In yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press (and appearing at mlive.com on Monday), Monica Scott reports on the tenure reform bill signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year and set to take effect in the 2013-2014 school year:

Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a tenure reform bill that completely overhauled teacher performance evaluations, tying teachers’ grades to student achievement. But teachers and union leaders locally and across the state have said they think it’s unfair to be held accountable for the performance of students who don’t show up to class.

In response, the Grand Rapids school board policy committee discussed enacting an attendance policy comparable to other districts in the county. Scott notes that, according to Ron Gorman, executive director of high schools for Grand Rapids schools, “school districts around Kent County include a set number of absences students cannot exceed, but Grand Rapids does not include a specific number, rather the district has procedures for addressing absences.” Instead, the “committee discussed a policy that states students can only have a total of 12 absences per semester and if students are 15 or more minutes tardy for class, it would be viewed as an absence.”

As a graduate of a Kent county district that had a comparable attendance policy, I was a little surprised to learn that GR Public did not. This is certainly an improvement. Indeed, with their new policy, it sounds like it will be a large step in a good direction:

When a student has 12 absences or more in a semester class, the following would apply under the policy being discussed:

• If a student passes a class and earns a 70 percent or higher on the final exam, he or she receives the grade and credit earned in the class.

• If a student passes a class, and earns less than 70 percent on the final, he or she would receive an E and would not earn credit for the class. The principal or designee reserves the right, under extenuating circumstances, to modify this guideline.

Thus students are being incentivized to attend class and put forth a better effort in their studies. Even if they would pass with a D+ or worse, if their attendance is not up to par they will fail the class. Two steps forward for GR Public, in my opinion. But that does not really get at the bigger problem for MI….

While I support improving education quality and have said as much twice this week (here and here), I do not think that evaluating teachers based upon student grades is an effective way to do it. The purpose of student grades is to evaluate student performance, not teacher performance. A very good teacher may need to give some low marks in order to send a signal to students who are not putting forth enough effort or otherwise not succeeding that they need to take their studies more seriously and seek additional help.

Instead, by making student performance indicators (grades) a factor of teacher performance evaluations, the state of MI is incentivizing further grade inflation and lowered education quality. Teachers should not have to fear for their jobs if a student fails to earn a decent grade in their classes; there will always be problem students, and the factors contributing to poor student performance extend far beyond teachers into relationships (or lack thereof) with family and friends as well as other socioeconomic concerns.

In fact, the only logical reason to incentivize teachers to give higher grades would be if our educational standards were currently too high, not too low. The problem is not too many good students who are failing or scoring low marks because of tyrannical teachers with impossible standards; the problem is teachers with students who have serious behavior and attendance problems and who don’t believe that prioritizing their studies is a worthwhile endeavor for them. Certainly bad teachers with tenure do exist and need to be held accountable, but punishing teachers who give poor grades does not effectively address that problem. What students need are quality teachers (who also still exist) who are able to inspire even these students or, if necessary, send them a wake up call with grades appropriate to their level of achievement (or lack thereof). This bill, unfortunately, ties the hands of any good teachers who need to give low marks without worrying over their jobs. Thus, for MI, I predict that the unintended consequences of the new bill will run counter to the good intentions behind it. And as it stands it is only set to worsen in the future. According to Scott,

Beginning in 2013-14, student progress will count for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, increasing to 40 percent the following year and 49 percent the year after that.