Putting teachers to test helps students

Bradford Swann is a Macon native, father of one, and state director for StudentsFirst Georgia.

Earlier this month, the Georgia State Board of Education approved the final steps of our state’s new teacher and principal evaluation system and set the stage for a new chapter in Georgia public schools.

While the details of the law have now been finalized and will be put into play when the new school year begins this fall, it’s important to realize how we got here.

Last year, Georgia lawmakers passed this teacher evaluation legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support: 52-0 in the Senate and 151-21 in the House. Lawmakers did it because they recognized the importance of making sure our children are getting the best education we can give them.

Gov. Nathan Deal said at the time, “The most important thing we can do for Georgia’s students is to make certain we place effective teachers in our classrooms with the tools they need to teach.”

I couldn’t agree more. Yet despite the broad support for this law that elevates the teaching profession in our state, a small number of critics still argue against it.

“Just hold their feet to the fire with new evaluations based 50 percent on how students perform, the thinking goes, and teachers will either pull their students up to grade level or be fired. But there’s no guarantee this latest system will be the panacea our education officials keep looking for,” wrote Marietta Daily Journal columnist Don McKee.

In a Gwinnett Daily Post column, writer Rob Jenkins fatalistically argued, “Unfortunately, not only will the new evaluation not improve our state’s educational statistics, it will almost certainly make them worse. … Student performance has less to do with teachers and more to do with zip codes.”

Following logic like that, one must ultimately conclude that teachers don’t make a difference — that it’s not about how hard you work, or how creative and passionate you are, but rather, it’s the lot you’re given that determines your success or failure.

I refuse to accept that premise. I believe in teachers, and I believe in students. I believe that with a great teacher, every child can learn, even with the odds stacked against him.

Our kids are worth the effort.

Studies show robust evaluations improve teacher performance and benefit students. The National Bureau of Economic Research, the MET Project and RAND have issued reports underscoring the value of measuring student performance as a significant part of a teacher’s evaluation.

We’re also seeing great success among schools that implemented robust teacher evaluation systems and other education reforms. Schools in Washington, D.C., and Tennessee, where these policies started taking root a few years ago, are making tremendous strides in student achievement, according to the Nation’s Report Card released late last year. They outpaced the rest of the nation in student performance and show no signs of slowing down.

When done right, evaluations measure everyone by the same yardstick. They allow us to recognize and reward great teachers, give good teachers constructive feedback to help them get even better, and move those teachers out of the system who are holding students back.

Teacher evaluations are not a panacea to all our education woes, but they are an important and necessary step in the right direction.

By passing and implementing teacher and principal evaluations, Gov. Deal, Georgia lawmakers and the state Board of Education continue to demonstrate their commitment to the students and parents of our state. They are moving us forward by supporting great teaching in our schools.