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McClellan: Arizona needs an objective way to weed out bad teachers

Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.

Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2012 9:35 am | Updated: 2:07 pm, Sat Sep 15, 2012.

Chicago’s recent teacher strike was -- for an old teacher like me -- depressing. Depressing because the kids went without school while their teachers complained about many things.

Among the most contentious? The proposed evaluation system, one that comes close to the new teacher evaluation system here in Arizona.

Here’s the system that provoked the strike, the one now instituted in Arizona: Much of a teacher’s evaluation is to be based on students’ scores on standardized tests.

Here in Arizona, those tests are the AIMS tests.

Now, I’m all for accountability; too often in my 36 years in the classroom, I saw colleagues who were -- to be blunt -- just awful. As department chair, I urged principals to fire those incompetent teachers in my department. That never happened, to the detriment of their students and colleagues.

So a system that can evaluate the ability of teachers in an objective manner is one that, potentially anyway, can weed out the bad ones.

But I’m afraid of how this new system is rolled out.

As is, teachers will be judged on their kids’ AIMS performance -- except for those teachers for whom AIMS doesn’t apply. So let’s pretend, for sake of argument, that those teachers don’t exist.

Let’s deal with the teachers whose kids do take the AIMS test each year, the elementary teachers and the secondary English and math teachers.

Each spring, those teachers’ kids take the AIMS tests. But do those scores reveal the ability of teachers?

I don’t think so. Here’s why: As is, we have no pre-test for those classes or grades. So how can we determine if those kids actually improved over the year with their teachers?

Right now, they will compare AIMS scores from year to year, but that’s not really fair. Kids, as we all know, tend to regress over the summer between grades. So to compare the score of a kid in April to how he performs a year later ignores that summer dropoff.

And what about attendance? Is it fair to judge teachers on varying degrees of attendance? That is, some teachers will have classes whose kids have many absences. Others will have classes with sterling attendance. How can we judge the difference between those two?

It can be done. But it has to be done carefully. And I wonder if it is, or if the politicians running the education show right now have their own ideological agendas driving their policies.

If we want to judge teachers on their students’ performance, we have to make two changes.

We have to create a standardized test to be given at the beginning of the year, so that we can compare how the kids do on that test with how they do at the end of the year.

And we have to take into account attendance. That is, teachers should be judged only on those students who attend school consistently. I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what “consistently” means. But kids with poor attendance records clearly do not reflect their teachers’ ability.

Teachers I know welcome increased accountability -- if that is done fairly. Given that too often those in charge at the state level have little if any actual experience in the classroom, however, I’m afraid the new system will be ham-handed and unreflective of what teachers do in their classrooms.

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