Maine has broken with the status quo of test-centered accountability for teachers.
Beginning with No Child Left Behind, public schools have committed to test-centered accountability, using student results on a single standardized math and reading test to drive assessment of districts, schools and ultimately teachers. For years, the prevailing definition of a good teacher in this country has been one whose students score well on that standardized test.
The problems with this approach are legion. Schools have narrowed their focus and their curriculum to focus on tested subjects. States have developed bizarre assessment systems in which teachers of non-tested subjects might be evaluated based on the test scoresof students they never taught.Nor has any convincing evidence ever emergedthat raising a student's test scores improves her lot later in life. After a generation, the promised improvement in US education that test-centered accountability was supposed to drive simply hasn't arrived; NAEP scores ("the nation's report card")have not budged significantly in all this time, nor have colleges announced that their freshman classes are now the best they've ever seen. Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers has not fixed anything, and it has made things worse in many cases by pushing schools to focus on test taking skills instead of a broad and deep education for all students.
Now Mainehas taken a step awayfrom this with LD 92(to see the full affect, look also at the amendments). The bill removes any requirement to base teacher evaluation on test results. Maybe even more importantly, it requires districts to form a committee to regularly review and revise their evaluation process. This may seem like common sense, but teacher evaluation systems are historically taken out of the box and used without any subsequent discussion of how well they are actually working.
Maine's law also requires that a majority of that committee be teachers. Some critics may argue that giving teachers a voice in teacher oversight is a mistake, but I'd argue that aside from parents and students, nobody has a greater interest in improving a struggling teacher than the other teachers who have to work with her.
Teacher evaluation has never been easy. All good teachers do not look the same, and no good teachers are good for all students. Any system must be flexible and nuanced, but the overwhelming pressure exerted by everyone from overworked principals to bureaucrats who want easily-crunched data is for a system that is a simple cut-and-dried checklist.Madeline HunterandCharlotte Danielson are two big names in teacher instruction models; their work has been debated and argued, but both have been surprised to find it reduced to simple evaluation checklists that have frustrated and angered teachers over the years.
And like all evaluation, teacher evaluation must have a specific purpose. Do you want to find weak teachers and help them get better, or do you want to identify them so you can fire them? Do you want to identify areas of improvement for the entire staff? Do you want to be able to compare teachers within a building, within a system, or within a state? Do you want to identify your exemplary teachers in order to reward them, or in order to enlist them as trainers? Each of these answers changes how the evaluation system is set up, and how teachers will react to it.
All of this means that much of the hard work lies ahead for Maine. That's okay. When challenged on the toxic results and general ineffectiveness of test-centered accountability, testocrats often reply, "Well, then, what do you want to do instead." That's not a legitimate answer. If I collapse on the sidewalk and someone runs up with a chainsaw and yells, "Step aside. I'm going to cut off his legs!" I don't need to have a better treatment to propose in order to know that sidewalk chainsaw amputation should not be happening. Every state should understand that test-centered teacher evaluation is not helpful, actually harmful, and should not be happening. Finding an alternative will not be easy, but getting rid of the toxic, ineffective, test-centered method is a necessary first step. Let the guy with the chainsaw step aside so that a real doctor can get through.