There has been a lot of controversy about whether student assessments should be used to evaluate K-12 teachers. The media is full of debate about this topic (e.g., Wall Street Journal) and the Seattle Times has had many editorials pushing for the use of assessments such as MAP to evaluate teachers. And several foundations, supported by rich contributors, like the League of Education Voters and the Gates Foundation, are pushing teacher evaluation through student assessments.
I would like to argue that using student assessments to evaluate teachers not only has issues, but is putting the cart before the horse. First, we need to test teachers in a robust way to evaluate their knowledge of the subjects they are teaching and only allow teachers with strong subject knowledge to teach.
If you are going to put a teacher into a classroom, he or she must have a strong knowledge of the material they are teaching. In fact, a teacher can only be effective if he or she knows that material at a considerably higher level than what is being presented in class. A deep knowledge of a subject allows one to simplify concepts accurately, to understand how the material will fit into the student's future learning.
I know this is true because I put it to the test in every class. When I teach atmospheric sciences 101, I do a far better job because I have a deep knowledge of the subject, allowing me to rephrase the material, correct errors in the textbook, and to provide better answers to insightful student questions. K-12 teachers need to be able to do the same.
Thus, someone teaching elementary school math must completely master at least middle school math, a middle school teacher completely master high school math (algebra through calculus), and a high school teacher must be proficient at college level math (e.g., calculus, linear algebra, differential equations).
Is this the case now? The answer is certainly no for many teachers.. Many elementary school teachers are uncomfortable with even elementary school math, and many don't have facility with middle school math (e.g., working with fractions, easy algebra). Believe me, I have talked to quite a few teachers that have confirmed this and noted this in my kids own teachers. Middle school math teachers are often volunteered for the job and lack the necessary background.
Competency in the material they are teaching is the LEAST we can expect from teachers. Why not ensure this foundational knowledge? Lawyer's have bar exams, certified accounts have exams, engineers have exams, and doctors have medical boards. Even hair stylists have to pass competency tests. Doesn't it make sense we do the same for teachers with whom we trust the future of our children and society?
Yes, Washington State does have a teaching competency exam that all teachers must pass (WEST-B), but that exam is too easy and with too low of a passing level to be effective.
Lack of mastery and deep knowledge of the subjects have impacts on curricula that can be profound and negative. For example, elementary school and middle school teachers who have weak math backgrounds are drawn to "reform" or "fuzzy math" approaches that are light on content and rigor, but heavy on discussion, group work, and "real life" examples. And some of these teachers become curriculum coordinators and "math coaches" in their district, pushing the same weak math books. This is how terrible books like Everyday Math get adopted and used for years, leading to declining student skills and huge rates of remediation in high school and community colleges.
I think it is extraordinary that challenging competency exams in K-12 are generally absent in our country. A lot of the blame for the low priority on subject knowledge needs to be placed with college and university schools of education, including, sadly, my own University of Washington College of Education. Such colleges of education generally downplay subject knowledge while stressing arcane educational theories and social engineering. If you want to prove this to yourself, look at the curricula of some local schools of education or talk to some teachers...and be prepared to be depressed with what you learn.
by Sowder, Sowder, and Nickerson ) that stresses that math instruction "requires far more than simply knowing the “math facts” and a handful of algorithms." When you see a book putting down math facts and algorithms, and stressing the "deep knowledge of mathematics" that is offers, you know you got a problem on your hands. In fact, looking through the book it is clear that few students would gain mastery of elementary school mathematics by reading it. Science competency for UW future elementary school teachers? Don't ask..
Let me be clear---insuring subject matter knowledge is just the first step for insuring a quality teaching experience in every classroom. Teachers also need the right personal skills, empathy, and knowledge of effective teaching approaches, coupled with reasonable size classes and sufficient classroom infrastructure, to insure each student can learn at his/her potential.
Assessing teacher competency by using student performance on standardized tests is problematic and difficult for many reasons, including the variations in student demographics and family background, the tendency to teach to the test, and other reasons. Why not start with a step everyone should be able to agree on? Test teachers to insure they have completely mastered the material they are teaching at a level far beyond the level for which they are giving instruction.
It is just common sense.