In Our View: Grading Teachers

Just like students, classroom instructors should be required to prove their proficiency

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Only in recent years have legislators and educators started moving effectively toward a long-overdue system of evaluating teachers. Pilot programs are in place in several school districts, with support from the teachers union (the Washington Education Association). Elsewhere, though, teachers typically receive satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings with little to no meaningful path toward improvement.

Teachers themselves — as well as students, parents and taxpayers — deserve a better way of grading performance in the classroom. More momentum in that direction was provided Tuesday when Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed several reforms in K-12 public education, and chief among the changes is a more rigorous — and more motivational — method of grading teachers. Gregoire wants each teacher and principal to be thoroughly evaluated by specially trained supervisors and assigned one of four ratings: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished. Those who receive unsatisfactory ratings in the fall will be placed on probation. “And if they haven’t moved up to the next level by spring,” the governor said in a written statement, “they will no longer be teachers or principals in Washington state.”

Gregoire would go one step further. Teachers or principals placed in the “basic” category would have two years to improve to “proficient” in order to keep their job.

We hope legislators agree with the governor and extend this momentum in the legislative session that begins next month. Teachers, especially, ought to welcome this change. After all, who wants to work among incompetent colleagues who face no ultimatum to improve? To its credit, the teachers union understands this reality, and in a Tuesday statement the WEA said its “members wholeheartedly support the new, rigorous four-tier evaluation system for teachers and principals,” similar to the pilot programs already in place. The WEA said the “biggest problem facing our public schools isn’t bad teachers.” It’s that public education isn’t fully funded by the state. “We need corporate tax reform more than we need even more education reform and dictates from the Legislature.”

But even if the Legislature fully funded education, that investment wouldn’t pay off if administrators aren’t required to identify and remove incompetent teachers. Gregoire’s plan would make sure that those conducting evaluations would be fully qualified to make decisions that could make or break careers. Principals-in-training and administrators-in-training would study and practice conducting evaluations. These tasks would be considered key on-the-job responsibilities.

Other reforms the governor recommends include requiring districts to update policies for teacher and principal assignments, transfers, vacancies and layoffs. Gregoire wants to open an Office of Student Achievement to improve transitions between high school and college or technical training. She would free up valuable time for students and teachers by modifying requirements for “culminating” (senior) projects. Specialized study in several programs such as Running Start would meet the requirement.

Her most powerful recommendation, though, is to strengthen teacher and principal evaluations, make them count for something. Short term, the reward would be better classroom instruction. Long term, as Gregoire noted, “when the recession ends, our businesses will be able to hire Washingtonians ready to compete in the global economy.”