Must-Reads

Everybody seems to love this morning’s WaPo look at the new D.C. teacher evaluation system in action.* It is great as a piece of writing on a complicated issue.  But, I hope we get a look at how some teachers who are highly-rated react and view the system, too.  For another look at how data can be used within schools, Achievement Network’s annual report is well-worth checking out. They’re in D.C. and a number of other cities.

A little off-topic but good reads are this Andrei Cherny piece in Democracy, a provocative look at “individual age” policies. And my occasional co-author (and a great fly fisherman) Rob Saldin takes a look at how different wars have expanded minority rights and what that means for policy on gays in the military.

*A lot of notice that the article makes, or ascribes, the claim that teachers matter more than everything else, including poverty.  That one is always good for a ruckus in education circles.  What research shows right now is that teachers matter most as a within school influence on student learning. That’s a pretty settled point.  What’s up for some debate (and by that I mean a legitimate debate not the Teach For America achievement kind) is how powerful the teacher effect is relative to various other factors like poverty and also how durable it is – in other words does the effect of good teachers fade out after a year or two or does it accrue as students move through school?  But, I think you have different kinds of people making the ‘teachers matter more than anything else’ claim.  Some are just folks who don’t know any better.  But I think many others are simply talking in a shorthand, assuming the caveat is pretty well-known, and are most interested in things that education policy can meaningfully influence, like quality teaching.  So they say teachers matter most, with the unspoken, most of the things schools do. Where this gets confusing is that as a rhetorical matter people like to ascribe the ‘teachers matter more than anything else’ claim to their opponents in various debates because they can then knock it down.  In other words, it’s not that surprising that a lot of people are confused…

35 Responses to “Must-Reads”

  1. Independent Thinker Says:

    “I think many others are simply talking in a shorthand, assuming the caveat is pretty well-known, and are most interested in things that education policy can meaningfully influence, like quality teaching.”

    Perhaps they are speaking in shorthand, but their shorthand is damaging our society. The singular focus on teacher quality is distracting us from dealing with issues that have a far more profound effect on educational outcomes.

    If our country put the same effort into reducing poverty and providing support to low income parents that we are currently putting into assessing teacher quality our students and country would be far better off.

    We cannot continue to create a more unequal society and expect our teachers to close an ever widening gap between rich and poor.

  2. Chris Smyr Says:

    Your handle reads “Independent Thinker” yet your response is a fairly common one. Since you’ve come to these thoughts independently of others, perhaps you can answer the following pertinent questions:

    * How would you like our country to reduce poverty?

    * What % possibility do you imagine exists for successfully implementing the above?

    * What rationale exists for *not* wanting to improve teacher quality?

    * Is improving teacher quality and reducing poverty mutually exclusive?

  3. Michael Says:

    Well I think the people that say “teachers matters most ” are probably by and large teachers themselves. Journalists seem to have a similar opinion of their profession . While I do think that both teachers and journalists are very important for a healthy and economically active society they are hardly the most important

  4. Independent Thinker Says:

    * How would you like our country to reduce poverty?

    Bring the top marginal tax rates up to the levels they were in the 1990′s and put a surtax on the extraordinary wealthy. These tax dollars could be used to create union jobs that improve the infrastructure in our country, pay for universal health care, affordable housing, comprehensive counseling and whole host of other services that most 1st world industrialized nations provide for their poor (think Finland)

    * What % possibility do you imagine exists for successfully implementing the above?

    100% possible

    * What rationale exists for *not* wanting to improve teacher quality?

    I am all for improving teacher quality, but if we are looking to improve educational outcomes for students we should certainly not have a singular focus on a factor which everyone agrees is not the most important in predicting student outcomes. Lets improve teacher quality AND work on narrowing the gap that exists before children enter school.

    * Is improving teacher quality and reducing poverty mutually exclusive?
    Nope. Lets do both and prioritize the reforms which will have the greatest impact on educational outcomes.

  5. Chris Smyr Says:

    I agree that taxing the rich is a fair response, but surely it’s not going to reduce poverty. Providing more services to help the impoverished is not going to reduce poverty, either. The extent of services that you’d like to provide toward this goal may also quickly run counter to your “100% possibility” estimate, as well.

    I further agree that we should look at both improving teacher quality and reducing effects of poverty, but you were implying earlier that it was foolish to try and fix the former, despite it being the one we have the most control over changing. It’s not “damaging our society” to include teacher quality in reform, nor is it foolish to make it a primary goal considering all of the above.

  6. Independent Thinker Says:

    Thank you for the civil and articulate debate.

    You are correct that taxing the rich doesn’t reduce poverty. Social and economic programs funded by taxes do reduce poverty, not just “the effects of poverty.” A few examples of programs that reduce poverty and not just the effects of poverty include; micro financing, federal student loans, job creation through public works and social security.

    The notion that we should focus on teacher quality rather than poverty because it is, “the one have the most control over changing” is profoundly damaging to the poor in this country. This is ironic considering that the poor are the same group of people the “focus on teacher quality” crowd claim to be trying to help.

    We do have the power to address poverty and we have the power to address teacher quality. Lets do both and recognize that our efforts addressing poverty will likely have far more benefits to our students and country than improving the quality of our teachers.

  7. Chris Smyr Says:

    I have doubts that those services, on the scale that they would have to be implemented to see an effective reduction in poverty, have 100% possibility of being established in the US. However, I think they definitely should be fought for, and you agree that we should be able to do that and push for better teacher quality, so there is at least some common ground.

    Your claim that seems to be in error is how teacher accountability is “damaging to the poor”. You’ve still not provided the rationale behind this. If you are implying that reformers who are not actively pursuing your brand of reform are guilty of this, that is fallacious reasoning.

    It’s also not a given that “our efforts addressing poverty will likely have far more benefits to our students and country”. It depends on what can be achieved with our efforts to curb poverty (so far, not much) and by how much doing so will fix schools. It also doesn’t take into account teacher effectiveness, which is something that ought to be measured and utilized even if poverty did not exist; even rich kids deserve good teachers.

  8. Independent Thinker Says:

    I never claimed that teacher accountability was damaging to the poor. What is damaging is the idea that we can’t address poverty so we should address teacher quality instead. It shouldn’t as you pointed out be an either or debate. Lets do both.

    The premise that addressing poverty will have far more benefits to our students and country is rooted in two ideas.

    1) Poor educational outcomes is only one effect of poverty. If we can reduce poverty we can reduce a host of other societal problems including crime, homelessness, drug addiction, etc.

    2) It is clear that their are more important factors than teacher quality for improving educational outcomes ergo addressing the other factors will yield a greater results. To quote Ravitch

    “Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

    But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.” http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?page=2

  9. Rob Darrow Says:

    In your blog entry, you say: “What research shows right now is that teachers matter most as a within school influence on student learning.”

    Most readers will be thinking of brick-and-mortar schools. Although I don’t have the research at my fingertips to back this up, I believe the same is true with teachers in online schools as well as those who facilitate professional development. How the content is presented and how the learner is engaged is a function of the teacher. Teachers are one of the most important aspects for student learning to occur – face-to-face or online.

  10. Chris Smyr Says:

    “What is damaging is the idea that we can’t address poverty so we should address teacher quality instead. ”

    No one ever argued that, and I never said it was either/or. The argument is that improving teacher quality is a goal that should be a focus, regardless of what other goals are made.

    And to recap, you’ve still not provided reasoning for how/why some of the topics discussed here are “damaging to the poor”. What it seems like you’re doing here is creating a false dilemma. Are you?

    “The premise that addressing poverty will have far more benefits to our students and country is rooted in two ideas.”

    Those two ideas do not acknowledge what I said earlier: the benefits will depend on exactly what can be achieved, if anything. Another thing I think you’re forgetting is that improving the education that low-income students receive may also have an impact on reducing poverty, depending on what improvements are actually made.

  11. Attorney DC Says:

    I tried to log on and make a comment on the WaPo website but was, alas, too late and the comments were closed. I read the WaPo article and was startled the find the following quote: “The idea, aggressively embraced by the Obama administration, is as straightforward as it is controversial: that teachers are the main factor in student growth — more than poverty, parents, curriculum, principals or other circumstance.”

    The “idea” that teachers are more important than any other factors in student achievement is completely incorrect. It has been shown to be false by numerous studies over the years. Studies show that MOST of the difference between student achievement is due to other factors, including parent’s education level, family income, culture, poverty and other indicators. The student’s own efforts and motivation (which are of course linked to his family, peers and culture) also cannot be ignored.

    I’m shocked and dismayed that “the Obama administration” apparently believes something contrary to settled fact about education — and they are tasked with setting education policy for the country! If I were a teacher these days, I’d head for the greener pastures of teaching high-achieving suburban honors students, where I’d obviously be deemed a great teacher because my students would score well on tests … Only due to my great teaching (obviously).

  12. Chris Smyr Says:

    ^ You are ignoring: that the quote is referencing academic growth and not “differences between student achievement”; that teachers/schools can impact a “student’s own efforts and motivation”; and that per the standards of accountability being discussed, test scores from suburban honors students would only indicate you were a good teacher if the students improved relative to their past achievement levels.

    Improvement can be made and even (gasp) measured for all students regardless of whether or not we end poverty now or later.

  13. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris, I have to disagree. Student achievement rates are impacted by outside variables, just as their test scores are impacted. It is easier to teach students who are motivated, who have supportive families, and who are free from the effects of poverty, than to teach low-income students who have a host of problems.

    For example, studies show that lower-income students switch schools more often than higher income students. This affects their ability to learn and for their teachers to show improvement in their class’ scores. It is not as easy to teach a group of low-income students who are more likely to come to class hungry, or using drugs, or emotionally scarred from the effects of violence in their home or neighborhood, and who often act out in class and disrupt their own learning and that of their classmates, as it is to teach motivated, middle class kids whose parents help them with their homework each night.

  14. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    You can disagree but don’t assume that the research supports those opinions. You’re suggesting both that poverty will prevent kids from achieving (and not just from attaining the levels of other kids, but will prevent any gains at all) and that it would be much easier for teachers to take a group of high-achieving kids and make them achieve even more in a year, correct? Neither of these suggestions are exactly straight-forward, and furthermore they miss the point: regardless of how hard it may be to get certain students to achieve at higher levels, we still need to figure out which teachers are the most capable of doing this and address the inadequacies of those that are the least capable.

    Also, if teacher effects are pulled from students who both have past achievement to compare to and have been with that teacher for a large enough portion of the year (as are the aspects of these evaluations being considered), your example that poor students switch schools more often does not really matter.

    Finally, the last two aspects of my previous comment to you are unaddressed:

    * You are ignoring that teachers/schools can impact a “student’s own efforts and motivation”

    * You are ignoring that per the standards of accountability being discussed, test scores from suburban honors students would only indicate you were a good teacher if the students improved relative to their past achievement levels.

  15. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I’m not ignoring your points – I just want to provide an alternate theory to the idea of pinning the fault for all student achievement gains and/or losses on the teachers. The current theme in education policy today (NCLB, Rhee’s IMPACT scores) is to hold teachers (but not students or parents) strictly accountable for student performance. In reality, this usually means that low-performing schools (which are almost always low-income schools) are targeted for ‘reform’ — which includes firing teachers based on their students’ performance. High-performing schools aren’t using these measures to weed out teachers.

    While of course teachers and schools can have an effect on an individual student’s level of motivation, the student is likely far more influenced by outside factors, like his parents. The effect of holding teachers “accountable” is, in reality, putting more pressure on teachers of low-performing students (or teachers in low-performing schools), even though most of their students’ performance issues can be traced back to the student’s parents, SES levels, poverty, culture and other factors that teachers do not control.

  16. phillipmarlowe Says:

    When it comes to reporting on public schools, NBC News gets a failing grade-a grade it has thoroughly earned.

    Consider what happened on the Today show last Thursday morning. Guest host Savannah Guthrie introduced a taped interview segment with a controversial guest. Except Guthrie didn’t really seem to know that Michelle Rhee is a controversial figure in the world of public schools. Neither did Jenna Bush Hager, who had taped the interview session.

    The segment was a world-class groaner. The whole thing started like this:

    GUTHRIE (3/17/11): This morning on “Education Nation Today,” saving America’s schools.

    Michelle Rhee captured headlines as the chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, making sweeping changes and some enemies along the way. Rhee lost her job, but not her passion for education reform. “Today” contributing correspondent Jenna Bush Hager, a teacher herself, caught up with Michelle Rhee recently.

    Jenna, good morning!

    HAGER: Good morning. That’s right. Michelle Rhee is truly a maverick in education reform. She’s controversial and a courageous change-maker. And these days, as budget cuts mean teacher layoffs, Rhee is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.

    Michelle Rhee may have lost her job, but she gained a mission. She continues her life’s passion to fix America’s broken schools with a new lobbyist group, Students First.

    Neither Guthrie nor Hager seemed to know that Rhee is a controversial figure. According to the hapless pair, Rhee is “a courageous change-maker” who “is leading the fight for a quality education for every child.” Hager’s introduction was pure propaganda, but Guthrie hadn’t done much better; she introduced the segment with Rhee under the rubric of “saving America’s schools.”

    Hager’s interview was hapless throughout. But the worst part may have occurred when she briefly noted a basic fact-many people disagree with Rhee’s outlook and ideas:

    HAGER: Rhee’s reforms are part of a recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” But her firebrand approach also inspired relentless criticism and protests in Washington. (Speaking to Rhee) While you were chancellor, the union and others who protested you, calling you names such as “hatchet lady”- How could you keep a thick skin during all of that?

    RHEE: For me, what was going through my mind was, You know what? You can call me whatever names you want, you can yell at me as loud as you want to, under my watch I am not going to continue to allow the absolute dysfunction.

    Why did people criticize Rhee? Hager never tried to explain. Today show viewers were told only one thing-Rhee’s critics have called her bad names! In her very first statement, Rhee noted that she was “working in states across the country with governors like Rick Scott in Florida, Chris Christie in New Jersey, Governor Kasich in Ohio.” Hager never noted that these were all Republican governors. The possibility that there might be a political or ideological component to Rhee’s valiant efforts never intruded on the fawning which ran all through this segment.

    ……………

    On NBC, it isn’t hard to understand who the heroes are in the public school fight. Last week, Hager even gushed and fawned over Rhee’s significant other:

    HAGER (3/17/11): Rhee is making education reform a family affair of her own. She’s engaged to another education activist, former NBA player, now Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson. They’ve been called “the education celebrity couple.”

    RHEE: He’s probably one of the most outspoken mayors in the country on education reform. We can come home and talk to one another about something that we both care about a lot. So it is kind of great.

    HAGER: Rhee says they’ll join forces for change and she’s calling on every American to fight with them to save our nation’s schools.

    RHEE: We are at a moment in time right now that I’ve never seen in my entire career that there is more focus on education. I think a lot of people are saying, you know what, the education system in our country isn’t working right now and we need to do something drastic to fix it.

    According to Rhee, the education system “isn’t working” and “we need to do something drastic to fix it.” According to Hager, Rhee is asking every American to fight with her “to save our nation’s schools.” But does Rhee have good ideas about what should be done? Watching NBC, you’d be hard pressed to understand what Rhee’s ideas are-or to understand why many people disagree with her basic outlook. You would understand that Rhee’s critics have called her bad names, of course.

    (To watch Today’s full segment on Rhee, go ahead: Just click here.)

    By the way, speaking of names: If Nexis and Google can be believed, Rhee and Johnson have never been called “the education celebrity couple.” This added a nice touch to Hager’s fawning, but it doesn’t seem to be accurate. Nor can we find any sign that “the union” ever called Rhee “hatchet lady,” or that any ranking critic of Rhee ever used this term. Use of the term can barely be found through a Google search at all, although it seems that the term may have been used in some way in the Guggenheim film.

    How might our public schools be improved? The public discussion tends to be clownish, in large part because the career liberal world abandoned this topic decades ago. In the 1960s, the interests of black children was a large part of the basic liberal agenda. In the present day, it’s hard to see a major career liberal stoop to discuss such proles.

  17. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    The “fault” for student achievement gains/losses are “pinned” on the teachers if the data (tests and observations) suggest the teachers generated those specific effects. For a large enough group of kids with past achievement data that has *already* factored in out-of-school effects, it is possible to have an idea for what the average gains/losses for those kids should be in a year. While poverty is a factor in many achievement gaps and we shouldn’t (and don’t) expect teachers to close these gaps on their own within a year, that is much different than saying we’re going to measure gains/losses as generated by in-school effects relative to past achievement. You continue to confuse these two ideas, but only versions of the latter are being proposed, and rightfully so.

    It should be straight-forward as to why low-performing schools are the ones receiving the most focus for school reform, but I believe these principles should translate to high-performing schools, as well, particularly for schools with inherent achievement gaps between their own subgroups of students. There is going to be a range of teacher effectiveness at any school, and it would behoove efforts to provide all kids with the best education possible if we figure out which teachers are doing the best job at teaching and which need extra support.

    And yes, the effect a teacher has on motivation is going to compete with the effects at home, but again, if we already know generally how a group of students have performed in the past, the additional support in the classroom will still be seen in classroom observations and presumably even on test scores. You argue that motivation and achievement are harder to raise for certain students than others, but even small victories would be noticeable improvement, versus the necessarily large victories one would have to enable for, let’s say, honors students with more supportive home lives. If teachers feel pressured because they will be evaluated on how much their students learn, the response ought to be a mixture of A) “good, and hopefully you felt pressured to get them to learn even when you weren’t being evaluated in this way”, and B) “you shouldn’t be worried if you’re a great/good/mediocre teacher.”

  18. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I agree with your ideas in THEORY. However, in practice, even a very good teacher can struggle to teach in certain circumstances. For example, I’ve seen how easy it is for one student with significant behavior problems to completely disrupt a class. These types of disruptive behaviors are more prevalent in lower-income schools, but are not necessarily distributed across teachers randomly.

    In my experince, in real schools (versus a theoretical world), students are not assigned to teachers randomly. Even if they were assigned randomly, a particularly difficult student (or students) may happen to land in one teacher’s class in any given year. Based on the above, I strongly believe that a teacher shouldn’t be judged on one year’s data (like IMPACT does in DC), on the chance that that the teacher simply happened to get the toughest kids assigned to him or her.

    Honestly, I just really doubt that, in practice, teachers of the most difficult students will fare well under this system.

  19. Attorney DC Says:

    One more comment: I wrote above, “I just really doubt that, in practice, teachers of the most difficult students will fare well under this system.” Upon further thought, I remember reading that, under DC’s new IMPACT system, the teachers in upper NW DC (the highest income part of the city) DID in fact receive significantly higher scores on IMPACT than the teachers in the lower income wards of DC.

    Now, you may argue that this is just evidence that all bad teachers happen to be located in schools with low-income students (and visa versa) but I simply don’t believe it. Tying a teacher’s evaluation to his or her students’ tested performance will, in the real world, tend to disparately and negatively affect teachers of the most difficult students (who are often the lower-income and minority students, and/or students with learning disabilities and special needs).

    If I’m wrong, show me one instance (in the real world) where teachers in lower income schools or teachers of special needs students came out AHEAD of teachers in higher income schools or teachers of honors students, in the same district.

  20. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    AttorneyDC:

    You have the patience of Job. I’ll bet YOU were an excellent teacher.

  21. Attorney DC Says:

    Linda: Thanks! Not sure I was always a good teacher, though… It depended on the circumstances. When I worked in a school with a good principal and had relatively motivated students and a reasonable schedule (or at least two out of three) I was able to focus on the lessons and I think I did well. When I worked for an unreasonable administrator, with kids who had extreme behavior/learning/emotional problems, and an insane schedule, I almost burned out. That’s part of what led me back to law school – the desire to never be in that (bad) situation again.

    But now I enjoy blogging on education issues (almost as satisfying as being back in the classroom).

  22. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    I’ll accept your agreement with the theory as that seems a few steps down from the tone of your initial comment. Of course, there’s not yet been a compelling argument proffered for why the theory should differ greatly when put into practice. My previous comments did not imply that students had to be assigned randomly for evaluations to be given. Also, there will often be that “one student” that makes a classroom difficult, so with the use of observations and past achievement over multiple years, the effect of that kid will likely get averaged out from others like him. Furthermore, it is still the job of the teacher to help that “one student” transition into a classroom, so I don’t see the hypothetical rebuttal to a bad evaluation “but that one student ruined my whole class!” indicative of an effective teacher.

    Finally, can you give a link to those IMPACT numbers? This ties to the accuracy arguments from before, but to reiterate, it’s not going to be useful to discuss whether or not those numbers are accurate. What’s useful is determining if the process of evaluation itself ought to be considered reliable and why. I still contend that evaluations utilizing testing data normalized to past performance and multiple classroom observations should be considered reliable enough to measure teacher effectiveness.

    Linda:

    Yes, Attorney DC has the patience for reasoned debate, unlike you.

  23. phillipmarlowe Says:

    A Novel Solution:

    Not too long ago, certain young people, like former D.C. child baron Michelle Rhee, were picked up from their Ivy League graduations in Teach for America warplanes and parachuted onto schools in low-income areas, which, according to them, suddenly made them experts on the “education crisis.” What is the education crisis? The education crisis is that America’s children, on the whole, do not score as well on certain standardized tests as children in many other countries. How embarrassing! Thankfully, these young people were available to take our school administrator jobs and make documentaries about themselves so we could all learn the real facts about education: Teachers will stop at nothing to harm each and every one of our children unless we watch them very carefully, and teachers’ unions work hard to make sure anybody who could ever help a child never makes it into the profession. Unfortunately, in the real world, the reasons some children are better at learning than others are complex and varied. So there is only one true solution to the perceived education crisis. We shouldn’t fire the teachers; we should fire the children.

    Never mind that the U.S. actually is among the top ten countries in college graduates and yet cannot these days give its young people jobs that utilize those degrees, if it can give them jobs at all; apparently raising scores on these tests of arbitrary knowledge will solve all of our nation’s social ills. You may think it’s impossible to turn a child with a low IQ, poor nutrition, and absent and uncaring parents in an anti-intellectual environment into a genius with a love for learning, but that’s probably because you’re some kind of racist.

    It turns out demonizing teachers and making their job undesirable to competent people who would like to become them does not always magically make these test scores rise. Reformers like to talk about education like it’s a business, and teachers, after all, are just managers—what private-sector office doesn’t have a few bad ones? The people actually making the test scores, the child laborers we call “schoolchildren,” are the root of the problem here. They’re just not getting the job done.

    If our country has so much money, why doesn’t it just fire the kids who are repeatedly bad at taking these tests? We can afford to hire away these children from overseas who are so good at it. Problem solved! Or, if we want to really improve our test scores, we should hire people who have better qualifications. Sure, sixth-graders in the Netherlands are good at multiplication, but what if our sixth-graders all had bachelor’s degrees? They’d be even better.

    It’s time we stop putting up with these idiot children and their poor results and bring in some real performers we can show off to the world. Education is a serious business these days, and we should start acting like it.

    Why has nobody thought of this until now? Wait, do the kids have a union too? THOSE THUGS!

  24. phillipmarlowe Says:

    Here’s the Apsen Institute’s study of IMPACT

    19
    MARCH 2011
    Teachers had great concerns about how IMPACT is affecting teaching. One teacher told the
    story of being padlocked out of the school auditorium and told that staging a production
    of Romeo and Juliet was not an “IMPACT-ready” lesson. She was advised by a school admin-
    istrator to send kids who present behavioral challenges to the library when she’s observed,
    in order to help her with her score. She summarized her experience saying, “It’s disappoint-
    ing. I’m so unhappy about how it has affected my instruction. I feel a bit crushed under the
    weight of IMPACT.” A teacher who works in two-hour teaching blocks described her concern:
    “When they come in everything has to change for the 30 minutes they’re in there. You can
    do X, Y, and Z perfectly but if you run out of time and don’t get back to A you’re penalized.” A
    third teacher explained that her school for the first time did not make Adequate Yearly Prog-
    ress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and attributed that result to IMPACT
    and how teachers changed their instruction in response to it. As she explained, “Teachers
    stripped lots out of their instruction. They dried it up and bored the heck out of kids.”

  25. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I understand your argument, which appears to be that, given a sufficiently sensitive value-added model (which can account for the appropriate variables) and several years of data, along with other forms of evaluation, teachers can be evaluated fairly.

    You asked why this theory wouldn’t work in practice. My answer is that in practice, the value-added model is NOT sufficient for this purpose. The statistics and testing experts appear to agree that the value-added tests cannot be reliably used to determine the value of ONE teacher in ONE year (there is too much room for error). In addition, many teachers don’t simply teach the same tested subject for years on end in the same school under the same conditions (especially in low-income schools with high turnover).

    In DC, the district used IMPACT scores based on only ONE year’s scores to label teachers ineffective or in need or improvement (and on the chopping block for next year). This reliance on one year’s test scores is simply statisically unreliable. However, in the real world, limiting the value-added scores only to teachers who teach tested subjects at the same school for three or more years would essentially diminish the teacher pool down to a negligible number of teachers.

    I understand your theory and your desire for it to work, but, based on my experience teaching in a number of different schools (public and private), I simply don’t think it will work. Using an unreliable evalution method to make high stakes tenure and firing decisions for teaching professionals is unfair and ineffective.

  26. Attorney DC Says:

    Philip: I have to say I got a chuckle out of your comment above: “It turns out demonizing teachers and making their job undesirable to competent people who would like to become them does not always magically make these test scores rise.” Duh. I give my heartfelt support to the teachers who are working in today’s political climate. Makes me kind of glad I left teaching and became an attorney — Who’d have thought a few years ago that between a teacher and an attorney, the TEACHERS would be the one lambasted in public opinion?

  27. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    * The trouble with this discussion is always the premise that either side is arguing from. If we both accept the premise that, “Value-added analyses give an objective and exact measure of teacher effectiveness,” then yes, you would have a point with suggesting that analyses of these data do not work well. 30% error can be quite problematic in this regard. The premise itself, however, is incorrect, and one that is absent in all arguments I’ve seen for value-added analysis.

    The correct premise is the following: “Value-added analyses give an objective estimate of teacher effectiveness”. An uncertainty of 30% is low enough to determine which teachers tend to be great, and which teachers tend to be below average. Principals could then use this data *along with other evidence of teacher effectiveness* to evaluate their teachers.

    * Experts do NOT agree that VAM is too unreliable to be used in practice. It’s also false that using VA score gains made in a year is statistically unreliable to help measure teacher effectiveness. See above.

    * IMPACT bases effectiveness on VAM where applicable (which is not often) as well as classroom observations. Mathematica also stands behind the model they built for IMPACT, so please don’t imply that all the experts disagree with its use, either.

    * That there are ways to improve VAM is not an argument that VAM shouldn’t be used in evaluations. This reasoning would prevent implementation of any model now and forever, as there will always be room for improvement. We need to use the best methods available for evaluations, and a combination of VAM and observations fit that description. There is no other known method of evaluating teachers that would be quantitatively more reliable than utilizing all of these data in evaluations.

    * It should be obvious that continuing to ignore teacher quality will also not improve learning.

    * All teachers are not being lambasted by public opinion, and today’s political climate of accountability is not treating teachers any worse than other professions that are evaluated by job performance. Looking back at past debates over the past year, I’ve had to spell this out in many different ways, such as…

    “Are teachers as a whole being attacked, or are the bad ones being rightfully criticized?”

    “Teachers themselves were never considered the problem. It was teachers who did their job poorly that were the problem. There is an obvious difference of opinion here in the best way to treat teachers that are bad at teaching, but that’s never how this dilemma is phrased. Instead, it’s this “you love teachers or you hate them” nonsense.”

    “The negative attention is addressed to teachers and schools who fail students when schools in similar locales achieve, as well as addressed to teachers who are underperforming (relative to past student achievement). Negative attention is only “heaped on [all] teachers” by the accounts of those with a persecuted teacher complex.”

    * Don’t feel left out — I think people still hate lawyers ;)

  28. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: Well, this debate could go on forever (it kind of already has!), but it’s probably time for us to move on to other things (and other posts). Overall, I think we can agree that, in theory, value-added measures and other types of evaluations would be useful in helping schools to identify the quality of teachers. However, you and I differ in our opinions as to how these measures work in practice, and if these evaluation methods are an effective way to improve schools.

    In my experience having worked in many different schools, a teacher’s effectiveness is impacted substantially by factors out of his or her control (the students, course assignments, resources, administrative support). It’s also hard to compare teachers to each other because they have different schedules, different students (e.g., honors vs. remedial), different coaching and extracurricular duties, and many other variabilities.

    Having worked in many schools (and having read a lot on these topics), I think that the MAIN problem low-performing students have is NOT their teachers. Instead, their low performance is caused in large part by their school behavior and study skills (and those of their classmates), which is itself influenced in large part by their families, peers and cultural attitudes toward education. In light of the above, I believe that school reform efforts should be geared toward changing the behavior and motivation of the STUDENTS rather than using complicated measures to ever-more-rigorously analyze their teachers.

  29. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    This should be obvious by now, but our discussion here is not mainly a matter of dissenting opinions. For example, my last reply to you was a response to the facts and reasoning you are basing your opinions on and why the former are incorrect. I’m fairly confident the bullet points I listed above clearly show what I mean by this.

    You then end with a straw man about how the “MAIN problem is NOT teachers”, despite it not ever being argued here that teachers contribute the main problem. Teacher quality, however, IS an issue that we ought to address, and it’s one that we have the most capability of addressing. Furthermore, accountability is one aspect of reform that may lead to fixes for the other problems you list in your final paragraph, through higher behavior expectations, stronger study skills, and increased student motivation — all of which can be better emphasized with increasing teacher quality.

    You propose other ideas for “school reform efforts geared toward changing the behavior and motivation of the STUDENTS”, but these ring hollow. Making bad kids pick up trash and/or removing them from the classroom does nothing to change cultural attitudes toward education. If anything, it may reinforce negative attitudes. In the many different schools you’ve worked at (something you’ve referenced more than once now), how is it possible that you’ve not seen this policy implemented? Did it fix any underlyling cultural attitudes?

    Finally, while we advocate for more funding for social programs, it doesn’t change the fact that teacher quality is a factor that we can and should also fairly address in the meantime. The “should” part is my opinion; the “can” part is fact.

  30. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: I disagree with your sentence: “You then end with a straw man about how the “MAIN problem is NOT teachers”, despite it not ever being argued here that teachers contribute the main problem.”

    While you may not personally think that teachers contribute the main problem in our schools (and I’m glad you don’t), the education reform movement has been recently geared ALMOST ENTIRELY toward evaluating/improving teachers, with little attention paid to any other issues, including important ones like student discipline, English-Second-Language issues (especially in the Southwest), family support, and other very critical factors.

    Living in the DC area, I witnessed Michelle’s Rhee’s pointed focus on teachers (and only teachers) as the sum total of her “reform program” for DC Public Schools. Rhee spent her tenure as Chancellor doing little but devising methods to get rid of hundreds of educators and school personnel. She put little (no?) time into improving curriculum, reaching out to families, addressing student discipline, promoting tutoring programs or any other attempts to help the schools. For this reform program, Rhee was lauded across the country by the media and education policy experts.

    Until and unless all these other MUCH MORE IMPORTANT factors are addressed by education policy, I recoil at the idea of focusing nearly 100% of our efforts on the difficult and morale-busting approach of scrutinizing our teachers’ every moves, when such approach is rife with statistical and practical problems and, more importantly, is not a particularly effective way to help the schools.

  31. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    There’s a lot to respond to there:

    For clarity, if you want to argue against positions that haven’t been propounded here, you ought to explicitly say so.

    On that note, please give examples of instances where key players in the school reform movement have leveled claims that the main problem in education is teachers. Notice that this is different from the claim made in the original thread’s link; arguments that teachers are the main factor in student growth do not imply that teachers are the reason that achievement gaps exist. Even kids on the bottom end of these gaps can learn, however, and focusing on finding/retaining the teachers best at teaching these kids ought to be a goal.

    You also, as Independent Thinker did above (ironically), are creating a false dilemma when you say that school reform is flawed because it doesn’t fix X, Y, and Z. Whether or not we push for more accountability in schools (something school policy can actually change) does not imply anything about the needs for things like better “family support” or the motivations of reform-minded individuals. Education policy advocates are advocating for better education policy. No one should find this surprising or offensive, or view it as an obstacle to instituting good social policy (and thus far I’ve only seen empty platitudes for the latter proffered here).

    To respond to your DCPS example: Rhee’s efforts in DC were largely to fix the broken accountability system in that district, but here you incorrectly trivialize the importance of these changes and further assert erroneously that this is the only thing she did there. Besides that large improvement to measuring teacher quality, she instituted a Saturday tutoring program, made herself available to families by responding to each and every inquiry, streamlined the district office and fought for (and succeeded in getting) better pay for teachers. Of course, that’s all seldom remembered, and none of it is as important as how much she reviled all teachers everywhere….

    And here again you exaggerate the “statistical and practical problems” with these accountability measures. These are your opinions, yes, but they are not rooted in a factual basis. I highlighted these contrary facts in my bullet-pointed comment above, but you haven’t responded to them.

    Finally, you assert that improving accountability “is not a particularly effective way to help the schools” for reasons that it is “morale-busting” (no more than any other profession that utilizes performance in evaluations), it “scrutinizes our teachers’ every moves” (yup, like 5 times a year), it doesn’t directly solve any socioeconomic problems (by virtue of it being an education policy), and it doesn’t change “cultural attitudes toward education” (like making all the bad kids pick up trash would). I simply don’t find any of this reasoning at all convincing.

  32. Attorney DC Says:

    Chris: You obviously feel very strongly about your opinions on these education matters. Question: Have you ever worked as a teacher in one of our nation’s low-performing public schools?

    My basic position remains the same: I do not believe that the current reform efforts, which are directed mainly at increasing teacher ‘quality’ and teacher accountability, are the right path to take in education reform. In addition to their lack of proven effectiveness, this approach creates stress among teachers who have to worry about losing their jobs at any time based on flimsy one-shot student testing data — Have you noticed the recent breaking story in DC that many of the ‘improved’ schools in DC had outrageously high erasure rates on their students’ tests, calling into question the entire validity of any of these test results?

    I’m sorry but I’m not able to continue responding to this post. You and I are simply continuing to restate our arguments, ad nauseum. Neither of us is going to back down or convince the other of our position on this issue, unfortunately.

  33. Chris Smyr Says:

    Attorney DC:

    Stop replying if you want, but my unanswered responses above entail more than just opinions. There is a lot of faulty reasoning behind the claims you are making here, so if you aren’t going to address this then there’s not much else that can be said.

  34. phillipmarlowe Says:

    Attorney DC Says:
    March 31st, 2011 at 8:36 am
    Chris: You obviously feel very strongly about your opinions on these education matters. Question: Have you ever worked as a teacher in one of our nation’s low-performing public schools?

    The answer is no.
    Chris taught biology at Willow Glen High School:
    The school was placed 731st in Newsweek’s List of the 1,000 Top U.S. Schools (2005).

  35. Chris Smyr Says:

    None of my arguments or facts stated here necessitate any specific teaching experience by the person proffering them, although my school does serve a large population of low-income kids from downtown.

    Phil, do you have anything useful to contribute? Maybe another round of Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V?

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