Teacher tenure at issue in improving education

Published: Monday, Dec. 19 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Mary Purzycki, a popular biology teacher at Park City High School, is precisely the kind of person schools hope to recruit. She worked for seven years as a biologist a federally funded research lab at Harvard, Brown and Princeton before making the transition to teaching. While she found fulfillment in her work, it was contingent on grant money, meaning that periods of plentiful work could be followed by months of unemployment. Purzycki found teaching attractive because it was an opportunity to teach kids about something she loved with the added benefit of job stability.

For people like Purzycki, traditionally teaching has had appeal because it has been seen as a stable, long-term career choice. If this benefit is diminished, educators argue, recruiting highly qualified candidates with other professional options may become even more difficult. The average teacher begins with a salary of around $30,000. By contrast, graduates in math and applied science command salaries starting at $60,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mike Kelley, director of communications for the Utah Education Association, worries that increasing the stakes of teacher evaluations and placing more power in the hands of administrators could hurt teachers.

"Sinking teacher morale generally accompanies sinking student achievement," says Susan Black. an education consultant and contributing editor for the American School Board Journal.

Rating effectiveness

The idea that making it easier to fire teachers will improve the quality of instruction rests on the assumption that administrators are capable of measuring teacher effectiveness with accuracy and neutrality.

The newest studies on teacher evaluations suggest the fullest picture of an educator emerges when a variety of data and viewpoints are used. For example, Measures of Effective Teaching, a study published by the Gates Foundation, suggests teacher evaluations should include: student progress reports, classroom observations by experienced teachers and administrators, a teacher's content knowledge, student and parent evaluations of the instructional, and teacher reflections on the work.

"We also need evaluations that recognize where a teacher is in his or career," says Mary McConnell, an education consultant who serves on the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. Learning to be an effective teacher is a "process that takes time," she says, "which means that new teacher evaluations should focus more on mentoring and identifying areas for improvement than on determining continued employment. As teachers gain experience, however, they should be held to a higher standard."

Though on the whole many teachers agree with these recommendations, some are troubled by the idea of using student performance as part of a measure of their effectiveness as a teacher. Studies show that most of the factors that influence student performance — such as socio-economic background and parental involvement — are beyond teachers' control, says A.J Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a teachers' union.

Proponents of using student performance as part of a measure of teacher effectiveness suggest it is possible to assuage these concerns just by using more sophisticated mathematical models. The Gates Foundation recommends using value added models. These models are designed to measure not absolute outcomes, but how much students progress over the course of a year. This means that they do not penalize teachers for their students' baseline performance. Rather, the teacher is judged on how a student improves over the course of the school year.

Whatever measure of effectiveness is settled on, it is imperative that teachers are included in the discussion, says Kelley of the Utah Educators Association.

For his part, Osmond wants to include teachers in the conversation. "We want to incorporate feedback from teachers while staying focused on finding ways to improve the effectiveness and timeliness of the (teacher) evaluations."

Email: mwhite@desnews.com

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