Roving thoughts and provocations

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Holding Education Hostage

Grandville

For weeks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers have been battling over the issue of teacher evaluation. Governor Andrew Cuomo set a deadline for them to reach an agreement, but they failed to do so, potentially costing the city schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The state education commissioner, John King, jumped into the fray by threatening to withhold over a billion dollars in state and federal aid if there was no settlement between the parties. Now, Governor Cuomo says that he may intervene and take charge of the stalemated negotiations.

What’s going on here? Why can’t the mayor and the union reach an agreement? Why does Commissioner King intend to punish the city’s children if the grown-ups don’t agree?

The imbroglio began with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. Immediately after Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, with the economy in free fall, Congress passed the huge economic stimulus package, which included $100 billion to aid schools: $95 billion to be disbursed to states to avoid massive layoffs of teachers and the remaining $5 billion to be given to the US Department of Education to promote education reforms.

The new Secretary of Education Arne Duncan huddled with his advisors and decided to create the so-called Race to the Top, a competition among states for the new funds. Instead of asking states to come up with their own best ideas for education reform, Duncan laid out a laundry list of policies states must put in place to be eligible to win millions of dollars. Among them was a requirement that state governments base teacher evaluations to a significant degree on the test scores of their students. The assumption was that good teachers produce higher test scores every year, while ineffective teachers do not.

In a time of fiscal stringency, New York, like almost every other state, wanted a share of the federal windfall. New York promptly repealed a law that explicitly prohibited using test courses to assess teacher performance. New York applied for Race to the Top funds and was a finalist. In order to win, the state needed the cooperation of the teachers union. Michael Mulgrew, head of the union, joined city and state officials in applying for the funding. In return, the union received a promise that test scores would count for no more than 20 percent of any teacher’s evaluation. The state won $700 million, and was expected to do what Secretary Duncan wanted: evaluate teachers by test scores, open more charter schools, adopt “college-and-career ready” standards, and undertake a variety of other measures intended to produce rewards for successful schools and punishment for schools with low scores.

Implementation of these measures has been slow. Governor Cuomo jumped into the act by demanding that test scores count for 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations, not 20 percent. (The federal government did not set a specific percentage; the most conservative states have made it as high as 50 percent.)

The New York State Regents hired a new state commissioner, John King, who has only a few years of experience as a teacher or administrator, gained in the charter sector. King is an accountability hawk who has pressed hard to get a top-down, test-based system in place quickly. He pressed so hard and moved so quickly, brooking no dissent, that more than a third of the principals in the state signed a petition opposing the state’s new—and itself untested—evaluation system.

Despite their qualms, most school districts reached agreements with their local unions, but New York City did not. Mayor Bloomberg believes that teachers can be measured by the rise or fall of their students’ test scores. He believes it so ardently that last year he released the names and rankings of 18,000 teachers to the media. The information was released in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the New York Post. Although the city had promised the union that it would fight such a request, it did not, and the teachers’ names were made public.

The list contained many inaccuracies. The city admitted that the margin of error in the rankings was so large that the numbers were essentially meaningless. Bill Gates published an opinion piece in The New York Times opposing the public release of teachers’ names and rankings. Governor Cuomo agreed. Only Mayor Bloomberg remains adamant that “the public has a right to know,” even if the rankings are inaccurate and needlessly humiliating.

This is the background for today’s bad blood between the mayor and the union. But there is more to it than a personal vendetta. The recent negotiations collapsed because the union wanted the agreement to have a one-year sunset clause, at which time the process would be reviewed and fine-tuned. Most districts in the state have done this. Mayor Bloomberg objected to the sunset, fearing that it would make the agreement moot. He has a point. The process might take three to five years to show results, for good or ill.

Many researchers and testing experts have cautioned that evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students—called value-added assessment—is fraught with problems. Linda Darling-Hammond, a prominent scholar at Stanford University and one of the nation’s leading authorities on issues of teacher quality, has written that the measures say more about which students are in the classroom than about the competence of the teacher.

The National Academy of Education and the American Educational Research Association issued a joint statement saying the same thing. Those who teach students with disabilities, English-language learners, and low-performing students are likely to get smaller gains in test scores than those who teach students from affluent homes in well-funded schools. Using test scores to rate teachers will penalize those who teach the students in greatest need. Over time, teachers will avoid the students who jeopardize their jobs and their reputations. This will be harmful to the students who need talented and experienced teachers most urgently.

Across the nation, as districts put into effect the “reform” that Secretary Duncan wants, the consequences have been counterproductive. Houston fired its teacher of the year. Other districts are discovering that their best teachers are getting low ratings. A teacher in Florida was recently photographed in front of her elementary school, whose billboard honored her as teacher of the month, as she held up a placard saying she had just been rated “ineffective.”

So what we have here is an effort by politicians to devise a metric to rate professionals. The measure makes no sense. No other nation—unless it is following our own bad example—is rating teachers in so crude a fashion. Even researchers at the company that designed New York’s evaluation system warned that it was too soon to use it to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

It is simply wrong to devise a measure of teacher quality based on standardized tests. The tests are not yardsticks. They are not scientific instruments. They are social constructions, and quite apart from how contingent their results are on the social and economic background of the students being tested, they are also subject to human error, sampling error, random error, and other errors. It is true that the cleanliness of restaurants can be given a letter grade (another of Bloomberg’s test-oriented innovations in New York City), and agribusiness can be measured by crop yields, and corporations can be measured by their profits. But to apply a letter grade or a numerical ranking to a professional is to radically misunderstand the complex set of qualities that make someone good at what they do. It is an effort by economists and statisticians to quantify activities that are at heart matters of judgment, not productivity. Professionals must be judged by other professionals, by their peers. Nowhere is this more true than among educators, whose success at teaching character, wisdom, and judgment cannot be measured by standardized tests.

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