Don’t assess with tests

Student test scores should not be included when evaluating teacher preparation programs

Two years ago, the Department of Education attempted to draft regulations to improve teacher preparation programs, but the members of the panel in charge of evaluating the proposed regulations could not reach a consensus on how best to evaluate the programs. According to The Chronicle, the proposal would have required states to assess their teacher preparation programs based on three data points: graduates’ employment outcomes, their students’ test scores and customer satisfaction surveys.

President Obama has now encouraged the Department of Education to proceed with this plan which began two years earlier. Because of the panel’s previous failure to come to a consensus, the department has the freedom to come up with whatever rating criteria it wants to, though it says it will consider the views of the panel members when deciding.

Apparently, nearly two thirds of new teachers report being “underprepared for the realities of the classroom,” so it seems as though an evaluation and improvement of teacher preparation programs is warranted. To assess programs based on their graduates’ employment and satisfaction would be an effective way of identifying weaknesses, but examining new teachers’ students’ test scores would likely not give an accurate picture.

Having a good teacher certainly does make a difference in students’ test scores in many cases, but there are too many students with disadvantages who do not have access to the resources they need in order to earn high marks — and this is not the fault of their teachers. These disadvantages could include poverty, learning disorders, mental health issues or unhealthy home environments. Our public schools should be providing resources to students to help them overcome these challenges, but this is a matter of public funding which is out of individual teachers’ hands, and not impacted by the quality of teacher preparation programs.

Teacher preparation programs can help students with disabilities by including concentrations in special education. But training teachers in special ed only gets us halfway. Many schools do not have the funding to hire special ed teachers, and if the money is not there, the skills of these educators will not be utilized, and the students will suffer from it.

A rating system that depends on students’ test scores also does not account for various factors which might cause students to be apathetic about their education, such as poor upbringing or limited prospects for social mobility. With legal requirements to attend school until a certain age, apathetic students’ test scores could continue to weigh down a teacher’s evaluation, and consequently, in this case, the evaluation of the teacher’s training program.

If there are significant gaps between the skills taught in teacher preparation programs and the skills needed for a teacher to succeed in a modern day classroom, such information should come directly from the teachers themselves, rather than an indirect measurement which cannot be derived solely from an educator’s skill level. President Obama’s goal, according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is “having a great teacher in every single classroom around the nation.” Such a goal is admirable, but we must remember that there are much deeper flaws in our public education system. Improving it will require a multi-faceted approach, and the Department of Education must be careful not to be short-sighted.

Published April 27, 2014 in Opinion

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