Monday, September 17, 2012

In Search of An Accountable Education Editor at the New York Times

Brent Staples has long been the education editorialist at the New York Times, and his function as a rubber stamp for corporate education reform has assured his continuing tenure there.  His opining never fails to parrot the Business Roundtable talking points on education,  a subject for which the privatizers are the least prepared to talk about sensibly--other than ethics, of course.  Staples does so in a unique patronizing fashion that assumes his audience is as dumb on education issues as he pretends to be.  His conscious and willful neglect of the facts makes the New York Times a laughingstock among informed readers and a misleading yellow rag for those who are not.

His latest on the unscientific and discredited scheme of teacher evaluations based on test scores offers no surprises.  It is presented here with my reactions interspersed for those who may, out of no fault of their own, believe the postulations of a disingenuous parrot. 
The Chicago teachers’ strike was prompted in part by a fierce disagreement over how much student test scores will weigh in a new teacher evaluation system mandated by state law. That teachers’ unions in much of the country now agree that student achievement should count in evaluations at all reflects a major change from the past, when it was often argued that teaching was an “art” that could not be rigorously evaluated or, even more outrageously, that teachers should not be held accountable for student progress.

There is no such widespread agreement among teachers.  The "leadership" of both unions wheedled and bullied their way to getting Rep Assembly members to go along with deals that sold the union membership down the river on teacher evaluation.  Weingarten is now in Chicago trying to pretend to support a strike against a policy she approved that the membership does not agree with.  That's where things stand.  The NYTimes should conduct a survey with some of its vast resources to ask the nation's teachers and parents how they feel about teachers evaluated based on test scores.  Teachers are not afraid of assuming responsibility for student learning--that's why they courageously chose teaching as a career.   Deciding their future based on a discredited mismeasure of learning, however, negates that responsibility to children and parents.
Traditional teacher evaluations often consist of cursory classroom visits by principals who declare nearly every teacher good, or at least competent, even in failing schools where few if any children meet basic educational standards.
As a result of this system, bad things can happen. High-performing teachers who have an enormous impact on student achievement go unidentified, and they often leave the district. Promising, but struggling, young teachers never get the help they need to master the job. And disastrous teachers who have no feel for the profession continue as long as they wish, hurting young lives along the way.
This is classic teacher bashing by a disastrous editorial writer.  There is a vast literature and body of best practices on clinical supervision of teachers and teacher evaluations and effective teaching.  In many cases, best practices have been neglected due to constraints on time and other resources by principals or assistant principals where the ratio of teachers to supervisors is 50:1 or even a 100:1.  If urban schools had anywhere near the resources or shared social capital that Montgomery County, Maryland or Westchester County, NY have, then we would see better evaluation systems in urban schools where, now, garbage cans catch rainwater and 50 kids are packed into rooms without air conditioning.  Teacher evaluations based on test scores will do nothing to changes these shameful disparities, and more importantly, it will do have negative impacts on the teacher-student relationship and teacher collaboration.
The more rigorous evaluation systems that have taken root in several states and districts around the country are intended to change that picture. These systems, which take student achievement into account in various ways, are still in their formative years, but they have already opened the door to a different way of doing business. At their best, these evaluation systems are based on the idea that teaching is difficult to master and that high-performers tend to get that way through intensive feedback and help from colleagues.
If these systems are in their formative stages, then why are they being use for high-stakes summative evaluations?  This is the question that the National Research Council asked Arne Duncan in a 17-page warning letter in 2009, but Duncan ignored the warning and mandated this quack system for Race to the Top by putting together a point system that made it impossible to win a grant without a commitment to value added teacher eval based on test scores.  May I quote my colleague, Isabelle Nunez, from the Sun-Times the other day:
"The way that CPS plans to use test scores in teacher evaluation, referred to as value-added, is so incredibly flawed that almost no one with a knowledge base in this area thinks it’s a good idea.
The National Research Council wrote a letter to the Obama administration warning against including value-added in Race to the Top federal grant program because of a lack of research support. The Educational Testing Service, an organization that stands to benefit tremendously from any expansion of testing, issued a report concluding that value-added is improper test use.
These are the people who know the statistics, and none of them thinks the models work. There is a list of obstacles:
One: A correlation does not mean a causality. Researchers have found fifth-grade teacher “effects” on fourth-grade scores using these models. Ridiculous, right?
That’s because the models don’t work. For one thing, there must be random assignment of students for this kind of comparison among teachers to work — and no administration that cared about students would ever do that. There are deep statistical problems, and no way to reduce the amount of error to an acceptable level. The biggest problem of all, though, is that this is a ranking. So half of all teachers will always be below the 50th percentile. That’s math.
This is setting teachers up for failure. This will ensure regular turnover, keeping the teaching force young and inexperienced, afraid and compliant. This is only one of many ways that teaching is being turned from a vocation to a job — and a low-paid, temporary one at that. . . ."
The school system in Montgomery County, Md., established its evaluation and mentoring system more than a decade ago. The system does not specify exactly how much weight student test scores and other data should receive. But depending on the circumstances, the evaluation may include scores from state tests, student projects, student and parent surveys and other data.
It is an intensive program that aims to help both novice teachers and experienced teachers who receive a “below standard” evaluation. The system, which has required a considerable investment of time and money, assigns consulting teachers who work full time assisting a number of colleagues. These master teachers help their charges plan lessons, review student work and also arrange for them to observe other teachers on the job. After a year of support, a panel of teachers and principals can recommend dismissal or another year of support.
The widely praised evaluation system in New Haven also relies on a complex mix of factors. It takes into account year-by-year improvement in student learning, as measured by progress on state and local tests and attainment of academic goals. The system also examines the teachers’ instructional abilities, judged by frequent observations by principals and other managers. Teachers receive regular face-to-face feedback so that they are fully aware of what they need to do to improve.
Some systems give a specific weight to so-called value-added test scores, which try to account for socioeconomic differences by tracking students’ improvement year to year, rather than looking just at their absolute scores. That approach, though, has come under attack by critics who argue that these scores are too often statistically flawed.
Reasonable school officials understand that test scores, while important, do not reflect the sum total of what good teachers provide for their students. In Washington, D.C., where the evaluation system is now in its fourth year, school officials have decided to change the weighting of tests. Originally, value-added scores accounted for 50 percent of teacher evaluations; that has been reduced to 35 percent, with an additional 15 percent consisting of other goals (like the students’ mastery of certain skills) collaboratively arrived at by teacher and principal.
Officials there say they reduced the importance of value-added scores after some of the most successful teachers expressed anxiety about the measure and argued that it might not give some teachers full credit for their work because they teach subjects not covered by the state tests.
What Staples fails to mention is that in "First to the Top" state, Tennessee, which won the first half-billion dollar RTTT prize, is using composite math and reading test scores to evaluate art teachers and auto mechanics instructors.  State tests count 35 percent of the evaluation, and other tests count 15 percent.  The other half is based on observations.  Just 2 months ago, however, the state concluded that in systems where supervisor evaluations did not match the value-added test scores, the supervisors would have to undergo a re-education that will conducted by an outside contractor run by the Milkens.  Yes, those Milkens.
Many of these new programs are better than the slipshod evaluation systems they replaced. But they are far from perfect. States and cities, like Chicago, will need to keep working at them to ensure fairness, accuracy and transparency.
Finally, something Brent and I can agree on: fairness, accuracy, and transparency.  It's just too bad that he is pimping for a slipshod system that offers none of the above.  The best or even better way to improve an evaluation system that needs improving is not to make it worse.  That is what value-added teacher evaluation does by claiming for itself a respectability that the scientific community is entirely unwilling to provide.


  1. Anonymous2:36 PM

    I just canceled my NY Times subscription for this reason. I wrote to the publisher, the president and the public editor. I am sure they could care less.

    I wanted to share an article with you posted in the Hartford Courant about a new Achievement First high school in Hartford. I was appalled at this quote:

    "they get the culture they need".....what does that mean? Not to mention the finger snapping, hand clapping, lean forward, all the Lemov methods. Teachers are not allowed to gossip, etc.

    This dialogue box won't let me paste the link. I will try in the next one.

  2. Cindy Lutenbacher--Atlanta8:17 AM

    Amen, Jim Horn. Thank you for your superb "calling out" of Staples. His writings on other matters have been excellent, but tacking him onto issues of education is another sign of the NYT's disrespect for teachers. He knows not of which he speaks, and you DO. Thank you.