SFNY's Micah Lasher: Teacher Evaluations Help Our Kids

Charter school leader Deborah Kenny’s op-ed in today’s The New York Times argues against the move by many states toward teacher evaluations based on multiple measures, including both student progress on achievement tests and the reviews of principals. She criticizes the evaluation systems, in essence, for being too rigid for a profession as complex as teaching.

Her concerns are not without merit. However, Dr. Kenny’s charter schools – by dint of their legal status – already have the full power to hire and fire teachers at will. This, of course, obviates the need for the kind of formal teacher evaluations that our traditional public schools, which serve the vast majority of our kids, so desperately need.

Attacking new teacher evaluation systems that are, for the first time, enabling district public schools to make decisions based on teacher quality, does violence to the cause of improving the quality of education for the overwhelming majority of students who don’t attend charter schools.

Let me stipulate a few things. First, I wholeheartedly support the kind of quality education that Dr. Kenny’s schools provide to their students. She and I would agree that all students should have such an option, and that we should get rid of the statutory and political obstacles that restrict school choice. We’d also agree that the kind of freedom her schools enjoy, to make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of students, should be expanded to all district schools.

But that’s not on the table right now. In traditional public schools, teachers unions have spent years successfully building a political consensus in opposition to giving principals that kind of power – which is why reform-minded policymakers, who deal in the art of the possible, have enacted complex and, yes, imperfect systems for evaluating teachers. These systems, nonetheless, mark a watershed moment in education policy: for the first time, teacher quality will matter in staffing decisions. This is an unqualified step in the right direction.

Dr. Kenny’s argument boils down to this: until all principals have full authority to remove ineffective educators based on pedagogical judgments, the longstanding status quo – in which teacher quality has no role whatsoever in decision-making – should persist.

What then, for the more than 90% of New York’s students who don’t have seats in a charter school like the ones run by Dr. Kenny?

Ironically, this is the same argument made by the defenders of the status quo: until we have a perfect measure, there should be no measuring. (Which, as a practical matter, would have the effect of slowing down the development of that elusive “perfect” measure.)

When those who don’t actually want accountability make this argument, it’s disingenuous. Coming from someone who does, it’s unhelpful – and by undermining an increasing focus on teacher quality in public education, it’s destructive.

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