Teacher eval data, part 2: the perfectionist disease

In part
1
of my New York City
teacher evaluation commentary, I explained the judicial decision which
determined that the public had a right to know how individual teachers were
doing. Most tellingly, perhaps, was Judge Kern’s dismissal of the argument that
flaws in the data mattered to her decision. Referring to a previous ruling by the
state’s highest court, Kern said, “there is no requirement that data be
reliable for it to be disclosed.”

We have to do this in public, a welcome window-opening
in a system of baroque halls and closets.

This means that we have to do this in public, a welcome window-opening
in a system of baroque halls and closets. The New York Times, one of
the media outlets that had sued to gain access to the Teacher Data Reportshan
(TDR), made
the data available
and issued an
invitation
to teachers to “respond to your data report.”

In fact, surprising many, Michael
Winerip
, the On Education
columnist for the Times and normally
no friend to education reform, had it about right:

At first, when I
heard that news organizations were going to publish the list, I was angry, but
that has passed. Good has come of this. People have been forced to stop and
think about how it would feel to be summed up as a 47, and then have the whole
world told.

Winerip’s would be a near-perfect conclusion if it weren’t such a
reluctant one. If only he could bring himself to provide some context: that
this imperfect new system is an attempt to right a terrible wrong, the failure
to hold public schools accountable for failing to educate our children. As
Winerip predicted, the controversy has produced a wonderful array of rich
thinking on the subject—and some not so rich. (I have a short list of “further
reading” at the end of this post.) In fact, Winerip was back on track a couple
of days later, rounding up the “victims” of the new system:  “Hard-working
teachers, sabotaged when student test scores slip
.” And the Times ran a moving story by one William
Johnson
, a special education teacher at a Brooklyn
high school. Johnson, who says he was rated “a bad teacher in a good school,”
tells a story that will sound familiar to most experienced educators:

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond
the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to
special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just
the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have
been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed
into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual
attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed
high-stakes tests.

And, of course, the punchline:

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion;
it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department.

Is he a bad teacher? How does one know? According to Johnson,

Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing
and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell
me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my
lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of
the most exhausting aspects of our job…. 
The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If
our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or
they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes,
they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a
teacher than leading a class that’s not learning.

It’s a compelling argument except for one thing. What if the students are
not
learning? Do our students get an A for effort? Of course, but is it
the only grade they get?

Teach for America
founder Wendy
Kopp
weighed in on the TDR release in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. She thinks it’s a bad idea:

So-called value-added rankings—which rank teachers according to
the recorded growth in their students' test scores—are an important indicator
of teacher effectiveness, but making them public is counterproductive to
helping teachers improve. Doing so doesn't help teachers feel safe and
respected, which is necessary if they are going to provide our kids with the
positive energy and environment we all hope for.
The release of the rankings (which follows a similar release
last year in Los Angeles)
is based on a misconception that "fixing" teachers is the solution to
all that ails our education system.
The system is not perfect; nor are the
people running it. How do we make it more perfect?

That too is a compelling argument. But it misses the point and the context
as well: we currently have a system that rewards bad teachers. And the release
of the data is not based on a belief that “fixing” teachers is all that
matters. Indeed, it would be nice if all teachers were as conscientious and
hard-working as Mr. Johnson and all administrators adept at making teachers
feel safe and respected. Unfortunately, the system is not perfect; nor are the
people running it. How do we make it more perfect?

Eric
Hanushek
, writing at Ed Next, had
it about right:

Nobody would ever advocate making personnel decisions through
public posting of evaluations in the newspaper. The public release of
value-added scores for 18,000 New York
City teachers last week should not be taken as a model
for how to run the human resource departments of the schools.
But that is not what is going on there. The public release of
these ratings—which attempt to isolate a teacher’s contribution to his or her
students’ growth in math and English achievement, as measured by state tests—is
one important piece of a much bigger attempt to focus school policy on what
really matters: classroom learning.
To understand why the release of this data makes sense, you
must step back and see the intense, broader battle underway all throughout the
nation.
The fight is between those who want to improve the schools and
those who like the system as it exists today. Those who want to preserve the
status quo have historically had the upper hand. For generations, they have
been able to control policy change by focusing attention on the adults in the
schools through the contract bargaining process, through labor laws in the
legislature and through a supportive media environment.

Finally, my friend Catherine
Johnson
, who runs a savvy education listserv in Westchester
County, just north of New York City, offers this insight:

[A] core problem here, the reason we **have** a value-added
movement in the first place, is that parents don’t choose their kids’ teachers.
Parents choose their kids’ doctors; parents choose their kids’ piano teachers;
parents choose their kids’ tennis instructors. We don’t choose our kids’
teachers. Instead administrators choose our kids’ teachers — and they choose
from a pool that has been artificially limited by credentialing laws passed
with union support. Parents don’t get to choose teachers at parochial or
private schools, either, but at a good private or parochial school you’ll find
(some) teachers with Masters degrees and even PhDs in the subject they teach.
They’re unhireable by public schools because they don’t have education school
degrees. Public schools are a closed shop.
Meanwhile administrators know that some of their teachers are
ineffective, and yet they must assign children to classrooms where children
will learn less than they would inside another teacher’s classroom. In fact, I
think I own a book written for administrators that includes an entire chapter
on the ‘ethics’ of deciding which students to assign to weak teachers.
If parents were making the decision, nobody would face that
‘ethical’ dilemma, and we wouldn’t need a value-added movement ---- !

As Johnson and some of her listserv discussants also note, the
value-added movement is also a response to labor laws backing lifelong tenure
for teachers and last-in-first-out layoff rules—laws that all but negate the
good intentions and efforts of the Mr. Johnsons and Ms Kopps. The new teacher
evaluation system in New York
is far from perfect. But it is necessary. And it is best to have the debate in
public—at least until we have a system that proves itself capable of providing
good education from behind closed doors. As Justice Kern put it:  "This information is of interest to
parents, students, taxpayers and the public generally. Although the teachers
have an interest in these possibly flawed statistics remaining private, it was
not arbitrary and capricious for the DOE to find that the privacy interest at
issue is outweighed by the public's interest in disclosure."

 

--------------

Further Reading

With thanks to Tyson Eberhardt, this list is highly eclectic and in no
particular order. It is meant to give students of the value-added evaluation suggestions
food for thought.

  • As Education
    Week
    put it, the New York City
    education department released value-added data that “purport to estimate a
    teacher's impact on his or her students' standardized test scores.” Purport?
  • Much of the value-added controversy revolves around the question of certainty
    and much of it reminds me of John
    Glenn’s comment
    about his famous trip around the globe:
    I guess the question I'm asked the most often is: "When
    you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you
    feel?" Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would
    feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of
    two million parts—all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.
  • Starship Enterprise Captain James Kirk: “Risk is our
    business.”
  • Nobody raised hell when Education
    Week
    ran a story last month called "'Value
    Added' Proves Beneficial to Teacher Prep.”  As Stephen Sawchuk reported then,
    The use of “value added" information appears poised to
    expand into the nation's teacher colleges, with more than a dozen states
    planning to use the technique to analyze how graduates of training programs
    fare in classrooms.  Supporters say the
    data could help determine which teacher education pathways produce teachers who
    are at least as good as—or even better than—other novice teachers, spurring
    weaker providers to emulate those colleges' practices.
  • Bill
    Gates
    made a splash, with a “Shame is not the Solution” op-ed in the Times. And
    RiShawn
    Biddle
    objected for much the same reason Bloomberg did:
    High-quality data on all aspects of education — especially
    teacher performance — is critical to helping families become real consumers and
    lead decisionmakers in education. It is also key in causing the kind of
    disruptions that have helped begin the first steps in systemically reforming
    American public education. And this is what Gates (whose own fortunes were made
    thanks to consumers making informed choices about computers, software, and
    operating systems) and other reformers should want.
  • As I suggested last week in a post
    about the new “independent validators” scheme
    for assessing teachers, our
    search for an “impartial” or objective assessment is an elusive one.  
  • Eric Hanushek is interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about why teachers’
    value-added scores should be made public.  He has more to say about a larger strategy for
    boosting teacher quality in “An Effective Teacher in Every Classroom,” which appeared
    in the Summer 2010 issue of Ed Next. See also Hanushek’s “Valuing
    Teachers: How Much is a Good Teacher Worth?
    ” which appeared in
    the Summer 2011 issue of Ed Next.
  • All you can read (and more) here.
  • Emily Richmond of the National Education Writer's Association profiles criticisms of publishing teacher ratings
    for the Atlantic.
  • Matt Di Carlo argues that the way the ratings were published was
    misleading
    .
  • NYC mayoral hopeful and public advocate Bill De Blasio accused Michael
    Bloomberg of being on a "jihad against teachers" for releasing performance ratings.
  • New York State lawmakers are considering
    changing state law to shield teachers from having
    their ratings
    released to the public.
  • Best headline goes to the Shanker Blog for “New York’s Rein of
    Error.”
  • Good reporting from the New York
    Times:
     Fernanda
    Santos and Sharon Otterman
    and  Santos
    and Robert Gebeloff
    .
  • Stephanie
    Banchero
    in the Wall Street Journal. She quotes Michelle Rhee:
    If we truly want parents to be taking a seminal interest in
    their kids' education and understand fully what type of education they are
    getting, then we need to be ready to give them all the information we have…. You
    can't say we want parents involved and then limit their access to information.
  • According to Gotham
    Schools
    UFT president Michael Mulgrew found “universal opposition” among
    his teachers.
  • Whitney
    Tilson and Steve Brill
    exchanged emails on the subject (my conversation with Tilson for Ed Next is here
    and a good review of Brill’s book by Nathan Glazer is here.) 
  • The Times, which was part of
    the lawsuit which forced the release of the data, said that it had, “with
    SchoolBook’s partners at WNYC, … developed a
    sophisticated tool
    to display the ratings in their proper context, a
    hallmark of our journalism.”

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