For years, when disappointed observers noted how little was being learned by children in inner-city schools, the riposte from the public-school establishment would be “it’s not the teaching, these kids are just too poor and disadvantaged in family background to do better.” Then the “no-excuses” charter schools began to appear and get much better performance out of the very same children in the very same neighborhoods, making it clear that good teaching could make a big difference even with the neediest youngsters.
Reformers began to put serious effort into replacing today’s conventional teacher assessments (which rate 90-98 percent of instructors as good or excellent even in cities where results are miserable) with more scientific and clear-eyed assessments. In 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation unveiled $45 million of funding to pioneer and then spread rigorous new systems of teacher evaluation. Working carefully in several large school districts, researchers used a mix of testing, expert evaluations, videotaped assessments, and student and teacher surveys—applied to random assignments of different children with different teachers—to see which students moved up the learning ladder, and which didn’t, and how that correlated with the teaching they received. Soon, reliable methods were developed that allow identification of effective teachers who improve student results, no matter where their students start out.
A central insight was that a teacher shouldn’t be judged simply by where a child ends the year, because that will depend heavily on what happened to the youngster before he walked into the classroom. Rather, a teacher should be judged by how her students perform at the end of the school year compared to where they stood when they came to that instructor in September.
Having developed these new teacher assessments, Gates then distributed $290 million in four test cities to help them apply the new approaches. Public schools in Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, and a coalition of five charter networks in Los Angeles, were given grants to aid them in implementing the new measures of teacher effectiveness. This included offering extra training and support to teachers, and ultimately tying each teacher’s tenure decision and compensation level to how effective she is. There is no use in sorting teachers into effective, middling, and ineffective piles, school reformers recognize, unless schools are willing to act to keep great teachers with merit pay and job protections, while offering weak performers compensatory training and ultimately showing them the door if they don’t improve. Only this kind of accountability can put teaching on a more even footing with other professions like law and engineering that are honored socially and compensated economically because they have quality controls.
Thanks entirely to philanthropic mobilizations, a few cities like Washington, D.C., Houston, and Newark have begun to put reasonably sturdy value-added teacher assessments into effect. Half of a teacher’s evaluation score in D.C. now comes from how much her students improve their standardized test scores after a year in her classroom. Other measures of increased student achievement, plus five classroom observations by principals and master teachers, are also used to grade teachers. Instructors in D.C. with a value-added score that shows them to be “highly effective” get a cash bonus of up to $27,000, and two “highly effective” ratings in a row lead to a raise in base salary of as much as $25,000. On the other hand, Washington teachers who get reviewed as “ineffective” are subject to dismissal, as are those rated “minimally effective” for two straight years, and those scoring for three years in a row at the middling level of “developing.” During the first couple years of the new assessment system, 500 teachers with poor ratings were let go from the D.C. Public Schools, and a 2013 academic study showed the system is having clear positive effects in both retaining good teachers and easing out persistently ineffective ones.
D.C.’s program was pushed through only after a group of major philanthropists, including the Walton, Robertson, Arnold, and Broad foundations, put up $60 million of financial sweetener for teacher unions. The Newark union likewise demanded more than $30 million of philanthropic money for its priorities before agreeing to a pay-for-performance deal (which still retains many loopholes protecting underperforming teachers). The philanthropists who have subsidized these initial experiments are betting, however, that when the public sees the large jumps in school quality that result when rigorous value-added assessment is applied to teaching, it will be impossible for other cities to duck making their own tough-minded reforms, thereby bringing upgrades to public-school teaching in many places.
- Karl Zinsmeister, From Promising to Proven (The Philanthropy Roundtable, 2014) pp. 79-82.