A statewide deal was announced last week setting the stage for performance-based evaluations for New York teachers, with state officials finally settling a lawsuit brought by the state teachers union. 700 local districts throughout the state will still have to negotiate the fine points with local unions.
The new framework bases 40% of a teacher’s evaluation on student performance, with 20% being based on student progress on high stakes standardized exams. The other 20% would also consider test scores, but would be measured using a union-supported method. The plan also makes it easier to fire teachers after two years of “ineffective” ratings.
According to the Wall Street Journal, all sides considered the deal a victory, with UFT President Michael Mulgrew saying that the new appeals process provides a "much greater degree of fairness."
VAM Evaluations Are Bad For Students as Well as Teachers
Regardless of the merits of the new appeals process, any use of student test data to evaluate teachers should be considered a defeat for teachers, as well as students and their schools.
First of all, the test scores and students’ progress on them are most strongly correlated with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, not teacher quality. Consequently, teachers who have more affluent students will tend to get better evaluations, increasing the diaspora of quality veteran teachers from challenging, low income schools, where they are most needed, but least likely to get good evaluations and keep their jobs.
Secondly, there is no accurate, consistent or commonly accepted method for using student test scores to measure teacher quality. Various accounting methods tend to cause wildly fluctuating Value Added Measures (VAM) from year to year. Thus, an excellent teacher could easily get a “false negative” and get fired as a result, which would also be unfair to students, as well as the unjustly fired teacher.
Thirdly, the tests themselves are terrible waste of time and resources, sapping states and districts of much needed revenue for instruction and teacher retention. They do little or nothing toward improving the quality of schools or students’ educational outcomes. They take away class time from authentic learning, critical thinking and problem solving. They encourage teaching to the test and discourage creativity and curiosity.
In order to boost test scores, many districts have abandoned or reduced arts, music, athletics and even science to make room for increased test preparation and remediation. Many schools have even implemented test preparation and homework for kindergartners to prepare them for a lifetime of testing and drudgery.
Basing teachers’ evaluations (and thus their livelihoods) on these same tests will only encourage more teaching to the test and discourage creative, student-centered teaching, thus decreasing the quality of teaching overall. It also legitimizes the tests and their publishers, strengthening their grip on this deplorable and brazen taxpayer giveaway.
Why the Sellout?
The deal had been in the works for two years. However, the stakes grew when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned the state last month that it was in danger of losing nearly $1 billion in federal Race to the Top money if it failed to overhaul of teacher evaluations.
In hard economic times, $1 billion is nothing to sneeze at. But it should not be forgotten that states and the feds have been consistently squeezing education of funding by slashing taxes on the wealthy and their corporations. The money to sufficiently fund public education could be provided, despite the recession, if there were increases in the marginal tax rate for the wealthy, combined with increases in the corporate, capital gains and inheritance taxes. Furthermore, if NY and other states simply refused to participate in NCLB testing, Common Core Standards, and other expensive “reforms,” they would save billions of dollars in expenditures on test printing, scoring and evaluating, new textbooks, making the Race to the Top (RttT) extortion racket irrelevant.
One other little incentive for the union to sell out was Gov. Cuomo’s threat of a state-mandated settlement, including the threat of cutting state aid to districts. However, it shouldn’t matter which boss is screwing workers, the response should be the same. If VAM and test-based evaluations are bad for students and unfair to teachers, they should be opposed vigorously, regardless of who makes the demand.
Teacher Evaluation Crisis or Red Herring?
Ever since the Nation at Risk report, pundits, politicians and Ed Deformers have been decrying the crisis in public education and looking for causes and culprits under every bed. The problem is that public education is better than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
While it is not without its problems, the single biggest problem is the socioeconomic disparity between students, not teacher quality. Nevertheless, the teacher evaluation system is far from perfect. But the biggest problem is not that too many “bad” teachers are slipping through the cracks. Rather, the biggest problem is that there are too few evaluators with too little training and too much bias to do the job well. In most districts, administrators are responsible for observing teachers and rarely do they have the time and training to do it comprehensively. In 15 years of teaching, I have never been observed more than 3-4 times per year (sometimes never), nor do I know any teachers who have been observed any more than this.
Yet even, if site administrators had sufficient time to observe everyone on a weekly basis, they would still have an inherent bias that potentially undermines the validity of their observations. An independent and creative teacher might deliberately choose his or her own original lessons over an administrator’s recommended ones, or publicly question or critique an administrator’s reforms, leading to biased negative evaluations. Indeed, union organizers, outspoken critics and advocates, and original thinkers are often singled out by bosses and treated unfairly as a result.
The New York City agreement allows the union to send up to 13% of cases to a three-person panel to protect against harassment by principals, according to the New York Times. While Mulgrew has spun this as a victory for UFT, it means that 87% of “at-risk” teachers will simply be tossed aside, without due process or a grievance procedure. Considering how much poverty exists in New York City schools and the heavy emphasis on student test scores, there will likely be a substantial number of good teachers who will fall into this unprotected 87%, abandoned by their own union and without the legal support they paid for with their dues.
There is one theoretically positive outcome from the settlement: the evaluation system will bring independent observers into the classrooms to monitor the weakest teachers, the New York Times reported. I say “theoretical” because, though it is preferable to use unbiased outside observers, these observers will have caseloads of 50-80 teachers, which is far too large to do the job well. Indeed, they are only required to do three observations per year. Furthermore, the “outside” observers will be provided by a private company which stands to profit off the system, creating a new bias.