Jun 3, 2011

StudentsFirst Answers Your Questions

The questions below have consistently come up through the conversation on the StudentsFirst Facebook page. We wanted to answer the questions and look forward to continued discussion of these issues.
FB Community: When evaluating teachers, why does StudentsFirst believe 50 percent of an evaluation should be based on student achievement data?
We believe any good teacher evaluation system will use multiple measures to review educators, including valid student growth data and other factors that demonstrate a command of teaching and learning. Research tells us teachers are the single most important school-based factor in a student's academic achievement. Knowing that, it is critical that we measure the effectiveness of individual teachers when it comes to student learning. We believe the largest single component of a teacher's evaluation should be based on objective measures of academic progress and therefore, we recommend that 50 percent of the evaluation be based on student growth. This reflects the importance of a teacher's ability to move students forward academically. If standardized test data is not available, other methods of measuring student achievement growth should be developed. We also believe other factors should be included in a fair and robust evaluation system such as: principal observations, peer reviews, contributions to the whole school community and student and parent feedback.
FB Community: StudentsFirst talks a lot about evaluating teachers, but what about evaluating administrators?
We believe in the need for effective principals and strong evaluation systems for principals. Like teachers, principals should be evaluated based on clear and consistent criteria from a variety of sources. At least 50 percent of the evaluation should be based on school-wide student achievement growth. Just as teachers should be judged on the ability to move their students along academically, principals should be judged on overall school performance. In addition, principals should be judged on their ability to attract, develop and retain excellent teachers. When reviewing the work of our principals, we must also consider other responsibilities that come with the job. These include managing a school's finances and facilities and welcoming and encouraging parental involvement.
FB Community: What about poverty (Or other external factors)?
A student's family background and socio-economic status too often impacts their school readiness. Achievement gaps between low-income children and their wealthier peers appear early. We applaud the work of organizations that address child poverty and child welfare more broadly. Our focus at StudentsFirst is on impacting the factors we can control once a child walks into a classroom, regardless of where a student started. We believe that any and every child can succeed if given a chance. Schools that have experienced high levels of academic success with all students, including those from low-income homes, set high standards and expectations. They also hire, retain and reward highly effective teachers.
Many of the nation's current education policies negatively impact poor children. For example, when we lay off teachers based solely on seniority, disadvantaged schools often are hardest hit. That's because they tend to have a high percentage of new teachers – the ones who are the first to be forced out. We are working hard to change these last in, first out policies. Instead, we need to identify our most effective teachers and do everything we can, including offering bonuses, to encourage them to teach in disadvantaged schools. By staffing schools with excellent teachers and providing parents with great school options regardless of their zip codes we can work toward closing the achievement gap.
FB Community: What is StudentFirst's position on children with disabilities in the context of standardized testing?
The federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that we include children with disabilities in the accountability systems we've built for our schools. That means we have to measure how children with disabilities are doing academically and compare progress being made across classrooms and across schools. There are times we make exceptions and don’t test students with severe disabilities, but that's not too often. More typically, we make accommodations. These might include offering oral tests instead of written ones or giving the exams in an untimed setting.
Among the biggest proponents for including special needs groups in our school accountability systems were advocates for children with disabilities. Telling them they don't have to bother taking the tests given to typically developing children is akin to saying you can’t measure up, or you aren't worth the effort. That's just about the worst message to send to any child. We must hold all kids, including those with disabilities, to high standards. It's the law, and it's the right thing to do.
FB Community: In this time of fiscal crisis, how will schools be able to afford new initiatives?
We do not advocate new unfunded mandates in education. We do support putting precious resources where they can have the greatest impact. While nationwide spending on public schools has increased dramatically over the last decade, student achievement has remained flat. A big challenge that must be tackled is making sure our money is spent wisely and on programs proven to positively impact student achievement. We know that an effective teacher has a significant impact on student learning. We must invest our limited resources in programs and policies that move toward an effective teacher in every classroom and that includes paying great teachers significantly more. We also believe in paying effective teachers more for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.
FB Community: How are art/PE teachers rated under new evaluation systems?
Every evaluation should quantify student growth. However, there are many subjects and skills that are not tied to statewide tests. In these fields, states, districts and schools need to develop other ways to measure student growth outside of the traditional accountability systems.
FB Community: What, specifically, does SF recommend for increasing parental and community involvement?
StudentsFirst encourages parental and community involvement by spreading awareness about educational issues and helping parents advocate for their children. By raising awareness about laws and policies that impact student achievement, we are trying to provide parents with the tools to speak out and be heard. We are advocating for policies that give parents a variety of educational choices regardless of their income or where they live. We also are working to ensure school districts communicate with parents in a transparent way about the education their kids are receiving. For example, we pushed for a Florida law that mandates parents have to be notified if their children are being taught by teachers with ineffective ratings. We believe well-informed parents will advocate for the kind of reforms that put the needs of students ahead of any others in our schools.
FB Community: Is the fight to end LIFO a way to justify firing more expensive, senior teachers?
StudentsFirst advocates only for policies that are focused on improving student learning. Keeping the most effective teachers in the classroom, regardless of whether they are 20-year veteran teachers or newer teachers, is the best policy for students. When budget shortfalls lead to layoffs, it is wrong to make these decisions based on how long a teacher has worked in a school rather than how well a teacher has done moving students along academically. Research shows when layoffs are made based on seniority, schools let some of their best teachers go. We need to end this harmful practice.

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