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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Improving teacher quality critical to Michigan’s future

The Education Trust-Midwest, based in Royal Oak, has played an integral role in shaping the debate over Michigan teacher evaluation reform. Executive Director Amber Arellano spoke to Bridge about the importance of the reform efforts for Michigan’s children.

Bridge: It seems the debate has centered on adults rather than children. How do you see teacher evaluation reform impacting Michigan students?

Arellano: Student well-being has been missing lately from the conversation in Lansing.

Students are precisely the reason why we must have a robust, meaningful statewide system of educator support, accountability and improvement. White, African American, Hispanic, higher income, low income all of our children are being underserved in Michigan. Student achievement levels in other states are far outpacing our children’s learning growth, for every group of students. Our kids are just as talented and bright as students around the country. So the issue is our schools – not our students.

That’s why we must make smart investments in educator training, support and accountability. A good evaluation system addresses all three needs.

The teaching profession has not been taken seriously by our society and our public leaders. When we care about something in this state and country, we invest in it. Teaching quality is worth our investment. Indeed, there are very few more powerful levers available to dramatically raise learning for all of our students. This is one of the greatest needs of our generation. We believe we are not going to turnaround Michigan without investing in our teachers. Leadership is key.

Bridge: What will I as a student or parent notice when this new evaluation system is put into practice? More days taking standardized tests?

Arellano: Better assessment and data – not more testing – is needed. If and when we have an appropriate, high-quality Common Core-aligned state assessment in place, we will have an annual state assessment that we need to gather rich, reliable information about students’ growth and teachers’ impact on students. That said, there are a few key changes that parents may notice:

1. In some districts, parents may see the arrival of student surveys. Such surveys are great tools for feedback. Indeed, recent studies have found the most reliable teacher evaluations rely on three key pieces of data: classroom observations, student growth and student surveys. Today 17 states require or allow parent, student or peer surveys to be included in teacher evaluations, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

2. Over time, if this work is done well, we believe parents will see improvements in student learning. Teaching quality is the number one in-school predictor of student learning. Research around the country shows how powerful building teachers’ capacity to raise learning can be for students, including through better feedback and evaluation practices.

Certainly, that is the purpose of this proposed new system – that, along with better job satisfaction and retention of effective teachers, which some good evaluation and support systems are producing in other states.

3. Lastly, parents in some districts may see their district or school leaders share their schools’ aggregate growth data based on the state assessment. This will be just one indicator – but an important indicator – about their district’s teaching quality. This would be a way for parents to have a clear idea of how well the district is performing compared to others around the state. We’d like to see the state publish this aggregate district-level data on an annual basis.

Bridge: Teachers are going to be linked to the test scores of their students. Does that mean parents will be able to see which teachers are the best in their neighborhood school?

Arellano: Please keep in mind the emphasis on aggregate data above. We believe it’s critically important individual teacher evaluation ratings will not be made public. Smart educator evaluation is about improvement – not public humiliation.

Bridge: Do you believe teacher evaluations, particularly student growth, should be tracked back to the teachers’ university prep programs?

Arrellano: Yes. Imagine the valuable feedback that teacher preparation programs would have based on this data. My undergraduate alma mater, Michigan State’s teacher preparation program, could use it to see how well their graduates are teaching and growing their students’ learning. Programs could use the data to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses in preparing new teachers, and make improvements in their own teaching. First, though, we need to make sure we have good data from which to learn.

Bridge: More than 300 school districts and charter schools opted out of the state evaluation system. That sounds like an implementation nightmare.

Arellano: Not necessarily, if it’s done right. We recommend the state put into place thoughtful state standards and a mechanism to not only hold districts accountable for doing this work well, but also support them in doing it well. Without such standards and mechanisms in place, we would simply be doing the same thing that we’ve always done – and very little would change for students or educators.

Other states have a continuing, voluntary council of leading advocates and educators that gives feedback to districts that want to use their own local models, helps them improve their models, and ensures every model meets a high standard of reliability and helpfulness. Our teachers deserve that, as do our students.

Also, please keep in mind that if state leaders put into place a reliable statewide growth measure as the 2011 tenure reforms outlined, that data will become one of multiple measures used in every educator’s annual evaluation, regardless of whether the district is using a local model or a state-provided model.

Bridge: How much is this going to cost, and who’s picking up the tab?

Arellano: It will depend upon how the state develops the system, and what lawmakers decide. Some say districts should foot the bill. Others say the state should. We believe there is a sensible center on this issue: The state should invest in some parts of the new system, while locals should foot the rest of the bill.

We suggest the state’s responsibility includes investing in a high-caliber statewide data system to ensure reliable, sound data are used to inform educator evaluations and feedback. For example, to make sure growth data is actionable and reliable, states must have a clear definition of “teacher of record” and require its consistent use statewide. States and districts also must have in place a process for roster verification – or risk teachers being held accountable for another teacher’s growth data.

Another state responsibility: centralized training or training delivered by the few, strongest ISD’s [intermediate school districts] in the state could – and we believe should – train evaluators on how to combine student growth data and classroom observation data to get a final annual performance rating. This is something many districts are struggling to do well. The use of data to inform and improve classroom instruction, and provide developmental, constructive feedback to teachers to help them improve their practice, also is a challenge for many locals. It’s not due to lack of effort, either. Many districts have worked hard at doing this right, but they lack the considerable resources and expertise that high-caliber support and evaluation requires. Other costs could be left up to districts.

Bridge: What’s going to be key to this being a success or a disaster?

Arellano: As we have studied best practices in this work across the nation, we’ve found that leading states are those that provide a strong state “default” evaluation model for local districts or charter networks to adopt. Leading states such as Tennessee have invested significantly in this work. Our students -- and our educators -- are worth our investment.

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