Not so fast

Published 11:15 am Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Daily Herald editorial

Before Minnesota lawmakers finishes their rush to replace teacher tenure with a so-called merit-based evaluation system, they ought to step back and ask whether all the pieces are in place to make a new system work. We fear that those foundational pieces are from ready.

Ever since No Child Left Behind and other student performance measurements became the norm, there has been an accompanying cry for schools to retain teachers based on their skill rather than on how long they have held their jobs. On the face of things, it seems simple to say that schools which must make layoffs should choose from the best teachers, rather than from the least senior. The trouble is that no one — not in Minnesota, not anywhere — has devised a means for determining how to rank teachers’ skills. Student achievement test are not a valid measure, because a host of factors that are outside teachers’ control affects achievement. Kids who live in poverty will generally not perform as well on standardized tests, or learn as quickly, as do children from more affluent families, to name just one common element. The luck of the draw could, in many ways, determine how well teachers appear to perform and, thus, their employability.

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Nor is there any underlying incentive for schools to rank teacher skill higher than teacher cost when making layoff decisions. As with skill evaluations, no system has ever been devised to accurately measure and reward school districts based on the quality of education they deliver. Rather, devotion to quality is mostly dependent on the internal dedication of a school’s administrators and teachers, meaning that the virtue of quality will always be pitted against the implacable adversary of cost control. Sometimes, cost control will win out, which would tend to put experienced (and thus higher-paid) teachers at risk.

Clearly, trying to graft a new system of teacher evaluations onto the existing structure of public education is going to be full of problems — problems which we see little evidence Minnesota government is yet capable of solving. Keeping and rewarding teachers based on merit is a great idea; it’s not clear that it’ time has yet come.