Linda Darling-Hammond applauded teachers who are struggling with classes of 35, and even 45 students, sometimes without desks or textbooks, while the misplaced focus on teacher evaluation has become a drum beat.

The Stanford professor and education advisor on President Obama’s transition team, said, “There are good ways to build the teaching profession and there are bad ways. So much of the discourse is about getting rid of teachers, when instead we need to be creating policies that support the development of expertise.”

Speaking at the union’s EC/K-12 Conference on February 3, Darling-Hammond said teachers are not the problem. In fact, individual teachers account for only 7 to 10 percent of measured student achievement. Student poverty is one of the largest factors.

Similarly, she debunked the use of valued-added measures for teacher assessment. “We found that who you teach determines the classroom value measure.”

In Houston, where value-added measures are now used to determine dismissals and merit pay, an elementary teacher was dismissed based on value-added scores after she had taught for only three years and been named teacher of the year. Moving a grade level had changed her “worth.” When students arrived in her fourth grade class, value-added scores declined severely because fourth grade is when the school mainstreams English Language Learners.

“If this continues as a way to evaluate teachers,” Darling-Hammond says, “it will be the death knell of public education.”

Pointing to approaches that work, she cited districts where teachers can offer evidence of student learning in their evaluations, in any of the content standards. For example, a teacher might assemble “befores and afters” of a student’s body of work.

“These qualities are embedded in the National Board Standards and the California Standards for the Teaching profession,” she says. “There is evidence that if we use this type of evaluation, learning results are better.”

Darling-Hammond also wants to see the expanded use of mentors who can step in and help teachers. “We need to have a comprehensive system that gives the proper feedback and offers struggling teachers an opportunity to improve, but it has to be based on valid and reliable evidence.”

While she credited AFT locals with bringing Peer Assistance and Review to California, she bemoaned the lack of funding that has hamstrung the statewide program. She cited Poway as a model program and credited the union in San Francisco for successfully negotiating funding for mentor teachers so teachers can get extra help. “These programs allow the system to improve and allow us to make decisions in a way that makes sense.

“You can’t fire your way to Finland,” she asserts. “In Finland,they don’t talk about getting rid of bad teachers; they talk about how they can help their colleagues improve.”

Darling-Hammond would like to see collaboration as part of teacher evaluation. “We have to do what Finland does. They don’t want to build competition; collaboration is what they want.” 

The things that matter for teacher success, Darling-Hammond says, are resources, class size, mentoring, and collaboration. “At the end of the day, there would be multi-faceted evidence about the effectiveness of a teacher. Then we need to integrate these systems, think about it as a whole, so our children can benefit.

“There will be people who continue to bash teaching and we need to embarrass and shame them,” she concluded. “I urge you to stay in the fight even when it is discouraging. Get a voice in this discussion and, whatever you do, stay the course.”

Calling teaching the profession upon which every other profession depends, Darling-Hammond concluded, “We need the union of professionals to step up and say that we care about how our profession will be treated.”

— By Jane Hundertmark, CFT Publications Director