Margaret Wente

Why not grade the teachers?

Our system resists meaningful evaluation of the most important factor in education

Friday, Jun. 19, 2009



he research is abundant and the results are in. The single most important factor in the quality of your children's education is not class size (sorry, Dalton McGuinty), socioeconomic status, the school they attend or how much funding it gets. It's the quality of the teaching.

Well, duh. Most of us know that. That's why parents send their kids to private school, where the teaching standards are supposed to be higher, or fight to get their kid into Ms. O's class instead of Mr. B's. Excellent teachers get measurably better results than mediocre ones, no matter what children they teach. Few teachers are a real disaster, but if your kid gets one of those, God help her.

So you'd think it would make sense to grade the teachers. After all, the rest of us are graded all the time. So are our kids. But the school system itself is stubbornly resistant to meaningful evaluation.

“There's no serious assessment of schools or of teachers,” says Mark Holmes, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The teachers unions are, of course, a major obstacle. “The unions absolutely detest any kind of inequality,” he says. “They say, ‘We are all equally good.' Which, of course, nobody believes.”

The biggest problem is not the small number of incompetents, although the system has a lot of trouble getting rid of them. It's the failure to address widespread mediocrity. So far as the education system is concerned, the excellent, the competent and the mediocre are equally excellent.

Here in Ontario, teachers who've passed their first-year probation are formally evaluated only once every five years. (How often are you evaluated? I thought so.) There are only two marks: Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory. My hunch from anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of teachers are rated S. But I don't know for sure, because the provincial Education Ministry, which devised the evaluation procedure, has no statistics on the overall results. The Toronto District School Board, the largest in the country, couldn't find any data either. In any event, teacher assessments do not assess the most important thing of all, which is how well they teach their students.

You might think that would be impossible to measure objectively, but it's not. Tennessee does it. It tests kids at the beginning and the end of the school year and measures the difference. An excellent teacher can improve students' performance by more than one grade level. A mediocre teacher may improve students by just 0.7 of a grade level, while the negative effect of an out-and-out incompetent may last for years. Tennessee uses its data to improve its teaching methods. Last year, the state's public education system was ranked 16th in the country by Education Week, even though its per-capita income ranks just 37th. All successful programs that work with disadvantaged kids, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program, rigorously track student performance and adjust their teaching accordingly.

In the United States, widespread teacher mediocrity is the single biggest barrier to Barack Obama's goal of education reform. Yet the issue of appraising and improving teachers' effectiveness in the classroom is met by “a culture of indifference,” according to a non-partisan group called the New Teacher Project. It found that, as in Canada, the system reacts with vast indifference to variations in performance. Teachers are treated like widgets, not individual professionals - and a culture of low expectations is the norm. Even though a majority of teachers say they know teachers who are performing poorly, less than 1 per cent of all teachers are rated unsatisfactory.

The consequences are serious, as a New York Times editorial commented last week. Outstanding teachers aren't recognized and rewarded as role models. Low-performing teachers remain in the classroom, and teachers who could become high achievers with more support never do. Protecting mediocre teachers only cheats students. What a waste.