Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.

When I first began teaching for Chicago Public Schools in 2004, I was thrilled to get back my first evaluation review: “Excellent”. Despite my many troubles as a first-year teacher, I was given the second-highest rating and told that my only area for improvement was to enhance the look of my bulletin boards.

But I was not alone in my praise. I’d later discover that roughly 99 percent of all CPS teachers earned a Satisfactory rating or better, despite the fact that our schools are failing so many students—with only 60 percent even making it to graduation.

This month, our city saw its first teacher strike in over two decades, with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis going head-to-head in a very public struggle. One of the two roadblocks was a new teacher evaluation system Mayor Emmanuel promoted, which gives testing a bigger role in evaluations than previously. Lewis called the new system “unacceptable”.

The trouble is, the prior system was equally unacceptable.

Chicago Public Schools are failing our students and we need teachers to be leaders in the solution. Our disagreement shouldn’t be over whether or not teachers are held accountable, but over how we do so in a way that is both accurate and encourages teacher growth and development. In the media frenzy, the nuance of teacher evaluation has been largely lost, as the debate has increasingly become one of testing vs. not testing.

The CTU is right that test scores and growth metrics derived from test scores, namely value-added modeling, are not reliable proxies for learning—yet. But they will be. Dedicated work by education leaders to develop and implement the Common Core State Standards and to create assessments aligned to these standards (through Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) are helping us to develop testing that is more accurate and meaningful.

Moreover, researchers are working on value-added modeling to reduce the margin of error. That’s why the CPS proposal chose to slowly increase the weighting of test scores over the next several years. Still, it’s critical that educators and administrators alike acknowledge the current shortfalls of testing, meaning testing should be weighted lightly until we can reduce the margin of error and improve the quality of student assessments.

The CPS proposal includes other key measurement tools, such as observation of teacher practice conducted by trained evaluators according to an established framework. The City of Cincinnati has been at the forefront of this evaluation approach and has proved the accuracy of such evaluations in predicting student achievement. What’s more, in Cincinnati teachers have gained remarkable insights from evaluation by their peers in a more formative approach—though that tactic is lacking from the current CPS plan.

Some would even argue that to gauge student success, we should be asking the students themselves. And they’re right. Thanks to the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, we now have data to demonstrate that student perception surveys can provide valuable and reliable methods for assessing teacher effectiveness. Such surveys are scheduled, under the current CPS plan, to begin full implementation next school year.

The key to any successful measurement approach is to ensure that the methodology accounts for the nuances and complexities of what is being measured. This requires a “Yes, and” approach to measurement that does not attempt to stand on just one leg but seeks to triangulate performance.

And critical to the success of any teacher evaluation system is providing support and growth opportunities to teachers. Telling a first-year teacher his only area for improvement is his bulletin board will not help him grow to meet the challenges of teaching in Chicago and is a disservice to both him as a professional and to the students he teaches.

Teachers need robust feedback and ample support to take on the challenge of educating Chicago’s youth. Our teachers will be key to turning the tide in Chicago schools—let’s take the discussion beyond testing and provide them with the evaluations and support they need.