Beaufort County school officials' reluctance to join a pilot state teacher evaluation program is understandable. Uncertainty about change can be unsettling, particularly when pay and potentially jobs are on the line.
But the train has pulled out of the station on including students' standardized test performance as part of a teacher's evaluation. South Carolina has received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education on requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act. To get that waiver, state officials had to agree to performance-based evaluations that included "student growth." The federal department has approved the state's plan.
Under the plan, most teachers would be evaluated in these three areas:
How best to evaluate teachers is up for debate across the country. Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote on the topic last week in a column for The Washington Post. Gates warns that even in areas where test assessments have been validated, test results don't tell a teacher where he or she needs to improve.
"What the country needs," he writes, "are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results. ... While there is justification for rewarding teachers based in part on how their students perform, compensation systems should use multiple measures, including classroom observation. In top-performing education systems in other parts of the world, such as Singapore and Shanghai, accomplished teachers earn more by taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching and mentoring other teachers and helping to capture and spread effective teaching techniques. Such systems are a way to attract, retain and reward the best teachers; make great use of their skills; and honor the collaborative nature of work in schools."
Here in Beaufort County, we've seen how a system along those lines can work. Fifteen of the district's schools are participating in the Teacher Advancement Program that includes bonuses for teachers based on students' scores on the Palmetto Achievement State Standards exams.
The program uses teacher collaboration and mentoring, regular teacher evaluations and continuing teacher education.
Teachers should not have to guess about what works and what doesn't nor wait years to gain experience that might be found in the next classroom.
State and local district officials say the program is working well here, and it is reflected in student performance. In 2012, the school board voted to move toward a merit pay system in two years.
As for the state evaluation plan, local officials could wait until the pilot program is completed, or they could join the next phase, when the state plans to add from eight to 25 schools to the pilot program. But evaluations that include student performance are coming unless South Carolina wants to go back to the all-or-nothing approach of No Child Left Behind. That would be a step backward and would serve neither students nor teachers.