Charleston County school leaders couldn't have been more excited about recognizing their best teachers.

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They called them their TOP teachers, used private money to list their names in the newspaper and hosted a ceremony to dole out cash rewards. They even created a Web page and video to tout the accomplishments of those recognized by the Teacher Outstanding Performance program.

More on the rankings

--All of the ranked teachers taught reading or math, and almost all of them taught either second, third, fourth or fifth grades. A handful taught math to sixth- through eighth-graders.--The rankings could not evaluate teachers at lower or higher grades or different subjects because test results weren't available for those areas.--Average teachers would have about half of their students make their performance goals.--Just because students attend a low-performing school doesn't mean they have a weak teacher.--In 2007-08, the biggest number and highest concentration of the district's lowest-ranking reading and math teachers worked in the district's lowest-performing elementary schools.--The following year, the district's average elementary schools -- the ones in the middle of the state ratings -- had the highest concentration of the worst reading teachers.--The district's best elementary schools had the highest concentration of the worst math teachers.

What they didn't mention were the teachers who didn't make the cut, particularly those at the bottom -- the district's lowest-performing teachers.

School officials didn't tell some teachers they were concerned about their instructional shortcomings, and efforts to make them better have varied by school. They felt comfortable using student test scores to recognize their greatest teachers, but they haven't used the same criteria to systematically evaluate or improve their weakest faculty.

Parents have been unaware that their children may have been in classes with the district's least-effective teachers.

When The Post and Courier learned of the list of TOP teachers, it requested the full list of elementary reading and math teachers ranked by performance for the most recently available school years, 2007-08 and 2008-09. That list is published at postandcourier.com.

District leaders singled out the TOP teachers by looking at the percentage of teachers' students who made typical progress for the year when compared with similar students from across the country, based on test scores on the same exam.

It's the first time this kind of information has been made public locally.

Using students' growth to evaluate teachers' performance is controversial. Many educators say standardized tests are imperfect and can't be the lone tool used to determine who is effective.

Teacher quality is one of the hottest topics in education circles, and an increasing number of school districts are looking at using objective measures, such as students' test scores, to gauge good instruction. Some even have used them to decide who should receive bonuses or who should be fired.

Locally, many teachers contacted by the newspaper agreed they should be responsible for students' progress, but they didn't like the idea of being judged by the results of one test.

"I think that's one component," said one teacher who has been recognized nationally for her instruction but landed in the bottom half of teachers for the gains her students made in math in 2008-09.

"I think there are other components that need to be considered for effective teaching. You can walk into a classroom and you can tell whether there is effective teaching going on. It is obvious."

Most of the teachers who had less than half of their class make typical progress didn't want to talk about their ranking or didn't return phone calls when contacted by the newspaper. Some said they didn't want to appear as if they were giving excuses, while others were uncomfortable about being portrayed in what they said would be a negative way.

In the results released by Charleston County schools, The Post and Courier found:

--The rankings evaluated more than 600 elementary and middle school teachers in 2007-08 and in 2008-09. The school district has about 3,500 teachers.

--The majority of students in about one-third of the elementary teachers' reading classes failed to make a typical amount of progress in 2008-09. The previous year, the majority of students in about one-fifth of elementary teachers' reading classes failed to make their expected growth.

--During the 2008-09 school year, 2,104 elementary school students in low-performing teachers' classrooms failed to make typical growth in reading. The previous school year, 1,343 students in low-performing teachers' classrooms failed to make that progress. The district enrolls about 43,000 students.

--More than 15 percent of the least-effective teachers failed to make typical progress with their students for two consecutive school years in the same subject.

High quality needed

Teacher quality has become the centerpiece of the national discussion on education. Multiple studies have shown that the single biggest factor affecting student achievement is the classroom teacher.

One researcher found that students with a weak teacher for three consecutive years would score, on average, 50 percentile points behind a similar student with a strong teacher during that time.

Another found that top teachers could move students a year and a half ahead of where they were in one school year compared with the worst teachers, who would cover only half a year's worth of lessons.

Districts locally and across the country rarely identify their weakest teachers, much less dismiss them or help them improve. The list of reasons why school districts don't do more to highlight and help or fire the worst teachers is long.

Most evaluation systems used to rate teachers' performance don't hold them accountable for students' progress. And the documentation and process of firing a teacher often is cumbersome, making it difficult to get rid of the worst ones.

Whatever the reason, many districts retain their worst teachers, and parents often don't know who the least-effective teachers are.

What is quality?

Students routinely are graded, but grading teachers based on their students' performance remains controversial.

A number of school districts use a method called "value-added," which measures teachers' effectiveness based on students' growth on standardized tests.

For example, if a student scored in the 50th percentile at the end of fifth grade but fell to the 40th percentile as a sixth-grader, his sixth-grade teacher would be considered less effective. But if he improved his percentile rank, the teacher would be considered more effective.

Until now, teacher groups generally have opposed being held accountable for students' achievement because not all students start from the same place. But new research and exams have enabled educators to be evaluated by the growth their students make during the school year, creating an even playing field.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he agrees that testing results should be one component of determining teacher quality, but the United States needs better tests.

He thinks such information should be a part of a broader, meaningful assessment of the teacher's work that helps improve instruction and is tied to opportunities for bonuses, advancement and training.

A handful of South Carolina schools use the value-added method to assess and reward teachers. The 2008-09 value-added results for those schools were positive, with 95 percent of schools meeting achievement growth targets.

Rating teachers

In Charleston County, educators decided to use a slightly different way of measuring teachers' effectiveness -- a standardized exam, the Measures of Academic Progress, that the district's second- through eighth-graders take in math and reading.

The exam allows officials to measure how much growth students have made during a school year compared with a national sample of students who started the year at the same achievement level and have similar demographics, such as socioeconomic status, urban or rural setting and grade.

The district doesn't have this kind of test for high school teachers or for those who teach courses other than reading or math.

A group of private citizens offered to give Charleston teachers money if the district could link teacher effectiveness with student growth, so the district spent $21,000 to obtain a detailed database compiling students' individual scores.

District staff used that information to create a ranked list of its teaching staff based on students' progress. Many school districts, such as Berkeley and Dorchester 2, haven't requested this report.

Charleston school leaders are beginning to consider ways they could use these test results as part of teacher evaluations. Superintendent Nancy McGinley said she wouldn't fire a teacher or conclude that he or she was ineffective if the majority of his or her students didn't make their growth target for one year.

But if that same teacher had similar results for three or four years, she said the teacher would need an improvement plan.

Teachers react

One A.C. Corcoran Elementary School teacher was among 33 across the district who had less than half of their classes make typical progress for two consecutive years in math. The teacher cited a number of reasons why her class failed to make that growth, such as her unfamiliarity with a new curriculum or students' target goals.

She considers herself an effective teacher because she knows how hard she works, and she sees students making gains, even if they don't hit their growth goals, she said.

"I've dealt with children who are two and three years behind, and it's very difficult for them to meet the target."

She thinks test scores should be one factor used in an evaluation but that other considerations should be teachers' years of experience, attendance record, amount of pre-instruction preparation, expertise in their subject area, lesson plans, how well they meet students' needs, and communication with parents and students.

"Because we're dealing with living people, it's hard to say one thing works and another thing doesn't to make teachers effective," she said.

At Stiles Point Elementary School on James Island, Principal Steve Burger holds his hand above his head to show where he ranks one of his school's teachers.

"One of the shining stars, hands down," he said. "She's one of the top teachers in Charleston County School District."

This teacher has won national recognition. The state has only a couple of winners each year, and the teacher's application packet for the award included an hour-long video of her teaching, a 20-page analysis of what takes place in her classroom, proof that her children succeed in the subject, samples of her students' work and videos of her training other teachers.

Still, she was on the list of teachers who failed to have at least half of their students make typical progress in math in 2008-09. Forty-two percent of her students met their performance goals.

That fact doesn't sway Burger's opinion of her or make him think she is a less effective teacher. She's an example of why it's not a good idea to use just one test to measure teacher quality, he said.

"That's the problem with using something like this," he said. "It's a snapshot of a child in a certain area -- how well are they performing. ... She's a dynamic, tremendous teacher. I'd put her up against anyone."

He doesn't know why more of her students didn't meet their performance goals, but he said that could have happened for a number of reasons outside her control.

The test students took was being used for a purpose that wasn't intended, Burger said. It was meant to be a diagnostic tool to direct instruction, not evaluate teachers. Some people don't like the idea of it being used for something else, he said, "and one of them is me."

The teacher he mentioned said she knew how many of her students had not made typical progress, but she didn't worry about it because she knows her students excel and do well on state tests.

The test used for the TOP program and the state's standardized exam are different, and she said she focused on teaching the skills and information that would be tested on the state exam. She had no idea those scores would be used as a way of judging her teaching effectiveness.

Teacher quality should be reflective of more than just results from standardized tests because a number of factors can affect students' performance, she said. Some students might have rushed through the questions while others might not do well on computer-based tests.

"You can walk into a classroom, and you can tell whether there is effective teaching going on," she said. "It is obvious. There are components of effective teaching."

Stono Park Elementary School teacher Trisha Strong was one of only three TOP teachers recognized this spring for helping at least 80 percent of her stuodents meet their growth goals in reading and math for two consecutive years.

If her job depended on the progress her students made, she said she would want multiple measures used, such as how students performed on the state standardized tests and in the classroom. But this exam shows whether students grew no matter where they started, and it's the only test teachers have that does that, she said.

Strong uses the test results to find out where her students' weaknesses are, and she said she does question what she did or didn't do when her students aren't making the typical gains.

She thought last year that one of her classes wasn't making as much progress as the other. The test results affirmed that and showed her where she needed to focus.

"We know our children and where they are," she said.

A better system

McGinley wants the district to move to a value-added model that links teacher evaluations to objective measures. But that isn't "instant pudding," she said.

Using just one indicator would be flawed, she said. She justified doing so with the TOP program because it was a recognition program, and it created awareness that teachers could be held accountable for student outcomes, she said.

She would like to see the district use at least three measures of objective student results for teacher evaluations, and the exam used for the TOP program could be one of them. The state standardized exam also would be good, and she would like the district's leadership to have time to come up with a new evaluation system.

"I think if we rush forward to apply something that has not been thought through thoroughly and not engaged teachers in the development of this, I think we're going to get false positives and false negatives, and we also have a morale issue," she said.

"I really want this to be done with teachers, not to teachers."

She cited a number of problems with using the standardized exam for the TOP program as the sole means of assessing teachers. It was never intended to be used for evaluations, and the testing conditions aren't as secure as those for the state's main accountability exam, she said.

Another issue is that it has results for only a subset of the district's teaching force -- math and reading teachers in second- through eighth-grades.

She doesn't know how the district would evaluate teachers whose students don't take the exam, such as high school teachers.

The district also would need to be up-front with teachers and let them know they will be held accountable for their students' progress, McGinley said.

Evaluations alone are not going to improve teachers' performance, so district officials need to come up with a comprehensive way of recruiting, inducting, supporting and coaching teachers so they have the skills and competency to achieve at high levels, she said.

The Charleston County School Board's policy committee has been working on a proposal that would incorporate students' results as part of teacher and principal evaluations. The board plans to discuss and give feedback soon on ideas before the committee.

"We want teachers to feel fairly treated, but we want the organization to do better than what it's doing," said board policy committee Chairman Gregg Meyers.

A parent's perspective

Robin Mann has a fifth-grader and a third-grader at Jennie Moore Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, an excellent-rated school that employed nine teachers who failed to make typical growth with at least half of their students.

Mann knew some of those teachers, and she would have asked for her children to be moved to a different class for five of them. She said she would have been pleased with three of them. Her daughter had one of the teachers who ranked in the bottom half of the district as a third-grader, but she said that teacher was compassionate and loved to teach and that her daughter loved being in that class.

She wants her children to have a good teacher, and she's gone as far as meeting with prospective teachers to see which ones would be the best match. So while she's interested in knowing more about teachers' performance, she said it's not a deal-breaker in terms of whether she wants her children in that teacher's class.

"I want my children to love school, and I want them to be excited about going," she said. "I really want them to have a teacher who loves their job. I am interested in test scores ... but I'd rather know about teachers' passions and education levels."