What are we measuring when we measure teachers?

The smart-alecky middle schooler was getting A’s in all subjects except history, where he was scoring F’s.  The history teacher asked what the problem was. Brimming with snotty self-confidence, the kid coolly demanded a payoff. Very simple, he said. He knew the teacher’s evaluation depended on his grades. This school had a performance-based pay system, so his test results would affect his teachers’ future pay. The kid was extorting money from all his other teachers to score A’s on tests, so they could get their pay increases.

This was not a New Mexico school district. It was an episode of an undistinguished TV sitcom called “Til Death.” New Mexico does not currently have a performance-based pay system because there is widespread disagreement between the Martinez administration and – so far – a majority of legislators on how to assess performance or even whether it should be done. But, oh boy, did that story hit home!

The show is not produced here. Apparently, New Mexico is not unique in being deeply confused about how to pay teachers.

`           In December the Santa Fe school board approved a resolution titled “Ode to Joy,” proposing to bring back the “love and joy of teaching and learning.” It’s a statement of wishes rather than policy, acknowledging but protesting that Santa Fe is forced to comply with the standard testing and evaluation programs.

A substitute teacher told me recently the worst thing about New Mexico schools is that they are dominated by fear. This teacher sees the system from other teachers’ classrooms, so she has a wide perspective. Teachers are afraid, she said, and that fear is communicated to students.  Love of learning is not, she said.

I hear this theme over and over. I’ve been talking with teachers who poured out their frustrations with a system, which, they say, doesn’t let them teach, forces them to be test administrators, and scares them with a punitive evaluation program.

It’s not as if New Mexico’s education system had a sterling track record. We all know it needs radical improvement just to catch up with the average of the states and that improvement is critical to economic growth. We’ve been hearing this for decades.

Meanwhile, New Mexico and the country have been going through an epidemic – maybe “plague” is a better word – of performance measurement. We want our public institutions to be accountable for delivering the services we assign to them, and performance measurement is the standard way we demand that accountability. The highly controversial teacher evaluation system is currently New Mexico’s most visible manifestation of performance measurement mania.

What gets measured gets done, says the cliché. Problem: What the measurers choose to measure isn’t always the most important thing, or the thing that will lead to meaningful insight.  A friend of mine teaches 12th grade English. He says his evaluation will be based on the test scores of students in 9th,  10th and 11th grades. There is no test for 12th grade. His evaluation depends on students he has never taught. That’s just one of his concerns as he contemplates putting his economic future in jeopardy by retiring early.

Love of learning by itself is not the answer. But it’s an essential component. Before we even consider test results, we have to be concerned with the more basic problem of getting students to show up instead of dropping out. It’s pretty important for them to want to be there.  How do you measure enthusiasm?

A little Asian country called Bhutan has an official index called Gross National Happiness. Though it’s astonishing to most of us, that’s what gets measured in Bhutan. It was instituted by their king in the 1970s.

Perhaps we ask the Public Education Department to study the reports published by the government of Bhutan and then revise the evaluation system accordingly.


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