Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another Domino Falls--UTLA Rolls Over and Accepts Student Test Data to Evaluate Teachers

United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which represents teachers at the nation’s second largest school district, recently signed what some are calling a landmark agreement to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. 66% of the 16,892 members who voted approved the agreement, the Los Angeles Times reported, bringing L.A. in line with Chicago, New York and many smaller cities in using student test data in teacher evaluations.

The Times is calling it a victory for the union, because the agreement limits the use of value-added measures (VAM), which supposedly measure how much a teacher influences students’ gains or losses on test scores from year to year. Instead, the agreement allows for the evaluation of teachers based on raw state test scores and district assessments.

In reality, this can hardly be considered a victory. The reason that VAM should be opposed is that it cannot accurately or consistently attribute student progress on tests to anything their teachers may or may not have done. When used correctly (e.g., taking the average of students’ scores over three consecutive years and factoring out variables outside the teachers’ control, like poverty), VAM scores may be consistent for teachers at the extremes (i.e., the very best and very worst), but is essentially useless for the vast majority of teachers who fall somewhere in between. Yet few school districts average the scores over this length of time, particularly those that are on one-year evaluation cycles. Even those on two-year cycles rarely do this.

Even when VAM is not used, all use of student test data to evaluate teachers suffers from most of these same problems. There is no scientifically accurate or consistent way to know why a child’s test scores improve or decline over time. Their socioeconomic status not only has a large influence on their baseline scores, but also on how quickly they improve over time. School and community cultures and attitudes can affect how seriously students take the tests. Student’s prior teachers and prerequisite knowledge and school-readiness influence how much they learn and how successful they are with future teachers.

The new evaluation plan will also include the use of student and parent feedback and teachers’ contributions to the school community, both of which are fraught with potential for bias. Students and parents are not only untrained to evaluate teacher quality, but they are not objective, either. They can and do provide negative feedback on teachers for vindictive and petty reasons, like refusing to change grades or for holding a child accountable for school or class policies.

With respect to the “school community,” teachers are already expected to participate in committees and extracurricular activities and several of the California State Teaching Standards address this. What remains unclear is whether this is just a reiteration of what already exists in the standards (in which case it need not be mentioned in this new agreement) or if it is an expectation that teachers contribute even more time outside of their teaching responsibilities. If the latter is true, this could lead to a bias in favor of those teachers who kiss up most to administrators or who volunteer most for administrators’ pet projects.

Not surprisingly there was no consensus among LA teachers in favor of this deal.  Only about half of the teachers participated in the vote (according to Ed Source), with about 66% of those voting in favor, which means only one-third of the district’s teachers actually approved the measure. While it is impossible to know why turnout was so low, one can speculate that many teachers were ambivalent to the point that they were willing to accept whatever their colleagues decided. Indeed, Cheryl Ortega, the union’s director of bilingual education, said she wanted to vote no, but voted yes because she feared the state would mandate something worse.

The decision by UTLA to push this terrible deal likely influenced many members to support it and it amounts not only to a sellout of its own members, but a threat to all teachers in the state. That UTLA and LAUSD were at the bargaining table in the first place was the result of a recent court ruling that the state’s Stull Act required the use of student test data in teacher evaluations. However, not only was the court ruling flawed (the Stull Act requires the use of student data—not necessarily the use of high stakes exams), but it was an attack on collective bargaining, which is supposed to be between a union and its members’ employer (in this case LAUSD, not the courts or the state legislature).

Yet even if the Stull Act did mandate the use of high stakes student test data, this would not justify UTLA rolling over and accepting it. The fact remains that the use of student test data is unreliable, inconsistent and inappropriate for evaluating teachers and will likely lead to many good teachers receiving poor reviews and potentially losing their jobs, while doing little to identify, let alone remediate bad teachers. Thus, it is also potentially detrimental for schools and children. UTLA (like the UFT and CTU did in response to similar legislation in New York and Illinois) chose to take the easy, passive, risk-free road of obedience, rather than fighting for the interests of their members or the interests of children.

Now that the three biggest district unions have accepted the use of student test data to evaluate their teachers without a serious fight, states will be emboldened to shove it down the throats of other school districts.

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