EMU professor says new teacher tenure reform laws could result in teaching to the test
The teacher tenure reform signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder last month will formalize the performance-based evaluation systems many Michigan school districts already have in place but could lead to "teaching to the test," a local expert said.
James Berry, a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University, said the legislation, which was passed in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate in June, would add more accountability to the teacher evaluation process by taking student achievement into account on a much broader scale — eventually making up 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
Berry said one of his concerns about the legislation is that this pressure to improve student achievement may lead teachers in Michigan to “teach to the test,” teaching so kids perform well on standardized tests and not necessarily doing all the other things that make a teacher successful.
“Trying to evaluate good teaching is more than standardized tests,” Berry said. “You have to wonder, will teachers teach to the test? Will testing become the main criterion under which a teacher is evaluated? This drives us down that road to a point.”
The new teacher tenure reform laws will lengthen the time it takes for a new teacher to be granted tenure from four to five years while making it easier to fire teachers who have had poor reviews. Teachers who are still in the probationary period can be fired at any point.
The exact criteria for what will make up a teacher’s evaluation isn't specified in the bills signed by Snyder. Instead, the legislation allows the governor to establish a commission to determine the specifics of what will be included in the evaluations.
The exact timeline for forming the commission and having it decide on the specifics of the legislation also remains unclear. The new teacher evaluations are set to take effect in the 2013-14 school year, when student achievement will make up 25 percent of a teacher's or administrator's evaluation. That amount increases to 40 percent in 2014-15 and 50 percent in 2015-16.
Berry said the most difficult thing the commission will have to examine is what exactly makes up a teacher’s quality. Is it simply giving facts to improve test scores? Or is it managing a classroom and students, while tailoring education to individual kids? He said the latter option is extremely difficult to examine in simple evaluations between a principal and a teacher.
“Parents are going to say, 'I want my child to end up with a real knowledge of the Three Rs,'” he said, “'but what I really need is someone who understands my child, heads off bullying by saying the right things at the right time, can manage the classroom in such a way that the teacher is aware of what’s going on in the classroom to not have discipline or management problems.' That’s really hard to quantify and put into evaluations.”
The ideas in the legislation aren’t entirely new.
Berry said lawmakers and education experts have tossed around performance-based teacher evaluation systems for at least two decades. He said many school districts throughout the state have already adopted some form of performance-based evaluations.
“This reminds me of the performance-based teacher evaluation systems that have been kicked around for 20 or 25 years,” Berry said. “What Michigan is doing is formalizing what many school districts already do. It’s a system of performance-based evaluation and tying in accountability with student achievement.”