Teacher Evaluation 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.”

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.

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.”

-Peter Meyer

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Board’s Eye View blog.


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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