June 18th, 2009

Understanding the "Widget Effect"

In order for a school or district to educate its students, it must have effective teachers–this probably sounds like a self-evident, even redundant, conclusion to most ears.

But ever since the New Teacher Project released its study, “The Widget Effect” on teacher effectiveness, questions about how we evaluate our teachers and how to advance the quality of American teachers have preoccupied reporters and columnists. The same questions seem to concern President Obama and his education team, led by Arne Duncan.  Duncan has emphasized and re-emphasized the need to create new, comprehensive systems for teacher evaluation, but there’s a lot standing in his way.The Widget Effect

The New Teacher Project’s study looked at four states–Arizona, Colorado, Illinois and Ohio–and twelve districts. It examined teacher evaluation records in each district, in addition to surveys completed by teachers, principals, state officials and representatives from teacher’s unions.  The title of the study conveys the basic message of its findings:  we can compare teachers to widgets–a term used in economics to refer to a hypothetical “any-product”–because they are as good as interchangeable, subject neither to praise for good work nor criticism for bad. Fewer than one percent of the 40,000 teachers covered by the study had ever received a less than satisfactory rating on an evaluation.

Secretary Duncan wants to give a significant portion of his “Race to the Top” stimulus fund to schools and districts trying to correct and improve their teacher evaluation methods.  Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter notes that it will be difficult for Duncan to hand money out disproportionately because Congress likes money to be “like peanut butter”–spread evenly among its constituents.  Of course, Duncan’s biggest problem is the teacher’s union, for whom tenure and job security aren’t easily compromised on, even in the name of good teaching.  Union representatives tend to think that the success of the student–particularly when success is measured by a test score–can never be an accurate barometer for the teacher’s skill.  And the teacher’s union is famous for its clout; in California its power is such that it was difficult for the state legislature to pass a recent law, making it easier to fire teachers who have committed serious crimes.

If we can’t measure a teacher’s success using his or her students’ test scores, the question of how to evaluate teachers remains frustratingly open.  Secretary Duncan will be looking to schools across the country for an innovative answer.

The Widget Effect Report [The New Teacher Project website]

Truth in Teaching [New York Times]

Peanut Butter Politics [Newsweek]

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