Let’s rank our teachers

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Appeared in The Mark

Any Canadian teachers’ union official or minister of education will tell you that every public school teacher in the country is a highly qualified professional and any public school will provide your children with a good education. That’s pretty much what Mary-Lou Donnelly, president of the union umbrella group the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, said when we debated on CBC’s The Current earlier this week.

Any parent or grandparent, however, will tell you that some of the teachers in their kids’ schools aren’t anywhere near as good as others, while some are downright awful. In reality, the parents and grandparents are probably right.

As co-author of the Fraser Institute’s school rankings over the last thirteen years, I have concluded that one of the many impediments to an improvement in the effectiveness of Canada’s government-run schools is the well-established myth that there is a highly-trained, highly-skilled professional in every one of the country’s classrooms. This myth is repeatedly used by defenders of the education establishment to minimize the necessity for improvement in their schools.

The Los Angeles Times recently published a ranking of roughly 6,000 elementary teachers employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District. This was not a “rate my teacher” kind of subjective evaluation by students or parents. The ranking was based instead on the results of annual, state-wide tests of reading and math skills at the relevant grade levels. The results were carefully analyzed to produce the rankings, and posed a question not often asked within Canada’s education establishment: “How well does a teacher teach in comparison with others in the school district?”

The analysis was conducted under the supervision of Dr. Richard Buddin, a senior economist at Rand Corporation, engaged as an independent contractor by the newspaper. The study used a common statistical procedure to take into account the socio-economic circumstances of the students’ families, as well as several of their personal characteristics, in order to isolate each individual teacher’s effect on her students’ learning over time.

The results of the analysis are very clear: when it comes to advancing the skills and knowledge of their students, some teachers do a better job than others.

As a result of the study, the school district can see which teachers are actually earning their keep, while parents with kids enrolled in LAUSD elementary schools can see if their children’s teachers are capable of doing the job..

Publicly disclosed teacher rankings prove to the public that specific teachers are more skilled than others (a heresy in the eyes of every teachers’ union official I’ve ever spoken to). They are an importance step forward in improving education in government-run schools across Canada.

Providing parents with an objective assessment of individual teacher effectiveness enables them to make more informed decisions when it comes to their children’s education. After all, it is entirely likely that even in a highly-ranked school there will be some poor teachers. Now Los Angeles parents will know which teachers performed poorly. Since at least some parents will fight to keep their kids away from the under-performing teachers, principals will feel increased pressure to re-train them or fire them.

This kind of objective measure of teacher effectiveness can also be used to determine teachers’ salaries. Dr. Buddin’s analysis concludes that a teacher’s length of service and the academic degree she holds — the very things that most teachers’ collective agreements in Canada use to determine a teacher’s rate of pay — have little correlation to teacher effectiveness. As parental pressure to replace low-performing teachers with more effective ones grows, the market for better performing teachers will grow, as would the salaries that they can demand.

Despite all the advantages that teacher rankings may bring, it is unlikely that they will pop up in Canada any time soon.

Regrettably, teachers’ unions have effectively discouraged provincial ministries of education from expanding province-wide testing programs to the extent necessary to enable teacher rankings. Without them, improvement in Canada’s government-run schools won’t get any easier.

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