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Positive Impact

Michelle Rhee’s teacher evaluation system has shown itself to be effective in D.C. public schools and has left the teachers unions on the sidelines…for now.

Back in 2010, the Washington, D.C. public school system (DCPS) introduced IMPACT, an evaluation system whose goal was not only to identify and retain good teachers, but pay them bonuses. At the same time, it aimed to enable the school district to get rid of its poor performers. (Just like employers do in the rest of the working world!) Michelle Rhee, who implemented the plan, began her reign as chancellor of DCPS in 2007 and left the district in October, 2010 just as the new system kicked in. (Rhee saw the handwriting on the wall when Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had hired her, lost a primary bid to run again.)

To state the obvious, the Washington Teachers Union was outraged by the plan. In fact, it was blasted by organized labor from coast to coast. Every teacher union leader who could get their hands on a microphone or the ear of a willing education reporter spewed vitriol at Rhee. In brief, they said the program, which included a component that rated teachers by how well students do on standardized tests, was unfair because tests “evaluate students and not teachers.” Translation: union bosses don’t want teachers held at all accountable if their kids don’t learn. The unions see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are competent… to one degree or another. To differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with industrial-style work rules like tenure and seniority – perennial union-mandated protections.

The National Education Association and other unions prefer to subject teachers to “high-quality professional development.” These classes, intended to teach teachers how to teach, are made necessary because of the lousy job that many of our schools of education do. What the unions never get around to mentioning is what to do with teachers who can’t cut it even after they have had any number of “high-quality professional development” classes.

When it comes to teacher accountability, the California Teachers Association is Astaire-like at the evasion dance. Former CTA president Dean Vogel is on record saying that the union “will continue to fight to ensure we have qualified and experienced teachers in the classrooms….” (H/T Richard Rider)

Okay, “qualified” and “experienced” sound good, right? But there’s much more to teaching than having the proper certification and being on the job for x years. Is the teacher effective? Does the teacher get results? Are the students learning? Mr. Vogel becomes a wallflower when this music is played.

Well, lo and behold, just last week a study conducted jointly by the University of Virginia and Stanford examining the DCPS IMPACT program was released.

One of the study’s authors, Stanford’s Thomas Dee, writes, “We found that a disproportionate share of low-performing teacher exits are from high-poverty schools. Our results indicate that DCPS is able to accurately identify low-performing teachers and consistently replace them with teachers who are more effective in raising student achievement, particularly in high-poverty schools.” (Emphasis added.)

The Washington Post’s Emma Brown writes, the departure of teachers who score poorly on IMPACT is beneficial “because student scores on math and reading tests tend to improve substantially after such teachers depart….” Brown adds thatstudent scores tend to drop slightly when high-performing teachers leave their assignment for another school or district, presumably because it is difficult to find replacements who are as effective. But overall, “because of the strong positive effect of exiting low-performing teachers, turnover under IMPACT led to an improvement in average student achievement, the study found.”

Additionally, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the researchers find that 46 percent of low-performing teachers in D.C. leave each year, “which is more than three times the attrition rate of high-performers. It turns out that the mere threat of removal encourages many low-scorers to quit or shape up, and those who leave are generally replaced with better teachers.”

The authors of the study acknowledge concerns that high-performing teachers in D.C. may leave because of “the stress of high-stakes evaluation.” But James Wyckoff, the study’s other author said, “While these are reasonable concerns and in some situations this may occur, overall our analysis suggests they don’t hold true at DCPS. This likely reflects IMPACT’s design to retain more effective teachers and encourage low-performing teachers to leave.”

The unions have been uncharacteristically silent in the week since the report has surfaced, just as they were in 2013 when a study revealed similar results. But I’m sure they are busy at union command-central figuring out how they can negatively characterize the retention of good teachers, paying them well and unloading dead weight. The spin on this one could leave us all in a vertigo-like state.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Jerry Brown and CTA: Testphobic Twins

Children in the Golden State will get a better education when teacher quality becomes a priority.

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

The only caveat from the authors is that using test scores in teachers’ evaluations could lead to “teaching to the test or cheating.” Nothing new here. Some people, when involved in any kind of competition, will try to gain unfair advantage or cheat outright. Typically, it’s a small part of the population and those who do should lose their jobs and face criminal charges.

The lesson is clear: test scores can give us a great deal of information about who the really good teachers are. But California Governor Jerry Brown, unfazed by the blockbuster study, actually called for less testing in his recent State of the State address.

No, Governor. In fact, we need more testing. In California, English and math are tested yearly starting in second grade. But history and science are tested only every few years. Tests should be given in the four core areas every year. As a former American history teacher, I could never figure out why there was no 6th or 7th grade history test. Why wait for grade 8 and throw in a few questions from the 6th and 7th grade curriculum? Never made any sense to me.

Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Lance Izumi wrote in the Orange County Register last week,

“Brown’s education agenda contains a mishmash of proposals, some of which are steps backward and some that are mildly positive. On the clearly negative end, the governor, who has never been a fan of student testing, wants to reduce the number of tests and increase so-called ‘qualitative assessments.’ Trouble is, the reason tests are important is because they offer objective quantifiable data to measure student progress and the effect of teachers and schools on learning.”

While Jerry Brown’s call for less testing is wrongheaded, it isn’t surprising. Testing as a tool of assessing student progress has been around since Day 1, but using student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness has caused a backlash in some quarters. There is subset of teachers who laments that there is “more to teaching than just test scores.” And of course they are right, to a point, but they take their case to an extreme and dismiss testing completely. The ringleaders of the anti-testing zealots are the teachers unions, and their agenda has nothing to do with kids or their education. The California Teachers Association, by far the biggest political spender in the state, is about power and ensuring that the disastrous status quo is not disturbed.

Actually, teachers unions operate under the early 20th Century industrial mentality which stipulates that everyone can stick a widget on a car equally as well. Therefore, all widget stickers are equally good and all widget stickers should make the same amount of money. Substitute education for widget, teachers for widget stickers and students for cars, and you fully understand the teachers union model. Once this antiquated notion is truly grasped, the unions may find themselves in trouble, forced to acknowledge that some teachers are better than others, and that some are so bad that they shouldn’t be in the classroom at all. Once that is accepted as truth, better teachers might demand to be paid more than mediocre ones. And the good ones may not be so compliant if they’re the ones who get laid off instead of an inferior teacher who has been on the job longer. Thus, the whole concept of teachers as interchangeable industrial workers starts to unravel. And what could be worse for a group whose main lot in life is to keep acquiring buckets of money and enormous power being exposed as pushing a model that never should have been applied to the teaching profession in the first place?

The good news is that much of the rest of the country is catching on. Teacher quality has become a major topic of discussion with educators, the media and politicians of late. From Oklahoma to New York to Louisiana to New Jersey, states are getting serious about teacher evaluation, all using the results of standardized test scores as a significant part of the equation.

Good teachers matter a lot, and bad teachers can ruin a child’s future. Test scores are very helpful in identifying those teachers and value added methods are good ways to analyze test scores. But California, essentially governed by CTA, their bought-and-paid-for legislature and their man in the governor’s mansion will be the last state to do anything meaningful in this area. That means that one-tenth of the country’s children will continue to be victimized by a cartel that cares a lot about money and power and not a whit about them.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.