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MT: Think tank proposes tool to measure tenured teachers

By   /   September 10, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog

HELENA — A stricter system to measure the performance of tenured teachers would help remove ineffective educators from the classroom, a state and local government think tank says.

But Montana’s deputy superintendent of schools said the decision to adopt such as system in Montana rests with local school boards, and the state could not apply a constitutional mandate.

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, said using “Value-Added Modeling” to gauge teacher performance could help weed out bad teachers.

“Everyone knows that teachers matter,” Winters said. “They are the most important school-based factor for producing student achievement.”

Winters, in his August report, “Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers,” proposes schools use VAM as part of “sensible policy of tenure reform.”

VAM uses statistical analysis of student scores in trying to identify how much a teacher contributes to a student’s progress over a given year. Winters said it also provides useful information about a teachers’ future effectiveness. States such as Colorado, Tennessee, and New Jersey use some form of VAM as an evaluation tool, as does the District of Columbia, Manhattan Institute officials said.

Dennis Parman, the state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said he’s familiar with VAM, but it’s not used in Montana. Montana’s Constitution gives local school boards control over hiring, firing and teacher evaluation tools.

Winters said the current system used by most states is “riddled with error. It misidentifies many ineffective teachers and says they are performing satisfactorily.”

It’s common, he said, for 98 percent of teachers to receive satisfactory ratings, which is inconsistent with research. And even when a low-performing teacher is identified, he or she is protected by tenure.

Winters said teachers are given lifetime protections far too easily. He said VAM, while imperfect, provides useful information and can help gauge a teachers’ future effectiveness. While VAM is not a magic bullet, he called it “a far better predictor of teacher performance than a master’s degree.”

Manhattan Institute officials say 17 states and the District of Columbia have some version of a teacher evaluation system, though critics argue the system fails to accurately gauge teacher quality.

Parman said it’s more difficult to get rid of ineffective tenured teachers, noting that teachers without tenure can be released without cause. To release a tenured teachers requires cause.

“It’s incumbent upon the school board to release a teacher correctly,” he said. “I have seen it happen for reasons you cannot imagine.”

Parman said school districts in Montana frequently “counsel” teachers out of the business.Montana has no “hard data” when it comes to how many tenured teachers have been fired, adding if districts have a low-performing teacher, “the first goal is to help improve and not fire the teacher.”

“It’s all about using data to improve student performance,” he said. “If the data suggest a problem with the teacher, it is very visible.”

Eric Feaver, executive director of the state teachers’ union, the MEA-MFT, said he was not familiar with VAM. He said the state board of education was close to adopting new rules of accreditation dealing with teacher evaluations, in which school districts would be held more responsible on issues such as supervision and evaluation.

“Maybe we will find something from the Manhattan Institute that goes along with standards in accreditation,” he said.

Feaver said people often tell him unions protect bad instructors.

“I ask them, ‘Who are we protecting?’ and no one names names,” he said.

He said some tenured educators do lose their jobs. “We have counseled teachers out of the profession.”

But, he said, a school district has an obligation to show cause.

“There has to be a process,” he said. “You are talking about somebody’s career.”

Montanta has 141,693 students in 422 school districts. It has 14,947 licensed staff.

The state ranks high in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures science, reading and math skills for fourth- and eighth-graders, said Allyson Hagen, communications director with the state Office of Public Instruction.

Montana is second highest in the nation in sciences for fourth-graders; eighth-graders tied for first with three other states. In reading, Montana finished sixth, and eighth-graders tied for first with eight other states. In math, fourth-graders finished eighth, and eighth-graders ranked second.

Winters said some states use VAM to review teachers before they get tenure, and some use it to identify low-performing teachers with tenure, who can lose job protections.

“We don’t just want to identify effective and ineffective teachers,” Winters said, adding VAM should be used to make “informed decisions.”

“Policies that use (VAM) to make tenure decisions are going to be a far better improvement than what we have now,” he said.

Contact Phil Drake at [email protected] or (406) 442-4561.


Phil formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.