The Measurement Conundrum!


Michigan’s senate recently approved a broad overhaul to its 1937 teacher tenure act. This overhaul includes “teachers’ effectiveness,” as grounds for dismissal of tenured teachers. Teacher tenure, as the name says it all, is a form of job protection for the public school teachers, which makes it difficult for the school districts to fire the ‘ineffective’ teachers in most states in the United States. The question really is how to sort the wheat from chaff, and its not an easy one to answer in this case.

Good teachers do matter and it is wise to get rid of bad teachers. No rocket science there! However, Eric Hanushek speaks of this in a language which can hold the policy makers in a thrall. He says, “A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion.” [quoted from NY times blog].

It is this prospect of saving the trillions of dollars by getting rid of the bad teachers, which makes firing the bad teachers oddly similar to recalling American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is interesting to see the impetus for both coming at about the same time. To come back to the main topic of the post, it is not surprising that teacher tenure has begun to heat up in the last one year or so. But, before the bad teachers are fired, they must first be identified.

And this creates the mother of all measurement problems: i.e. how to define and measure teachers’ performance [Read the Detroit News article here for the discussion within MI]. There are compelling arguments that a variable such as ‘student achievement’ is but only one measures of teachers’ performance. It can, in fact, misfire as I have described in my last post. Teachers and schools, even the states, can game the system in order to bump up the scores. When that happens it is the traditionally disadvantaged students that are short-changed by the system.

Also, focusing our attention on test scores as measures of teachers’ performance takes our sights off the other important influences, such as students’ family circumstances and cultural backgrounds. These other influences are also just as important, if not more, in determining student achievement on standardised tests. When student scores are used as the only measures of teachers’ performance, bad things can happen. For instance, a teacher in California, who was known to be working very hard with his students from disadvantaged circumstances, became desperate enough to commit suicide after he was declared ineffective by these lopsided assessments.

As Michigan overhauls its teacher tenure laws, the questions about how to measure teachers’ performance will move from the wings to the centre of the ‘important-questions-stage.’ A simplistic suggestion of taking students’ achievement as a proxy for teachers’ performance will not resolve so easily. On another note, the focus on achievement and performance and on the ideal of ‘closing the achievement gap,’ may just be a red herring, which reduces schooling, achievement, performance, etc. to a mere measure on a standardised test.

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

2 Responses to “The Measurement Conundrum!”

  1. Teacher performance is evaluated largely on basis of student performance. And there are many problems with that. I think making any system for such evaluation will have serious issues and will need to be worked on, with the strong feedback loop, for many years….if there is closure on it.
    But to use it for dismissals etc…and so rapidly, seems like a recipe for big mistakes.

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  1. Outcomes based Accountability? | Just questions! - 24/09/2011

    […] by Irfan 0 Comments In some previous posts (See here, here, here, here  and here) Just-questions voiced concerns about standardised testing as a basis […]

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