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Monday, January 23, 2012

On teacher evaluation: the responsibility of the media to dig a little deeper

The mainstream media has contributed heavily to the rampant public confusion over the teacher evaluation debate in recent weeks.  Most recently, on Sunday the NY Times featured two superficial accounts of this issue.   
The first, by Nick Kristof, told a familiar if touching story about an Arkansas school librarian named Mildred Grady, who bought  some books by a favored author and slipped them onto the shelves to appeal to one particular at-risk student who later became a judge--to prove the  notion that good teachers can change lives.  This story was apparently first told in a Story Corps 2009 piece on NPR radio.
Kristof concludes that this example reveals how “we need rigorous teacher evaluations, more pay for good teachers and more training and weeding-out of poor teachers.”   
Not so fast.  The so-called “rigorous” system currently being promoted by the state and the mayor would base  teacher evaluation largely on unreliable test scores, combined with the opinion of a principal only, without any assurances that the sort of librarian described in this story would ever be recognized as “effective” and indeed could be “weeded-out” herself – as many librarians have already, due to recent budget cuts.
In fact, Kristof's column could more easily be used to buttress the other side of the debate: showing the many imponderable ways that teachers – and librarians – transforms lives that are unquantifiable; and that cannot be captured in the sort of reductionist systems now being imposed on states throughout the country because of “Race to the Top” and the support of corporate executives like Bill Gates, who claim that the major cause of school dysfunction is incompetent teaching. 
The other NYT column that ran Sunday was written by Ginia Bellafante and entitled “Petty Differences Mask Consensus on Teachers”.  It was just as misleading as Kristof’s, implying that the differences in the positions taken by the state and the city versus the teacher unions on the teacher evaluation system were trivial.  
Nothing could be further from the case.  NYSUT, the state teacher’s union, sued the state in court and won, because Education Commissioner King had subverted their agreement to include multiple measures for teacher evaluation.  Instead, he wrote regulations that would allow districts to use state test scores as 40 percent of the evaluation system, rather than the 20 percent that the union had agreed upon.  More importantly – and missing in most press accounts – is the way in which King devised a rubric that would make it impossible for any teacher who did not succeed on the test score metric alone to be rated “effective” – no matter how highly he or she was found to be through observations or any other means. (See the judge’s ruling here.) 
The differences between the city and the UFT are just as fundamental.  The NYC Department of Education obdurately refuses to allow any independent appeal of a negative subjective evaluation by a principal – no matter how obviously wrong it might be.  Many  principals have shown themselves to be unfairly give poor evaluations to teachers in recent years, under the system of "principal empowerment," with little or no oversight from DOE. 
Nothing in this system would protect great teachers from vindictive principals or inherently volatile value-added test scores – and in fact, DOE has built in to its school funding system a poison pill that incentivizes principals to fire experienced teachers, since they have to pay for their higher salaries out of their school budgets.
Both authors fail to recognize that the current evaluation system being proposed could hurt teacher quality and undermine the quality of education our children receive, by causing teachers to focus even more on damaging and inane test prep over reallearning – something that is already severely damaging our schools. 

Neither author bothers to mention the fact that over one-third of the principals in New York state strongly oppose the evaluation system the state is pushing…which one principal calls "nutty" and which will calls for even more ridiculous  and expensive assessments in all subjects, including music and art.

Both also apparently support the same prescription of merit pay for teachers, as though this is a given: “Paying good teachers more is important — and the mayor, admirably, has committed to doing that” writes Bellafante. Both ignore the fact that merit pay has never worked to improve outcomes for kids, and that in 2011, NYC just axed its program that cost $75 million, because of null results.  
So why in his State of the City address did the mayor now propose an even more expensive merit pay proposal , that will cost $250 million to implement; at the same time that schools have suffered huge budget cuts and our kids are crammed into the largest class sizes in eleven years? 
When challenged on Twitter to provide evidence for such heedlessness, both Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson and Andy Jacob of The New Teacher Project pointed to a New Year’s Day front-page story in the New York Times by Sam Dillon, which featured an interview with a DC teacher named Tiffany Johnson, who had received a big bonus from DC’s new Impact evaluation system.  Ms. Johnson said that her bonus might persuade her to teach longer.  When it was pointed out to Wolfson that this article consisted of anecdote not evidence, Wolfson responded on twitter that this was “good enough for him.”
At the time the DC Impact article was published I criticized it for the way it completely glossed over the fact that the vast majority evaluations of teacher merit pay have had negative results; though I could not have guessed that a single flawed article would lead the mayor to make such a wasteful proposal.
Now praise for this bonus system from the very same DC teacher, Tiffany Johnson, has been recycled repeatedly several times. On Jan. 9, she was interviewed on local DC TV;
And two weeks after the NYT article, she was quoted again in a story in the Daily News, making the very same points.
 Of course, one teacher’s comments do not prove anything, and unfortunately, there will apparently be no actual evaluation of the Impact system because the DC Schools Superintendent could not agree on a methodology with Roland Fryer, the researcher who had been selected for the task.  Fryer had found no positive effects of the previous NYC merit pay program.  This lack of a study doesn’t look to me that the people in charge have much faith that the Impact system could prove itself through actual results.
 After Gov. Cuomo joined in the charge in his budget address, and threatened to cut state aid from any  district which did not impose a new test-based evaluation system within a month, the howls from the editorial boards at the major dailies have grown even louder, inveighing against the unions for resisting whatever bogus evaluation system the state or the city have the yen to impose.  
 On Sunday, the Daily News spread spread more misinformation by publishing an oped by a teacher who wrote that her group, the Gates-funded Educators for Excellence, looked at all the failed merit pay programs, and found “that the efforts that have failed either didn’t offer a compelling enough incentive or linked bonuses to school-wide results and not individual performance.
Again, this is complete misinformation.  The best study of a  merit pay program in the nation was of the Nashville program that provided bonuses of up to $15,000 to individual math teachers whose students saw the greatest gains in their test scores – very similar to what Bloomberg is now proposing.  This study showed no results in terms of improved student achievement or teacher retention.
At least the News oped was accompanied by a far wiser column by Arthur Goldstein, veteran teacher at Francis Lewis HS, who pointed pointing out how merit pay would likely incentivize teachers to focus on test prep even more or even tempt them to cheat: 

“These days, we work in a pressure cooker environment, in which test scores are almost everything. Ridiculous credit recovery programs render credit meaningless. Media outlets feign shock when they discover predictable “erase to the top” style scandals where scores are fabricated.  What do they think will happen when teachers are asked to raise grades to the exclusion of everything else we do?
….We are role models. We inspire kids. We teach them to speak out, stand up, to express themselves. That will be particularly tough if we’re all placing knives in one another’s backs chasing bonuses.”
We have also posted the account of Stephanie Black, a teacher who quit DC schools because the Impact system threatened to make her become less of a teacher than she yearned to be.
In a recent Scholastic survey funded by the pro-merit pay Gates Foundation, teachers overwhelmingly rejected performance pay, with this coming in last of nine proposals to help retain good teachers.  In another national survey by Public Agenda, merit pay again came in last – with only 12% of teachers saying that ‘tying rewards or sanctions to teacher performance” would be a “very effective way” to improve the quality of instruction in our schools.
 In contrast, 86 percent of teachers told Public Agenda that reducing class size would be “very effective” way to improve teacher quality – a proven reform that is rejected by the same corporate reformers, like Mayor Bloomberg and Bill Gates, who relentlessly promote merit pay.
If columnists like Kristof, Bellafante and others really respect teachers and want to dip their toes in the education debate, they should take a serious hard look at the research. They have a responsibility to dig a little deeper before drawing broad conclusions  –lest our children’s education be furthered damaged and millions more wasted on policies that have repeatedly failed in the past.


reality-based educator said...

Kristof helped Melinda Gates live blog questions about alleviating world poverty a few weeks ago at the exact same time Microsoft employees at FOXXCONN were threatening suicides over not getting promised wage compensation.

For some reason, it never occurred to Kristof to ask Gates if she was so concerned about poverty, why didn't she pay the employees who makes Xboxes and other Microsoft products in China more money so they didn't have to threaten to kill themselves.

Kristof seems to have the gift common to so many elite reporters and columnists - he can spew b.s. with the best of them when he's parroting the memes the powerful want him to parrot, but he can't quite seem to call any of those same powerful people on their own b.s. or hypocrisy.

Joel said...

This article is 100% correct.We have a teacher evaluation system in place,it is called our administrators in each school. If the administrators did their job and tried to assist the teachers who needed help rather then leave them to sink on their own,or even worse harass them ,our system would improve.
The teacher evaluation system our politicians are talking about will do nothing to improve education,but will harm it by making test prep our most important subject and pitting teacher against teacher to get the bonus pay.. Our politicians don't care,it sounds good in the clueless media.

Ted Lewis said...

I am a teachers' union representative in Wisconsin, and an urban district in my region just reduced science and social studies for middle school kids to focus on the all important tested areas of reading and math. We already increasingly teach to the test and stunt creativity. Merit pay would only accelerate this trend.

jcg said...

Once again, Leonie hits one out of the park. If NY's teacher evaluation mirror's TN's TEAM, you can mark the end of attracting quality teachers. I'm re-posting my comment about TN's race to the bottom teacher evaluation in hopes that maybe the NYTimes would investigate who is actually profiting from DoE's mandates to enact merit pay based on test scores.

As the result of "winning" RttT, the state of TN paid millions of dollars to the Milken Foundation (yes, the same securities fraud felon Michael Milken)to adopt their TEAM teacher evaluation system without evaluating it's efficacy in identifying teacher quality. None of Milken's white papers claiming success have been subjected to external peer review.

Since the scores of TEAM evaluated teachers follow a bell-shape distribution (according to their research), only 15% of teachers will achieve scores above (4) or significantly above (5) expectations. It is nearly impossible for 85% of teachers to average scores of 4 to gain or keep tenure as mandated by state law. Our TEAM trainer repeatedly told us that 'solid teaching' must be scored a (3). We were trained never to score higher than a (3) on all but 1 -2 indicators. That is, no one will average (4s) or (5s), out of 12 indicators.

Reflective, thoughtful growth is punished. In post conference, if a teacher provides evidence that was not observed we are not permitted to change their score. Only a fraudulent assessment model does not allow feedback to inform and improve practice.
The state is not prepared for the turnover in the teaching force, nor do they seem to care. The system is rigged to churn teachers and open up the market for cheap, temporary labor (e.g., teach for america, online trained teachers, and imported teachers from overseas).

None of which will effect the Haslams (TN Gov and Pilot Oil trust funder), Frists (ex Sen Bill and HCA-Columbia owner),and their ilk as their children go to expensive private schools that eschew inexperienced, untrained, uncommitted teachers.

Mourad said...

teaching in NYC has been degrading year over year. Those who believe that the 2013 ELA and math test is hard or the bar has been raised, should think again. The quality of teaching has degraded and school principals have been given too much power. First, there should national standards for school pogrammes, testing, exams and grading. DOE must use the same grading system used by shools. If school gets a 60, it should get a D and not a B.
My son was in 7th grade and did not know how to divide. The teacher answer was he can use the calculator. Count how many good public middle schools are in New York city.It is immoral..