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Grading teachers for quality

Remember bringing home a report card from school and having to explain an ''undeserved'' low grade? Students are still doing it.

But they're not alone. Rightly or wrongly, more and more teachers, too, are receiving low grades for classroom performance.

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Declines in standardized test scores; students graduating with minimal reading and math skills; a perception by the public of a laxness in dress and discipline codes; declining enrollments; even a tax-saving back-to-basics movement that brings every dollar under closer scrutiny - all have contributed to renewed scrutiny of teacher performance all over the nation.

Like the stirring of some ocean tide, politicians, educators, and parents are asking just how the person at the front of the class is being judged.

One way they are doing it is to have the test-givers become the test-takers. The argument goes: If minimum competency testing is required for students (and it is in more than 40 states), why not for teachers?

At present 17 states require some form of testing on teacher competence, most of them in the South. At least a dozen others are considering it.

California state Rep. Gary Hart (D) says in defense of testing for teachers that ''a minimum competency test for teachers is not a panacea. Just because you are literate and have computational skills does not guarantee you'll be a good teacher. But you know they won't be a good teacher if they don't have these skills.''

Recently a version of a teacher-testing bill he sponsored became state law. Reached by phone, he explained, ''We have a very decentralized system here. Over 70 institutions are licensed to give teacher certification courses. Teacher testing will protect against anyone just paying the freight for a license without some abilities.''

While testing teachers is fairly new (and decidedly controversial), local school districts have for years been doing in-class observation by principals and department heads.

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Primarily geared for new or nontenured teachers, it is a traditional method of assessing whether one has or has not made the grade. A shift in emphasis is emerging as to the purpose of such testing. In many districts it is less likely to be a ''report card'' session with fault-finding.

Principals and administrators are advised to ''make certain each teacher knows that the major purpose of the observation is to support and assist the teacher as a means of improving instruction; a looking-with instead of a looking-for approach,'' says Paul Hersey, director of professional assistance at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

But it is an area where administrators do look for any weaknesses in a new teacher. This is where they can clearly spell out needed improvements before a contract is renewed.

Lou Gappmayer, principal of Bozeman (Mont.) Senior High School, explains: ''For every one teacher I have to let go because they just aren't qualified, I counsel two out of the profession. A good administrator will not observe teachers to build a 'book' on them. I have to know for sure if they can make the grade before tenure is granted.''

The tenure issue raises a point much more complex than is generally understood by those outside the field.

Tenure does not mean a job for life regardless of performance, as is sometimes believed. It does not protect against dismissal for gross negligence or a reduction in force due to declining student enrollment.

And generally there is minimal recourse for nontenured teachers to get rehired. The Supreme Court has held (Roth v. Sinderman) that under normal conditions nontenured teachers lack a property right in their jobs and are therefore not afforded the protection of the 14th Amendment when their contracts aren't renewed.What protection they have results from state legislation or collective-bargaining agreements.

Tenured teachers, however, have a property interest in their jobs. They are thus afforded the protection of the 14th Amendment and of federal courts. Generally, tenured teachers may be dismissed only with clearly documented cause. Because standards for due process are imposed by federal courts, there is more uniformity across school districts in the handling of cases of tenured teachers.School boards seek to control teacher performance by having administrators tighten syllabus and curriculum guidelines. Paul Jennings, assistant superintendent of schools in Princeton, N.J., cautions against using this approach too rigidly. ''If the teachers aren't behind what is to be taught, I would ask for another way to arrive at a professional consensus on the courses to be taught. In-service workshops are a vehicle to improve learning by helping teachers. We have used them to build this consensus.Writing for the Ford Foundation, Harold Howe II, a former US commissioner of education, states, ''For the next 10 years in-service training will be more important than preservice training, because a very high proportion - probably close to 70 percent - of the teachers in today's classroom will still be there 10 years from now.'' From talks I've had with teacher groups, principals, and professors at schools of education, one thing is clear. The emphasis many districts are placing on in-service programs to improve teacher skills reflects a widespread consensus. There is a realization that whatever is needed to improve the competence will have to be designed primarily by teachers, not administrators. The peer-review process grows out of this trend. The state of Utah has trained more than 100 teacher-evaluators to work with new teachers having difficulties. Peer review is based on two premises: (1) that every effort be made to help a teacher whose competence is in question; and (2) that fellow teachers are often the ones best able to offer constructive help.The some 4,000 to 5,000 teacher centers run and staffed by teachers who want to improve their professional skills nationwide testify to this direction. They are as varied as the national educational map.''More money isn't needed for staff development,'' says Dr. Maureen Larkin, a curriculum specialist in the Milwaukee public schools. ''You can meet the needs of students by helping teachers where they actually have problems with students. Provide for teachers what they want to know about how to teach.'' She suggests getting the sort of help a law firm gives when it comes to terms with a new development in the law. A professional approach would be to find out who is most knowledgeable and successful on the new subject, get them in and talk about it, check the available literature, and then put it to work in the ''client's'' own setting. ''This is what teachers need and what administrators can help them with,'' she says.Finally, teachers are always taking professional courses to advance their careers and improve their teaching. More money is spent for teachers to take courses in graduate schools of education than on any other kind of staff development, the Ford Foundation reports. Add to this the number of college courses in non-education courses that teachers take to advance on their pay ladder, for professional interest, or just to learn something new, and estimates run as high as 40 percent of a school's faculty engaged in course work in any given year. ''Many of my students are teachers,'' says Gil Slonim, president of the Oceanic Education Foundation in Falls Church, Va., about his course in global oceanic education at the University of Virginia. ''They sign up because they have a real desire to extend the scope of their own teaching. And the global nature of the seas seems to meet their need. ''At the outset, they don't really know what they are going to get out of the course to hang in their classrooms. But you should see the lesson plans I receive from some teachers after the course is over.''Just how schools evaluate the worth of these courses in improving learning by students is an open question. The challenge seems to be to walk a fine line between having them upgrade classroom performance and yet not limit them to observable behavior in the classroom.

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