Raising the floor

How do you build a better teacher?

That’s the question Georgia has spent four years and millions of Race to the Top dollars trying to answer.

The state will put its findings to the test next year with a new evaluation system that will attempt to distinguish the teachers who, as Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck said last week at a panel, “excel in the classroom, and those who survive it.”

Earlier this month, the state Board of Education approved a new grading system for Georgia’s 119,000 teachers and principals designed to provide a more nuanced review of who’s succeeding and who’s faltering in the classroom.

Teacher evaluations have never been precise tools. In Georgia, teachers were rated either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The bar for satisfactory sat low to the floor; 98 percent of teachers met it.

But as U.S. students fell farther behind in international comparisons, policymakers began to pay attention to research on the importance of a qualified teacher to student success. One of the reasons Georgia won a $400 million Race to the Top grant was its pledge to tie teacher evaluations to teacher effectiveness.

“There are no silver bullets in education, but the closest we have is a qualified teacher,” said Dana Rickman, policy and research director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, which sponsored the panel on teacher effectiveness.

Georgia will assess teachers on two weights: How well their students perform on tests — which is known as the value-added model — and classroom observations of the teachers in action.

Both have drawbacks. On April 8, the American Statistical Association issued a cautionary statement on using value-added models to determine whether a teacher is good or bad, noting that most studies find teachers only account for about 1 to 14 percent of the variability in student test scores.

“This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores,” said the association. “The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control, such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum and unmeasured influences.”

(Many teachers would argue that rather than focusing on how to build better teachers, Georgia ought to focus on building better families.)

The reliability of classroom observations depends on the training of the evaluators, typically principals or assistant principals. But those administrators are often busy with crisis management. A fight in the cafeteria or angry parents in the office can throw off an afternoon schedule of observations.

“There are a million things a principal can be doing,” said Susan Andrews, deputy superintendent​ for the state Department of Education. “But they are going to have to be in those classrooms, doing those walk-throughs. Their No. 1 responsibility is the safety of their schools, but the No. 2 responsibility has to be instruction.”

The state’s blueprint for improving teacher quality starts with teacher training, where Georgia is raising the standards for admission to teacher preparation programs and elevating student teaching to a year-long residency. The overall average GPA of students admitted will have to be 3.0, and the lowest cannot dip below 2.5.

In explanation of setting the minimum GPA at a low 2.5, Penny McRoy of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission said, “Selectivity is very, very important. We do want top students going into education. We also, though, want to give credence to what we call disposition — those attitudes and beliefs that can make or break a teacher. We want to give the opportunity for the students who might have lower GPAs but who show that potential and desire and those great attitudes and beliefs to become a wonderful teacher.”

“We are moving toward a much more clinical model for preparing teachers,” said McRoy. “It looks more like the preparation for a career in nursing with earlier field experiences in a student’s freshman year. Those field experiences expand in intensity and complexity as students proceed through their sophomore and junior years.”

The panel said the goal has to be the professionalization of teaching. What educators need to learn, said Lembeck, “is how do we make our profession be proud of itself and something others will be proud of, too.”