also provides books, reports, and other challenging evidence that no student need be left behind—of whatever age.

I hope you don’t rely on your staff to tell you what’s on ASCD’s daily smart brief. Once you get into it, you’ll never get enough of it.