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Better Than What We Have Today?

A reportedly “historic” teacher evaluation deal between Los Angeles Unified and the teachers union would solidify the dismal status quo.

A substantive settlement in the Doe vs. Deasy lawsuit would drag the Los Angeles Unified School District into the 21st Century. In November of 2011, I wrote

…a half-dozen anonymous families working with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the LAUSD, district superintendent John Deasy, and United Teachers Los Angeles. The lawsuit in essence accuses the district and the union of a gross dereliction of duty. According to the parents’ complaint, the district and the union have violated the children’s “fundamental right to basic educational equality and opportunity” by failing to comply with a section of the California Education Code known as the Stull Act. Under the 1971 law, a school district must include student achievement as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Los Angeles Unified has never done so: the teachers union wouldn’t allow it.

In 1999, the state legislature amended the law, named after the late Republican state senator John Stull, to require that “the governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to: the progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments.” In plainer words, a teacher’s evaluation must be based at least in part on how well her students perform on state tests.

In June, a judge ruling in favor of the plaintiffs said that student performance must be used as part of a teacher’s evaluation. Then this past Friday, after months of negotiation, the school district and union did reach what is being called a tentative settlement. (The final details of the agreement must be submitted to the judge by end of business day today.) That’s the good news. The bad news is that the terms of the agreement (as written so far) are so vague as to be meaningless. The United Teachers of Los Angeles immediately posted a summary of key elements on its website. The first part says,

No individual AGT/VAM in final evaluation: As specified in this agreement, a teacher’s individual AGT results cannot be used to form the basis for any performance objective or be used in the final evaluation (SECTION 1.3E).

This means that “academic growth over time (AGT)” or “value added measurements (VAM)”   which assess the value or improvement that a teacher adds to a student’s knowledge base via a standardized test score during the time that the student is in the teacher’s classroom – cannot be used. The district had wanted to use AGT as 30 percent of the total assessment, but the union collectively bargained that reasonable number down to zero. Instead,

The teacher and administrator will determine data sources: The multiple measures of student progress for the initial planning sheets will be determined by the administrator and the employee. These measures may include:

• data such as a teacher’s past CST results (not AGT), current students’ previous CST results, and school-level CST/AGT data, and

• authentic evidence of student learning, such as teacher-created assessments, student projects and portfolios, semester/unit culminating activities, and periodic assessments (SECTION 1.3A-G).

None of these measures are to be treated as the “sole, primary or controlling” factors in determining the overall final evaluation (SECTION 2.0A).

In other words, it’s business as usual. There is way too much wiggle room here. This ruling was supposed to bring forth a more objective way to assess teachers and add an accountability factor. But with this settlement, incompetent teachers and unaccountable principals can survive lengthy careers and irreparably damage millions of children. Curiously, absent a savvy principal, an excellent teacher can be made to appear to be mediocre. It cannot be stressed enough that principals in Los Angeles, though technically at-will employees, live in the same “culture of non-accountability” as teachers, and if this agreement is accepted as is, these administrators will have a bigger and more important role in assessing teacher quality. As Stanford Professor Eric Hanushek points out, principals can make a huge difference in a school’s performance. Yet they have not been held to any real liability. So we will now have evaluation methods “determined by the administrator and the employee” with neither party being held accountable for student learning.

Also, it’s no secret that the process to fire an incompetent teacher is so expensive and time-consuming that few principals even make the effort. This issue must be directly addressed as part of this agreement or school kids in Los Angeles will continue to be victimized by the current dysfunctional system.

Amazingly, the powers that be are gushing over the preliminary agreement. Superintendent John Deasy went so far as to declare the new plan “historic.” LAUSD school board President Monica Garcia damned the deal with faint praise, saying it is “absolutely, by all accounts, better than what we have today.”

The agreement is not written in stone yet. After receiving some final add-ons, the judge will assess whether it fulfills all the legal requirements of the Stull Act. If it passes that hurdle, the UTLA rank-and-file gets to vote on it in January.

Additionally, while the agreement applies to LA only, the rest of the school districts and local unions in the state will be watching. They too will have to follow the law and implement some kind of evaluation plan, and very well may use this deal as a template. Unless new details emerge or the judge tosses this version into the round file, the teachers union gets the last laugh and the children yet again get the shaft.

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.

The Second American Revolution

If education reformers stick to principle and don’t back down, all other obstacles to victory can be overcome.

Recently, Andrew Rotherham wrote a short piece in The Atlantic in which he describes “The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform”. The first obstacle he mentions is that currently “We buy reform.”

Or at least we try to. Some politicians really think that throwing money at the problem will help and the less principled ones do it because they are trying to pay back certain political allies. The result is that untold billions are taken from taxpayers to support giant bureaucracies on the federal and state levels and to prop up programs that do little or nothing to help the students who desperately need it. Rotherham writes,

The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy — the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office — and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

This bears repeating – there are 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality! Improving teacher quality is important, of course, but ultimately it’s just one small piece of the education reform picture. While one can find some good in the Bush era No Child Left Behind and Obama-Duncan’s Race to the Top, in the grand scheme of things both programs end up creating as many problems as they solve, and do so at an unbearable financial cost.

Rotherham’s second obstacle is “Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.” I disagree with Rotherham here. We have adequate ways to measure performance. They are not perfect, but what we have is good enough to work with in the meantime while we continually strive for improvements. As I wrote in January,

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.”)

While using value added is important, this measure is not the only way to evaluate teachers. Observations by principals and outside evaluators are important components as is feedback from parents and students. These hybrid evaluation plans are being used now in New York and elsewhere. In Harrison, CO, School Superintendent Mike Miles has used a combination of standardized tests and classroom observation to come up with a tiered system of teacher effectiveness. (Miles, who has been called “an icon in educator effectiveness,” is apparently on his way to Dallas to head up its school system.)

Rotherham correctly bemoans “last in, first out,” the horrific seniority system that too many school districts still use. Seventeen states, including California, do not leave staffing decisions of this nature to individual school districts – they are state mandates. Seniority, a teachers union favorite, is like our tailbones, a vestigial remnant from another era. In this rigid system, no weight is given to an employee’s effectiveness, just to length of time on the job. So on a regular basis we have “Teachers of the Year” being laid off, while far less effective colleagues get to keep their jobs. The union claims this is a fair way to make staffing decisions.

Fair? Hardly. It’s highly unprincipled – horrible for children, grossly unfair to good teachers and taxpayers and must be done away with in toto.

In fact, the National Teacher of the Year award has just been given to a teacher in California. On its website, NEA proudly proclaimed her “an NEA member.” The irony is that this terrific teacher could have been laid off, with no exception made for her teaching ability, if she had been hired a few years later. So you might say that she is still on the job in spite of the teachers unions and their insistence on a seniority-based system.

Rotherham’s third obstacle is, “Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse.”

All too often educrats, school board members and the teachers unions selfishly fight to maintain the status quo – and the kids be damned. Unless the current state of affairs is rigorously and unapologetically challenged by reformers, our country will suffer irreparable damage.

Rotherham could have added a fourth and overarching obstacle – that there is squishiness in parts of the reform movement. For example, “partnering” with the industrial style and self-absorbed teachers unions and searching for “best practices” are diversionary and ultimately pointless exercises, yet there are some who embrace them in the name of reform. In an exceptional essay, RiShawn Biddle makes a case for “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education.” He notes that many significant historical figures like Winston Churchill and Thomas Paine were considered divisive because of their standing on principle and their unwillingness to compromise. He claims that for education to undergo a necessary transformation, we need to have more divisiveness, not less. Teachers unions and other members of the educational establishment have derisively referred to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee as divisive. But as Biddle says,

… school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.

The situation is somewhat akin to the founding of our country. I suppose that King George looked upon George Washington as divisive, as well as the aforementioned Paine, and Madison, and Jefferson. Biddle goes on to state,

Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.

In short, education reformers are at war with those who, for their own selfish reasons, are fighting to maintain a failed system. Because a revolution in education must occur if we are to regain our status as a great nation, playing nice with the enemy will not get the job done. In a time of warfare, divisiveness is a virtue. Without it, and a principled spine of steel, the war will be lost and our country along with it.

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.

Publishing Teacher Value Added Rankings: Shame on Whom?

The release of teachers’ VA rankings should not be viewed as an attack on teachers, but as a wake-up call for the rest of us.

The recent release of teachers’ value added (VA) rankings by the New York Times reignited a controversy which began when the Los Angeles Times did the same thing in 2010. The value added technique of rating teachers is “based on their students’ progress on standardized tests year after year. The difference between a student’s expected growth and actual performance is the ‘value’ a teacher adds or subtracts during the year.”

The imbroglio has two facets – the first being whether or not teachers can be accurately evaluated by how well their students do on a standardized test. As I wrote in January,

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 second and more contentious element of VA concerns itself with who should get to see the teacher’s ranking. Some think it should be just the principal who can use the data to help low performing teachers. Others think that parents should also be allowed to learn about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher. And finally there are those who demand that all people — especially taxpayers — should have access to them. The reasoning, of course, is that since taxpayers are shelling out for the teachers’ salaries, they have a right to know what they are getting for their money.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-VA charge has been led by the teachers unions which constantly demonize the whole process as unreliable and unfair. But that is just a front; their “philosophy” is that there is no such thing as a bad teacher, just one that needs more training to become a good one. The reality is that unions despise it when any teacher – good or incompetent – loses a job, because it means one less dues payer. In California, for example, one less teacher means $647 fewer dollars for the California Teachers Association. And the national and local union affiliates also lose money. So keeping every body in the classroom is imperative for them.

Even concerned reformers like Bill Gates and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp are antipathetic toward the release of test scores to the public, using phrases like “a capricious exercise in public shaming.”

My take is that, while not a perfect measure, VA still should be used and made public. But at the same time, it should be stressed that other factors need to be taken into consideration when measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. Both the NY and LA Times, to their credit, acknowledged this and also allowed teachers to post comments with their scores.

However, there is a part of this story which has not been examined. Publishing a teachers VA rank is no more “public shaming” than publishing a baseball player’s batting average in the daily newspaper. It is what it is. But as any knowledgeable 5th grader knows, there is more to a baseball player than his batting average. Is the player a good base stealer? Can he field? Does he draw a lot of walks? Is he a team leader? Anyone who is interested in baseball knows this. The take-away then is not to hide test scores from the public, but for parents and taxpayers to become as interested and knowledgeable about education as they are about baseball and demand more from the educational establishment.

So if there is any shame to be identified, it is that, as a country, we are more informed about the intricacies of baseball than about how best to assess the people who are educating the next generation of Americans.

If nothing else, the posting of teachers’ VA scores has opened a Pandora’s Box which the American public must deal with sooner rather than later.

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.

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.