To the Editor:
After reading the Nov. 13 Providence Journal article “98 percent of R.I. teachers rated effective, contradicting many student performance scores,” some people might be tempted to believe that our teacher evaluation system is flawed because so many teachers received high evaluation scores at a time when we are told that many R.I. students are in crisis. While I have my own concerns about the validity and cost-effectiveness of the teacher evaluation system that RIDE has chosen to implement, I do not think that the high percentage of teachers it has deemed “effective” or higher is necessarily incompatible with our student outcomes.
Neither the article nor anyone interviewed within it ever explains which “student performance scores” they are comparing the teacher evaluation scores to, so it is difficult to analyze how the two sets of data might contradict, but I feel that some things should be considered.
In the article, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Tim Duffy, states that, “If everyone here was at 98 percent, Rhode Island would be leading the nation (in student achievement), not Massachusetts.” Massachusetts’ teacher evaluation scores for the 2013-14 cycle were very similar to our own, with only half of 1 percent of Massachusetts teachers being deemed the equivalent of “Ineffective.”
Ignoring for the moment the question of whether or not Massachusetts is “leading the nation” in student achievement (it is doing very well by several measures, particularly 4th grade NAEP test scores, despite having recently chosen to slow down implementation of the Common Core and reject tying teacher licenses to teacher evaluations), there is a problem with Mr. Duffy’s assertion.
We often hear that teachers are the single most influential factor impacting student performance in a school, but careful examination of the studies this statement is extrapolated from reveals some other very important information. For example, in his article “The Mystery of Good Teaching,” Dr. Dan Goldhaber of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington has explained that while teachers account for almost 9 percent of the variation in student achievement, the combination of all in-school factors (including teachers) accounts for only about 21 percent of such variation. Thus, while teachers might be the most important SINGLE in-school factor, they account for less than half of the influence a school has on student achievement. Compare to governor-elect Gina Raimondo, who received the single highest portion of votes in RI’s recent gubernatorial race, but still received less than half of the votes cast.
Furthermore, Goldhaber also reveals that “about 60 percent” of the differences in student test scores are explained by “individual and family background characteristics” – factors that are entirely beyond the control of the school system, let alone its teachers.
If Goldhaber and other researchers are correct, and teacher characteristics account for less than 9 percent of student achievement, it is quite possible for every teacher in a district or state to be of good quality but for overall student achievement in that district or state to be lower than average.
It should be obvious to anyone aware of this data that any apparent discrepancy between teacher evaluation scores and student achievement can most likely be attributed to the approximately 90 percent of factors influencing student achievement that are not their teachers. At the very least, it would seem irresponsible to jump to the conclusion that a perceived discrepancy must naturally be due to the evaluation system producing inflated evaluation scores for teachers.
(Poirier is a teacher in the Pawtucket School System)