Secretary Arne Duncan Speaks at NEA Conference, Invites Comments About Test Scores and Teacher Evaluations

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the NEA's annual convention in San Diego.

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at the NEA's annual convention in San Diego.

Secretary Arne Duncan spoke today about educator effectiveness at the annual NEA conference.  He discussed, among other things, the important link between student achievement and teacher effectiveness.  He said:

“Let’s talk about data.  I understand that word can make people nervous but I see data first and foremost as a barometer.  It tells us what is happening.  Used properly, it can help teachers better understand the needs of their students.  Too often, teachers don’t have good data to inform instruction and help raise student achievement.

“Data can also help identify and support teachers who are struggling.  And it can help evaluate them.  The problem is that some states prohibit linking student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

“I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam.  Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions.  That would never make sense.  But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.

See his full remarks.  Tell us what you think:

Should students’ test scores be considered when evaluating teachers?

ED Staff


  1. Teacher salaries should not be tied to student test scores. Teachers and schools do much more than can be reflected by tests.

  2. Student test scores cannot be used accurately to evaluate teachers. The influence of teachers on student achievement is profound, but it is far from absolute. Education is a human endeavor, not a mechanistic process in which every outcome has an undisputed cause.

    Variables over which teachers have no control affect student performance with alarming frequency. Divorce, violence, addiction, job loss, and foreclosure touch families in every American classroom, yet no formula for academic accountability considers these issues. Students preoccupied with intense, personal distractions concentrate less, learn less, and remember less than their peers, even when taught by the best instructors.

    Public teaching is the only profession in America from which perfect outcomes are demanded, under circumstances over which perfect control cannot be exercised. It is widely accepted that even doctors — the most brilliant caregivers of our society — cannot willfully control every aspect of health in their patients. Why, then, is this asked of teachers?

  3. Test scores should be taken into account when evaluating teachers. I’m an inner-city teacher in South Los Angeles. These children are being cheated out of an education because the schools are hamstringed by the union that protects bad teachers. For some mystical reason, UTLA thinks every person that is a teacher deserves the right to remain as a teacher even though they cannot do the job. I worked in the hospitality business for 1o years before becoming a teacher. Corporate America does not accept subpar performance – why should the school districts? Looking at data is part of the answer. This means looking at how individual teachers and their students perform, along with classroom observations.

  4. “Student performance needs to be linked to teacher evaluation — what is the teacher there for if not to influence student performance — but standardized testing is not even close to being a good measure of performance. It takes a lot more work to judge on the basis of portfolios, but we are going to have to bite the bullet and devise a fair and workable system of doing so. We’re also going to have to let go of the notion that everybody should know the same things. There’s too much information, and information is so easily looked up that we don’t need to keep most of it in our heads. We should be assuring that students can retrieve the knowledge they need for their own unique purposes, and can think an act creatively. It’s time to stop educating drones for industry and start educating entrepreneurs, artists, and independent thinkers.”

    Unworkable, especially for special education teachers. Many other factors are tied in to student performance, and students’ home lives are far more important in this than anything a teacher does. Many students are from transient families and don’t even have enough stability in the first place. Teachers can’t control what is outside the classroom. I am sick and tired of people who pontificate about things they know little or nothing about.

    Besides, the administrators are the real problem in public education, and unless people understand there are mentally unstable and crooked people running too many schools, no reform can even be possible.

  5. A far better source of data would be to observe classrooms for evidence that children are being encouraged to engage in play. The following link provides numerous reasons for including play in the classroom. Play is essential for healthy mental, social, and emotional development.

    An Interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, MD
    Dr. Stuart Brown

    Dr. Stuart Brown is the co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the
    Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

  6. The Federal Goverment is notorious for coming up with programs and then dumping these programs on the states with out payimg for these programs.Lets just cut more teachers to keep the school open 24 hours. We want to lower class sizes? Well wonderful, then stop cutting teachers. If This goverment wants to save teachers, then why was I laid off? Where is the stimulus money for me to keep my job? All my district has done is purchase 800.00 desks for the principlals of my district. Why has Industrial Arts not been mandated in our schools? Every little subject has been mandated,except for Vocatioal ED. If you think that every child is going to go on to college,lets not be stupid, lets not be fools. If Arne fired teachers in Chicago, then someone is missing the boat. Has anyone heard the saying, I can bring a horse to water but I can’t make them drink? This is the same for humans! Just because a student doeasn’t want learn doesn’t mean it is the teachers fault. You politions need to wake up. If you want result from our kids then start going after the parents. If parents lost 50.00 for every F their children crancked out. If this money was lost through taxes or services then you watch how fast kid’s grades improve. we need to stop this hammering of the teachers because students do poorly. we also need to a better job screening our administrators and school board members that get elected because they have a grip with our schools. I see alot of politions talking of the same thing, but we refuse to solve the problems of education. Get on the parents who have 12 kids that run free and have kids that have nothing to give to society but crime.

  7. Keep in mind that most states do not require voucher/charter/private schools to take standardized tests. IF they do, they do not have to report them. So when we’re talking about accountability, remember that Secretary Duncan. You would be wise to read the wonderful comments here Mr. Duncan, and President Obama, and if you think you’ll get “merit pay” without a fight, think again.

  8. Student performance needs to be linked to teacher evaluation — what is the teacher there for if not to influence student performance — but standardized testing is not even close to being a good measure of performance. It takes a lot more work to judge on the basis of portfolios, but we are going to have to bite the bullet and devise a fair and workable system of doing so. We’re also going to have to let go of the notion that everybody should know the same things. There’s too much information, and information is so easily looked up that we don’t need to keep most of it in our heads. We should be assuring that students can retrieve the knowledge they need for their own unique purposes, and can think an act creatively. It’s time to stop educating drones for industry and start educating entrepreneurs, artists, and independent thinkers.

  9. Stanford scholar Larry Cuban once suggested that nothing will ever be accomplished in education without the cooperation of teachers. He was right. Teachers make almost 100% of the decisions regarding their students. If they don’t like the dictates coming from above, they are very adept at finding 1001 ways to be creatively noncompliant. This is not “good” or “bad”; it just “is.”

    So please do your best to include teachers. We believe in testing, but we want it to be fair. We want only excellent teachers in the classrooms, but we want to have a part in deciding who these people are. The job is much too political to leave hiring and firing to one person.

    One day while I was opening the door to my classroom at 7:00 in the morning, I thought to myself: “This job is like being self-employed, only without the overhead.” As long as teachers are alone with their students, they will continue to make almost all the decisions. So if you want to improve education, these professionals must be included. Good luck.

  10. I’m a performing arts teacher. There are no tests for what I teach and if there were then tests would not accurately measure my students creativity and growth. Why am I and teachers like me being pushed out of the curriculum?

  11. I hope that the Obama administrators are listening to the thoughts posted here.

    I taught for 15 years, am a parent of two, and am now an administrator. I believe a few things are needed for any educational initiatives at the federal level to make real change for education:

    1. Large numbers of educators (mostly teachers) need to be part of the dialogue. No more single “token” teachers on large committees of “other folks.” It is like forming committees of pharmaceutical company members, business people, tax revolt groups, policy makers, and politicians and including only one doctor to discuss medical issues. Publishers, researchers, and policy makers should listen to experienced classroom teachers. That is the beginning of respect, a missing ingredient for educators in this country. Respect for educators is the one constant in high performing countries, but we in the USA do not seem to hear that message (or sometimes we make commercials and annual awards that say we respect teachers, but we do not walk the talk as a society–beginning with teacher inclusion in decision making).

    2. Money needs to be directed at site-level professional development that is teacher designed and directed. Teachers say what they will focus upon (in terms of student learning), how best to improve it, and how improvement will be measured. Administrators help teachers with the measurement and give feedback on observed progress. Teachers look at their predetermined measurements (student work, tests, whatever teachers deem “real” and valuable for feedback) and make changes accordingly. If you want merit pay–tie it to that and make it “group merit pay” so teachers receive pay for the extra hours that such professionalism requires.

    3. We need to change the perception that one of the roles of schools is to provide baby sitting. When teachers need time to dialogue and plan, it should be put before child-supervision in terms of education budgets. To do this, our society will need to separate child care issues and parent-convenience issues from educational issues.

    4. Testing and textbook companies should have less power and say. They can be given a seat or two at the table–they should not BE the table.

  12. First of all i won’t to talk about all subjects. The main problem in high school is the math. Only test’s score may be used for math to evaluate students and teachers.The computerizing tests are the brilliant idea. But i don’t listen more about this idea. Fair tests and fair results are keys to good teaching and good education. Who is a good teacher in math? I suppose if the 80% of his or her students pass entrance tests in colleges it means that this teacher is excellent.We can consider results of three years or more, we can compare results with the similar teachers using statistics and significance level and so on. We need to use student’s opinion as one of many factors in high school.

  13. I taught for several years, but left because of the ridiculousness of it all. In college we are bombarded with the phrase “every child learns differently”. We study multiple intelligences and differentiate learning styles. Then teachers throw it all out the window and teach all kids the same- to pass the test.

    I have seen the test from both sides- as a teacher and a test scorer. After I left the classroom I spent a brief time working as a scorer for a state’s high school exit exam. I scored the two long essay questions. It was a real eye-opener. It was obvious which kids were over-achievers, because the essays contained long drawn out arguments and all the key words for maximum points. Some kids drew pictures, and they had a special score for that. Some kids answered the questions with one or two words, and if they were the right words, they got points. I scored several essays in a row that had identically worded essays. Upon checking previous responses I found that every answer was the same. When I took the essays to the supervisor to report cheating, I was told “Sometimes the teachers write the answers on the board. Don’t worry about it.”

  14. Please understand that teacher quality is not determined by testing. Nations that lead the world in education are not forcused on test results. Finland is among them.

    The teacher quality folks in Washington believe that no exceptions or changes in standards are required even though they acknowledge that some exceptional teachers cannot demonstrate content mastery.

    Being the best in education is not simply residing in the upper tier of percentiles. It is about applying general knowledge and specific knowledge to original thought. This is not achieved simply with computer files, interactives and answers on a wall to drive academic results.

    The best and brightest come in a multitude of packages. Think tanks, scholars and reasoned citizens should not be quick to judge real knowledge by a narrow criteria.

    Don’t forget, that while we have some fine people who’s scores are exceptional, history has shown that low scorers also leave great legacies and marks on human civilization. Those in academia should be the first to appreciate that fact.

  15. There is no mystery in schools and school districts about who is talented and who is not. Site administrators that are quality do not need test scores to tell them someone has what it takes or does not.

    Step one : get rid of poor administrators…districts should not be beat up for getting rid of bad admins. Then we’re left with good admins who can follow process of getting rid of poor quality teachers. Right now, that process is very time consuming and unions are sadly, very protective of even the worst teachers. As a teacher, I was always amazed that some of the worst teachers were also the biggest union supporters, even the union leadership!!
    Step two: make the process of terminating poor teachers easier. Most principals don’t want to hassle with the years of paperwork currently required or the public/union backlash. Admins do have to do a better job of saying no to weak teachers during the probationary years.

    But please, forget merit pay. Just increase funding for public schools (get rid of poor performing charter schools that drain funds from local public schools- yes, they do in California). Feds could even earmark $$ for teacher/ admin salary. But forget merit pay. Bad idea.We already know who doesn’t deserve it.

    I hope Mr. Duncan chooses to listen as Obama promised all those who voted for him that he would.

  16. “Standardized testing must be factored into Teachers evaluation.

    The data should not be judged over a semester or single year but on an anual bases over 3 or more years. If a teacher’s students consistently score below there peers there is a problem.

    It defies all logic to think that testing can not assist in evaluating teachers. It is clearly one of many indicators that need to be included. Why are the Unions and teachers so afraid fearful of it’s inclusion.”–You have no understanding of the reality public school districts are POLITICAL institutions. They are ostensibly about the kids, but in reality they are not. They are plagued with the same problems other governmental entities have, which at bottom has to do with the total lack of accountability.

    When I mention “accountability,” I am not referring to testing or academics; I am referring to unethical and downright criminal behavior done by administrators, including many principals, who are not answerable to anybody. You, Bob, have no idea how easy it is for administrators who you think are infallible to easily destroy teachers’ careers. Most terminations have nothing to do with “incompetence” or danger to students; they are political in tone, whether it is to silence a whistle-blower, get rid of somebody a neurotic principal doesn’t get along with, or just a way to save money on pensions and health care costs while committing age discrimination. These things are rampant, and until the rot infesting school administrations is recognized, let alone dealt with, reform will never happen in schools. But Arne and people like Gates and Broad aren’t interested in reforming the abusers in charge; those are exactly the people they want running and ruining the schools.

  17. In my current position as a full-time gifted communication arts 6th grade instructor, I would love merit pay! Why? Because my current salary is $42,260.00, and over the past 5 years, my students consistently test in the 96 to 99 percentile range on our state’s yearly test. Districts are constantly calling our coordinator asking what we are doing for our students to consistently score that high.

    Just gather a group of children with IQ’s over 125 together in a classroom and watch them soar, but as we who have spent our professional lives in the classroom all know, it’s what walks through our doors that we are charged to teach…

    What is that old saying? You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

  18. Are you “listening” yet, Secretary Duncan?

    If you are, you’ll notice that there is an overwhelmingly negative response to your suggestion about merit pay, with plenty of substantive reasons to back it up.

    Does the Obama administration really listen, and allow what is heard to inform policy, or is this all about appearances, and is your mind already made up?

    Time will tell.

  19. I LOVE that book, Lynne! You are both right on, Marie and Carlos! So much thoughtful, authentic dialogue going on here; I love my fellow teachers! Arne, are you listening? You need to. The future of our country hangs in the balance.

  20. There is no evidence that this kind of program works to improve student learning or teacher effectiveness.

    Why, then, is it being promoted by the Department of Education?

    It seems that an educated person could look at the facts and see that the proposal has already failed. To continue to push it is, at best, foolish, and at worse, potentially harmful.

    Further, pay for scores ignores the fact that scores aren’t the best measure of student learning and by focusing on this weaker measure the whole effort puts attention on what should be minimized and diverts attention from better measures of learning such as performance exhibitions, portfolios and learning records.

    All of this can be placed along side the fact that the teacher is only one of many factors affecting student performance.

    Teacher pay should be based on what professionals in other fields make based on comparable training and job requirements. On that basis alone a responsible approach would be to call for increasing teacher salaries across the board.

    If Duncan were to lead real reform he would be advocating for this approach, one that has never been pushed on the national level. In addition he would be challenging policy makers to find sources of revenue to upgrade teacher pay across the board.

    Once teacher salaries are raised to levels of other comparable professionals, only then might you consider proposals for differentiation. However, you would need to include in your decision making the fact that merit pay in practice subverts intrinsic motivation and undermines staff cooperation.

  21. It seems to me that linking pay to test scores assumes at least two things:
    (1) That test scores are true measures of student learning, and
    (2) That by linking pay to scores society is effectively holding teachers accountable for student learning.

    For anyone who believes a test can give us a worthwhile window into student learning, I would simply suggest taking the actual test. Then ask a group of students, parents and teachers what they think that test is assessing, and what is left out.

    I also wonder if proponents of test score-based merit pay have fully considered the undesirable incentives that such a scheme would set up. I’ve taught for 20 years in a wonderfully-diverse urban high school. By choice, I teach the neediest students. If I wanted to maximize my students’ test scores, I would choose a very different schedule – and a very different school. If I wanted to maximize my students’ test score improvement, I would narrow my curriculum and teach to the test. Are these really the incentives we wish to create?

    One last detail: in my state, there are many, many students who do not take a standardized test of any sort, creating a nightmare of disparities. For example, an 11th grade English teacher would be accountable for the scores of a different group than, say, an 11th grade Algebra II teacher, who would only have those students who have successful in math and so continued taking it. And what to do about fine arts teachers, whose students are (thankfully) not tested by the state?

  22. Before there is any more talk of merit pay–which, by its very nature could never be equitable, we need to address the NCLB culture which has caused ever-less prepared teachers to come out of universities through no fault of their own. First, they have had inadequate training in high school because of what the tests don’t require,then they often are taught by adjunct professors who are not nearly as well versed in their areas as the professors who used to be full time, full professors and finally it is nearly impossible to get high quality student-teaching experiences as schools do not want to risk test scores going down due to practicing novice teachers. It needs to be a positive collegial atmosphere with lofty goals not short-sighted flawed tests as goals before any talk of merit pay continues–and i will argue to the death that it could NEVER be even close to fair and equitable–WAY TOO MANY VARIABLES..please read PUNISHED BY REWARDS by Alfie Kohn

  23. I have just retired after teaching since 1978. I don’t think a student’s test scores should be tied to a teacher’s work. Many classrooms are made up of a range of abilities because of language barriers, social and economic barriers as well. Some of the test questions would only be understood by a middle class student. Poor children don’t have those experiences to draw from and your most qaulified teachers should be working with our most at risk. Rewarding teachers who teach in upper socio economic areas to mono -lingual children (all English speakers since birth) pits the teacher who is in the “trenches” doing her/his best to teach basic skills. Charter schools do weed out those whose behavior and abilities don’t match what they want in their campuse and public schools continue to try to do their best with limited support.
    I challenge a congressman to spend at least two weeks in a public school in a disadvantaged neighborhood and then decide if teachers need to be rewarded or punished for test scores.

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