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Grading Teachers, Measuring Success

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

When databases and disenchantment collide, the results can be explosive as the debate over "value-added" grading of teachers showed this week.

The Los Angeles Times provoked a furious reaction from teachers this week when it launched a database of 6,000 elementary school teachers analyzing how they've done measured by standardized tests. The stories prompted debate around the nation on the methods used and at least one piece wondering "When Does Holding Teachers Accountable Go Too Far?"

We'd argue that you can't understand the debate over the database without understanding the disenchantment so many teachers feel over their jobs.

Public Agenda's research, conducted with Learning Point Associates, shows a stunning number of K-12 teachers, some 40 percent, appear to be disheartened and disappointed in their jobs. Only 14 percent rate their principals as "excellent" at supporting them as teachers. Nearly three-quarters cite "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom as a drawback to teaching, and 7 in 10 say that testing is a major drawbacks as well. More than half of these "Disenchanted" teachers (54 percent) work in low-income schools.

By contrast, the 23 percent of teachers who shaped up as "Idealists" and the 37 percent we termed "Contented" were more likely to say their principal was supportive, more likely to say their school was orderly, and more likely to say good teachers can make a difference in student learning. Only 34 percent of the Contented and 45 percent of the Idealists work in low-income schools.

The Teaching for a Living survey can't tell us whether the Disenchanted are bad teachers, or good teachers trapped in bad schools, or whether the Idealists are effective in the classroom or just more cheerful. But the survey does tell us something about what teachers believe their problems are. Regardless of how we try to measure success in the classroom, a better understanding of how teachers feel about their jobs can help explain why some things work and others don't.


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