NY Teacher Madness

This NYT story Monday has sparked all sorts of accusations and counter-accusations around the web. Joel Klein is a devil! The union is awful! It’s Tuskegee all over again! Basically, the NYC Department of Education is collecting value-added data on some teachers there. Toward what end? Well, there seems to be a lot of confusion about this and that’s the rub.

Let’s start with the ridiculous. Even linking this to Tuskegee, albeit en passant as Eduwonkette does is preposterous and cheapens the horror of what happened there. Likewise, as she also does, implying that collecting this data constitutes some sort of experiment that runs afoul of the “Hippocratic Oath” of researchers is just silly. By that logic, all these various studies with panel data, choice studies using lotteries, etc…all constitute human experimentation and are wrong. C’mon.

More seriously, like many others, I have a lot of reservations about whether value-added data like this is (a) ready for prime-time in terms of consequence-oriented decisions outside of the absolute lowest-performers and (b) what the downstream effects of those decisions could be. On the latter, I’m hardly a slipperly slope guy, but just as some ill-concieved merit pay plans put the ice on reforming teacher compensation for a generation, a trigger-happy approach here could similarly set back efforts to use data to help evaluate teachers. That doesn’t mean that any system using value-added is inherently flawed, I can think of several ways to use it that would make sense, only that treading lightly here is important.

So I have no idea what New York plans to do with the data, but just gathering it hardly constitutes the egregious offense it’s being made out to be. Moreover, if it allows for some inferences around credentials, experience, or other variables then all the better. And if it can inform evaluation schemes down the road, that’s for the good, too.

But until we know more, everyone needs to take a deep breath and tone it down.

Kevin Carey has much more on this at Q&E.

Update: Eduwonkette responds. Her position here would be a lot more compelling if (a) this were an actual experiment in the way she and other anti-Klein partisans are seeking to describe it rather than what it is. In addition –and again– the fact is that we don’t know what they are doing with the data so at this point all these leaps to various consequences are unfounded. I can see how someone could make the most literal case that these are human subjects etc…but in the current context I don’t buy it (b) there were not a contract in place that protects teachers from unilateral action and (c) if the only principal actually on the record on this issue in The Times hadn’t said:

“This should simply be one more way to think about things,” said Frank A. Cimino, the principal of P.S. 193 in Brooklyn, who said he was participating in the experiment. “It is going to tell you some things you don’t know, but it will miss the other things that go on in a classroom.”

That’s pretty sensible and hardly in-line with the sky is falling rhetoric here. He should have a blog.

5 Replies to “NY Teacher Madness”

  1. Andy,
    You misunderstand Eduwonkette’s point regarding research ethics. She’s not saying that all experiments involving people are unethical — lotteries, panel studies, etc. can certainly be appropriate, but two important conditions must be met: participants in studies must voluntarily consent to participate after being informed about the potential risks and benefits of the study, and the study must provide appropriate protections for the privacy of participants. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is one of the most egregious and racist governmental acts in American history. From the standpoint of research ethics, the central violation was that the individuals enrolled in the study did not give their informed consent; they were never told of their diagnosis, and were prevented from pursuing other treatment for what was described to them as “bad blood”. Of course what’s happening in New York is not commensurate with this. But the ethical principle of voluntary informed consent is still an issue in New York. Don’t people in a research study sponsored by a governmental agency have a right to know that they are being studied? Even if they’re teachers?

  2. This post is another unfortunate example of how far removed our most influential policy “wonks” are from actual social science research.

    There is a *huge* difference between an actual live experiment where actions taken by the researchers can have life- (or career-) altering consequences for the subjects involved, and a statistical analysis of historical panel data on teachers and students, a charter admissions lottery, etc.

  3. Your concern about the “downstream effects” of this sort of accountability is right on target. Your assertion that we already have the ability to use data to help evaluate the lowest performing teachers is really on target.

    It would still be complicated but why can’t we first concentrate on the more do-able task, getting rid of the most ineffective teachers? Then we could refine the process and incrementally raise our sights.
    (after all, it does not do much good to fire bad teachers if you can’t recruit qualified replacements, and given the primitive accountability systems of today its inconcievable to me that you could treat young talent the way current teachers are treated and hope for progress.)

    This mostly has to be local, but I’d welcome suggestions for both local and national efforts. (Obama’s Marshall Plan for Teaching is a great “carrot;” probably all “sticks” need to be local.) Clearly ineffective teachers are a burden on the union and fellow teachers, as well as the kids and administrators.

    The key ingredient for any effort to remove ineffective teachers is trust. And trust is being squandered by efforts like the NYC district’s approach. But the trust we build in negotiating data being used in a modest manner, could then be applied to other collaborative efforts.

    I’m not naive and I understand the complexities in my suggestion. But in my experience, unions are getting a raw deal. Administrators often play the game like the old O State football team. They were such klutzs that their opponents walked off the field. O State scored three plays later.

    I bumped into a union president when he was still depressed by a termination hearing that he had won! “What does it take to fire a teacher in this district?! I ‘won’ but …” Our union repeatedly makes sincere offers to negotiate more efficient procedures. Is the issue about students’ welfare, or is it about control?

    John Thompson

  4. Who wins here is the question. Are we in education to “go get” teachers or are we here to help inform and train teachers?
    The children in our care are not an experiment. We can not use them as such-we are here to teach them to the best of our ability. Is it fair of us to use them?

  5. Clearly, the purpose of Mayoral Control has been to ELIMINATE public schools, and to corporatize them- apologies to English teachers here.

    Teachers have been tarred and feathered, demonized, micromanged to death – obviously by closing so many public schools, can it be said that the Mayor and his appointed Chancellor have the PUBLIC interest at heart? WHAT exactly, happens to ALL of the students of those closed down public schools?

    If you are AGAINST the actions of this Mayor, do we REALLY want him to be in office for ANOTHER term, to wreck more havoc?

    Let Mayor Mike KNOW what we think:



    Thanks for signing, let everyone you know about this, if you agree.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.