"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Lose-Lose of Value-Added (EVAAS) in Houston

Terry Grier brought with him to Houston a fixation for test scores that he learned in Guilford, NC, where he came under the spell of former adjunct professor and agricultural statistician, Bill Sanders, who created there a vast subsidiary for SAS, Inc. in school testing--the value-added variety.  The Sanders brand, EVAAS, has become so big, in fact, that Sanders has moved from the SAS campus back to Ground Zero in TN, where he got his start and where there are now a half-billion reasons, thanks to RttT, to get EVAAS sewn into the fabric of Test Scores Gone Wild--the Tennessee Version. 

He did the same for his TVAAS brand in the 1980s, when he managed to get his proprietary statistical wizardry added to the Tennessee Code Annotated as THE algorithm to be used for testing kids.  No doubt he is fantasizing about getting it into federal law at this point.

Now it is teachers who are to be evaluated based on the Sanders scheme, and Sanders couldn't care less about what happens when his method is applied to the already shell-shocked urban and rural schools where the explosive effects of test and punish have been amplified by poverty.  When a quality teacher like Jennifer Blessington (story below), who is getting the demanded test score gains and rewards, is fed up, demoralized and leaving the profession in Houston and public schools elsewhere, some would say that what is happening in Houston is a case of unanticipated consequences.  The sad fact is that Grier and the corporate fools who are running Houston ISD see the loss of Blessington as another opportunity for a white TFA missionary to be put in her place at a huge savings in salary and future retirement payouts.   

Here is Grier in a brief clip hawking his EVAAS snake oil at a Board meeting in Houston.  Below it find out the reality from Jennifer Blessington.

I started working for the Houston Independent School District in 2005. Teaching was not my first career, but almost instantly, I knew I had found the job I would do for the rest of my life. The best part? Connecting with kids during those awkward years of early adolescence and helping them learn to think and read critically and write well and creatively. Six years later, my desk at home is covered in earnestly penned, sweet thank-you notes from former students. ("Ever since I started grade 7 English I thought you were the nicest teacher and you were.")

But now, six years later, I am planning to leave HISD and start a new job next year teaching at a private school.
By any measure, I think I am a teacher HISD would want to keep. I've won a few awards, volunteered to participate in district initiatives, and am generally well liked by students, parents and colleagues. I don't put any weight in the Education Value-Added Assessment System, which uses student test data to measure teachers' effectiveness, but EVAAS rates me a highly effective teacher. I've regularly received some of the highest achievement-related bonus payouts on my campus since the program began. My students who fail the state assessments can often be counted on one hand, and the majority earn commended status. I've tried my best to follow the procedures and policies of the district without making waves. While I support some of the union's views, I've never been a member. But under Superintendent Terry Grier, I have seen the culture of HISD change, and not for the better. 

In my opinion, morale is sinking, and if the state budget crisis hadn't squashed hiring by other school systems, I believe even more good teachers and administrators would be leaving. Schools are losing autonomy and are being micromanaged. Focus on testing is unyielding, and new programs and policies are implemented with little warning. Certainly any attempt to gain input from those who will be affected by the changes is window dressing at best. Above all, the district's rhetoric has created an environment where good teachers feel that we're never trusted.

The district's focus on standardized test scores has become so intense, I dream about bubble sheets. In years past, my colleagues and I were allowed to create our own tests to see how our students were doing. After all, we knew our kids best. But this year, despite the consistently strong records of the teachers at my exemplary-rated school, we were mandated to give district-created tests every month. This cut into instruction time with our kids. Sadly, this focusing-on-the-test trend shows little sign of ending. For teachers, EVAAS scores and other end-of-course test data now carry more weight than ever before: In the evaluation system recently passed by the school board, they make up half of each teacher's rating. 

We teachers should be held accountable, and I believe student growth on standardized tests should be part of that accountability. Parents should be able to know whether their child's teacher has demonstrated good instruction. Taxpayers should be able to know whether their dollars are being well spent.

But the public also needs to know that EVAAS figures are misleading for many reasons, and including them in the teacher evaluation system could lead to good teachers being punished. First of all, many teachers earn their EVAAS scores based on a complicated formula that reflects a combination of growth not just on the state test but also on the Stanford Achievement Test. Unfortunately, Texas' state curriculum — which HISD teachers are required to teach, and which our textbooks cover - is not aligned with the Stanford. For example, eighth-grade U.S. history teachers earn their EVAAS scores strictly from the Stanford, which includes questions on world history, anthropology, and sociology - none of which are included in the eighth-grade state curriculum. So what's a teacher supposed to teach?

Even worse, EVAAS data does not help us become better teachers. I challenge you to find one single teacher in the district who can clearly explain how his or her EVAAS scores will help improve what happens in the classroom. I've pored over my EVAAS data and can find little to take away - except for that magic, seemingly random final score that determines my bonus. 

Grier has repeatedly said that there is no time to wait, that Houston's children need reform now. But a sense of urgency cannot be used as an excuse to dismantle and demand without reflecting on the impact of major changes. Schools and parents are still frustrated with his mandatory breakfast-in-the-classroom program, one of several new initiatives implemented with little warning or input from campuses. And don't get me started about Grier's rushed, poorly received audit of the magnet-school program.

A successful superintendent creates a culture that hires innovative, free-thinking principals who are rewarded for taking risks instead of toeing a party line. Bad teachers need to be fired without making good teachers feel endangered and abused. If schools and teachers are successful, ask them what help they need instead of forcing them to change. Train principals to support good teachers and to give them real power in the schools. Most importantly, if you are going to hold teachers accountable for the value added to student achievement, do it with data that we can use to help our kids improve.

I don't envy anyone who tries to lead a large urban school district. The problems are many and complex - the kind of problems that require thoughtful individual solutions, not one-size-fits-all proclamations. My campus, like much of HISD, is full of hard-working, wonderful children and adults, and it desperately needs thoughtful, careful leadership from its school superintendent. 

I thought I would retire from this district, and it's still strange to think I won't be returning next year. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Terry Grier.

Blessington is a middle school English teacher in HISD.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:37 AM

    EVAAS "My *ss" I could fill up a couple of pages here, but anyway there is no way EVAAS/bonus pay is fair. For example, at my elementary school our principal changes students back and forth to different classes in the beginning, middle, and end of the school year for various reasons. One of our best teachers was really peeved about this knocking down her scores/money the other day. Give teachers across the board salary increases and give us RESPECT. by Recently Retired