Chicago! Also, Paying For Skills, Special Ed And Charters, And A New Bar In Newark?

Last month BCG put out an analysis on the “skills gap,” pointing out that part of the problem is a wage gap – companies want high skilled workers but don’t want to pay for them.  I was surprised that it didn’t get more attention in the ed world given the attention the skills “crisis” gets, but Adam Davidson takes a look in the NYT Mag.

CRPE* took a look at special education enrollment rates in charter schools and district run schools in New York.  More evidence that the reality and potential remedies are more complicated than the rhetoric about the issue allows for.

In the NY Daily News Andy Smarick gives voice to something a lot of people are quietly saying – the new Newark contract is pretty good and other conditions are in place for success, so what does it mean if it doesn’t work?

A lot of people talking about Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis’ speech last week before Thanksgiving.  The back and forth about impending school closures there got a lot of ink but two other aspects jump out to me more.  First, Lewis has undoubtably emerged as the voice within the teacher union community for people who want more fight.  Although the Newark contract was ratified by teachers there, for instance, it was hard to miss some vocal pushback from those who felt that Lewis’ approach was preferable.  But, other than “no” and what she’s against, it’s hard to discern what the strategic or substantive agenda is.  Cooler heads in the union movement get that you should not confuse good theater with good strategy.

So when Lewis says, speaking of teacher evaluation, that “it is insulting to assume that student outcome has anything to do with simply input.  So the problem is we’re seeing the ravages of this kind of stuff in places like in DC and Baltimore where people are having serious problems with what their evaluations are.  Evaluations should be designed to make you better not trying to figure out a way to disempower you” you’re left scratching your head. First of all, why would a leader of teachers say that you can’t link outcomes to inputs? Empirically that ship sailed a while ago and the real action today is around how to do that in an effective way in terms of both operations and accountability (both still open questions in my view).  Besides, if you really believe that then there is little argument against a full blown school choice system because how can you require parents to stay in a system like that? More immediately, that statement seems to be more of a wish than a report.  Sure, it’s hard to tell what’s happening in Baltimore, implementation seems to be pretty challenging, but in D.C. there are problems but overall things are actually going quite well – even the bombastic head of the city’s teachers union is working with the chancellor, they’re modifying the evaluation system as they go, and there is some evidence that the city schools are becoming more talent focused in some important ways.  If you want drama or a proof point that overhauling teacher evaluation is a bad idea, D.C. is not it.

That brings us to poverty.  When Lewis says that, “We cannot fix what’s wrong with our schools until we are prepared to have honest conversations about poverty and race,” she’s absolutely right (and that sentiment can be extended to a range of social policy issues).  But she follows that with the less than honest (but quite common) statement that one “side” in the school reform debate says poverty doesn’t matter.  In practice, what interests most people in education reform is how and how much schools matter to breaking intergenerational poverty and improving social mobility and what schools can be expected to do given a robust set of education policies.  You don’t really hear a lot of people saying, ‘let’s ignore poverty and focus on schools.’  On the contrary, most people I know would like to see a more aggressive set of anti-poverty initiatives alongside more ambitious education reform they’re just unwilling to wait on improving schools while the political process sorts out other policy issues. Given the polarization there is just precious little oxygen for a sensible conversation right now.

*I’m a fellow there but had nothing to do with this project.

9 Replies to “Chicago! Also, Paying For Skills, Special Ed And Charters, And A New Bar In Newark?”

  1. If inputs aren’t tied to outcomes, then there is no reason why CTU teachers should get raises. Nor should she brag about being nationally board certified. Doesnt really make a difference after all. Guess Ms. Lewis can also rescind the recent CTU contract increase. More pay doesnt matter. She is clearly more about the adults in the room.

  2. Here are some questions for readers:

    Pretend you are a sixth grade teacher in a high poverty school. Many of your students are several grades below grade level with several learning English as a second language. With the help of the school reading specialist, you have taught many of the children to read and the majority of your students have made over a year’s progress while in your classroom. However, the average reading level for the class is still around grade three. Soon they will have to take the standardized test with most items at or around a sixth grade level. Most of your students will be unable to read the directions to the test, let alone the items. Would you want to be evaluated on the basis of this group test?

    You are a sixth grade teacher in a very affluent suburb, where many of the parents are professors at the nearby university. Most of the children are two or three grade levels above their present grade. Most scored above the 90th percentile on last year’s standardized test. Many got all items right, placing them in the 99th percentile. You are proud of the fact that you have taken these students as far as their capabilities allowed and you have received many compliments from parents and supervisors. However, you are afraid of the test because you know that few children will be able to score much higher than they did last year because the test is way too easy for them. Also, if some of the children who scored at the 99th percentile miss one or two items due to carelessness, they will look as though they regressed academically. Would you want to be judged on the basis of this whole class group test that was not designed for your students?

    If you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you would not want your teaching evaluated on the basis of a group test that may or may not be valid or reliable. Instead you would likely want other professionals (teachers and administrators) to visit your classroom throughout the year and note the progress made by each child. You would want these people to be aware of extenuating circumstances, such as “Joseph has been out most of the year due to a serious auto accident in October.”

    Teachers are proud of the progress made by their students but they don’t want to be evaluated on a test that is not designed to assess their work. They often have no input into the outcomes of these tests and of course that’s what Karen Lewis was talking about. I can’t speak for other teachers but I always loved to brag about the progress made by my students and was always dragging other teachers and administrators into my room to see for themselves. Of course, parents know too, when their children have made a lot of progress. I am almost certain that most teachers expect to be evaluated on the basis of true student progress but they want that assessment to be as accurate and fair as possible.

    Teachers do not want to be evaluated on the basis of a ten-dollar group test. Would you want to be?

    Why do you think “reformers” are pretending that teachers don’t want to be evaluated when in actuality they don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of a group test? What is the ulterior motive here?

  3. Awesome post, Linda. I raised the same issues of teaching on the margins with my district. I was told something to the effect that there will always be room for growth and I needed to better understand the stats. When I responded that I didn’t take doctoral classes for nothing and that I though I understood the math involved, I was told that they have my comments duly noted. You can’t win with these people. They are single-minded and have a job to do, lest they lose said job.

    So I think that there is no ulterior motive for the rank and file admin and stat geeks. However, there most certainly is an agenda at work at other levels of the enterprise.

  4. Thanks, Jeffrey. Of course, there is “always room for growth” but that growth often cannot be measured by a whole group standardized test. The testing experts mostly agree with us.

    Phillip: I am thankful that as a teacher I never had to compromise myself in any way. It’s one of the most honorable of all professions and the people in it are mostly good and decent individuals who devote their lives to the welfare of others. The present demonization of schoolteachers (e.g. “they protect child sex abusers”) will be noted in the future as one of the most shameful effects of the Great Recession.

  5. Good to hear that Linda.
    And although it pales next to being charged as a protector of child sex abusers, another shameful effect of the great recession is the way it has been leveraged into attacking teachers and other public servants over their pitiful pensions and mild job protections. Rather than the cry being “why can’t I have what they have” it is now “why can’t they lose what has been taken from me.”

  6. I don’t know, Mr. Rotherham. Seems like the best way to ignore poverty is to rarely mention it. And that’s why Karen Lewis’ (and others’) criticism rings true.

  7. A comment on the two measurement issues Linda RT raised. First, common practice is to read test instructions to students who are non-native speakers of English, unless the instructions are themselves part of the reading task. Furthermore, tests for sixth graders have a mix of items of different difficulties so that the sixth grade test could in fact scale a child at grade 3. The argument that sixth grade kids who start far below grade level make tremendous learning gains that the sixth grade test is totally unable to detect is not a convincing one, absent more specific information about the test.

    Second, percentile rank is not the only score on standardized tests. For example, students who score at the 99th percentile may have different scale scores, so it is not the case that standardized tests automatically produce no information useful for value added measures for students at the 99th percentile. How high the ceiling is and how accurate measures are at the extremes of the test distribution are different questions.

    Tests aren’t perfect but that does not mean they are not useful for evaluating schools and evaluating teachers.

  8. “Tremendous gains” (say first grade to fifth) might be picked up but probably not good gains. So if a teacher of an illiterate sixth grader brings him to a second grade level, (sadly a common occurrence in high poverty schools) this improvement is unlikely to show up on a standardized test. Yes, there will be a few items on the test that are below a sixth grade level, but not that many and certainly not enough to measure the gains made by a child who is years below grade level. These tests are not designed to do that. There are “long-range” tests but these must be administered individually.

    Yes, tests are somewhat useful in evaluating teachers but should not take the place of the involvement of other professionals. The only legitimate way to evaluate the work of a teacher is for other qualified educators to know how her students are progressing throughout the year.

    Has anyone noticed that most of the complaints about evaluation based on testing are coming from teachers in low-income schools and not from teachers in average, middle-income schools? Now, why would that be?

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