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Thompson: Are We Arming Barney Fife With Teacher Evaluation?

HickokTuttHarpers-500Tennessee, and other states have made a mockery of Secretary Duncan’s sound bites on evaluation, as they have committed to a single measure of test score growth for firing teachers. Educators, however, must meet multiple measures to keep their jobs.President Obama balanced the investments of tens of billions of dollars to save jobs and improve early education with hundreds of millions of dollars for data systems to fire teachers. The RttT, and now his ESEA NCLB II, provides the gun that management can lay on the poker table as it sits down with unions, growling "Deal." Most districts’ lawyers will look closely at the dangers of actually using growth models to indict teachers as ineffective, so wise leaders will restrain their administrators like Andy of Mayberry handled his deputy. But Barney Fife, we should remember, kept putting his bullet back into his gun.  The Center for American Progress’ new reports should rebalance these equations.

In fact, the CAP's recommendations for districts use the word "should" 17 times. That page describes peer review as "one option" for improving teacher quality through more rigorous evaluations. So if political leaders do what they should, unions should reciprocate, and vica versa.  The CAP is silent, however, about what teachers should do if districts do not do what they should. 

The CAP takes great pains describing the lengthy and non-punitive "best practices" of five charter schools in using data to evaluate teachers. In schools with a 6 to 1, 7 to 1, or 9 to 1 ratio between educators and their evaluators coaches, what’s not to like about an evaluation tool that is "a living document," where evaluation "is a two-way street," and where "feedback is a gift?" These charters seek a "culture of ongoing, honest feedback," and only dismiss a slightly higher percentage than the national norm. (None of these charters use growth models for evaluation.)

I appreciated the CAP’s observation that the union "was not perceived as a barrier to high-quality evaluation," but a shortage of educators was. "The absence of viable replacement teachers ... is particularly striking given the considerable time and effort that these charter schools spend on recruiting ..."

I have no problem with the CAP's endorsement of Eric Hanushek’s estimate that "removing the bottom 6 to 10 percent of teachers would lead to a gain in student achievement that is equivalent of improving the performance of students in the United States to the level of Canada."  That's what peer review evaluations do.  And The Grand Bargain shows how peer review can be combined with growth models for firing teachers in a manner that is legally viable, and that can be brought to scale.

Neither would I have a problem with trading trial de novo for peer review. As the CAP explains, "peer assistance and review programs also make de novo review less necessary since they provide for an outside review and check on the principal’s perspective ..." 

My complaint is that the CAP should be equally explicit in discussing the worst practices that will also be inevitable as RttT promises are fulfilled or if President Obama's ESEA proposal were to become law, as well as the wide and ugly range of practices in between.

Many districts would not seriously abuse their new powers as they fire teachers who should be fired. Is there any doubt, however, that management using growth models, designed under more homogeneous conditions in elementary schools, would also allow false positives to destroy the careers of effective teachers in other types of schools? Inevitably, data compiled over entire states may be accurate enough for identifying the worst teachers in some situations, but it also will be used in an invalid manner on the classroom and school level.

After all, the CAP nods in that direction by describing how districts' mishandling of terminations is a factor in their losing so many cases. It is absurd that de novo review can cost up to six figures in legal expenses.  But it is more absurd that educators may not have an opportunity to present a fair defense without the leverage of a trial.  A union leader, who would trade legal due process rights without receiving written protections in return, would soon become an ex-union leader.  

As with NCLB, the federal government will not require destructive teach-to-the-test and curriculum narrowing, but real world, the politics of NCLB II the RttT and the ESEA would bring out the worst in many systems and states. If the risk of a public shaming, which was the only real leverage of NCLB, created so many incentives to commit educational malpractice, the risk of termination is bound to bring out the worst in many districts.

Lord Acton said, "Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely." Our founding fathers addressed that reality with a system of checks and balances. They did not seek a statistical model, in the hands of management, designed to reduce collateral damage to an acceptable level while adavancing a political agenda.

The CAP understands this dynamic. It should impress that understanding on Secretary Duncan.

Update at the New York Times.  The Administration's ESEA proposal ""would require an immense reorganization of American education,'” said Amy Wilkins at the Education Trust, Grover Whitehurst adds "'as the administration reveals those details, more political difficulties and implementation difficulties will arise.'”

How many districts and states would take action, like ramming ahead on their "Equity Express Fast Facts" before those details were worked out? 


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The very first statement in this post is riddled with errors and underscores how little the author understands Tennessee's law or how deliberately he's trying to skew the facts.

First of all, Tennessee intends to use multiple measures in its new teacher evaluation model. Fifty percent of the evaluation will be based on student achievement measures -- including 35 percent value-added (or student growth) data for those teachers for whom it's available. So even within the first half of the evaluation in that scenario, you'll see at least two measures.

But the reality is: Fewer than half of Tennessee teachers have value-added data. Therefore, in that scenario, the majority of teachers will be evaluated based on several measures that add up to the first 50 percent.

Now, I'm just a hillbilly Barney Fife, so I'm not sure if I'm doing my 'rithmatic correctly here ... But under either scenario, that still leaves another 50 percent of the evaluation that will be based on non-student schievement measures. Observation, professional development, or whatever a new collaborative advisory council (staffed largely by teachers) comes up with.

This whole post is written in a classist, elitist tone. Too bad the author can't wrap his brain around the idea of poor dumb Southerners setting up an evaluation based on multiple measures.

Down here when the big dog uses the derogatory term “the Democrat party” and announces that you are fer us or agin us, we know he’s spoiling for a fight. Ok, the actual RttT words for the second taunt was:

“Tennessee gave its districts a choice: They could either participate in all of our reform agenda as ‘participating’ districts, as defined in the application, or they could decline to participate entirely. There was no middle ground of ‘involved’ status.”

That’s not supposed to send a message?

On page 93, the proposal promises to get rid of 20% of teachers whose test scores don’t show a year of growth and to do so in four years. They use the word "ensures" in bold to make the point. Yes, after educators survive that hurdle (a single measure for termination) they have to leap over other subjective hurdles (meet multiple measures to keep their job) and do so in the environment that has been poisoned by the state’s attitude toward the RttT.

So, if you have to be an “effective” teacher to keep your job, the definition of single measure comes down to the state’s definition of “effective.” The RttT says “Our definition of effectiveness is the same as the one in the Race to the Top guidelines – at least one year of academic growth.”

Real world, and not just in Dixie (although we often suffer from a bad case of authoritarianism), just being indicted as ineffective is tantamount to the destruction of your career. Once the mean dog says that test scores “drive” the process, the rest of the pack will get real timid.

Andy would risk his status by standing up for an effective teacher in an ineffective school. And Barney might want to, but educators can’t depend on the kindness of strangers to protect our careers.

Regarding the softer and gentler side of us Southerners, and the possibility that maybe we won’t need to fire our way to removing teachers with lower test scores because we’ll use state-of-the-art best practices to transform schools in four years, I have to ask why we’ve done such a lousy job on that. Like Gene Bottoms says, if testing and accountability were enough to fix schools, we Southerners would have the best in the world.

Can someone help me decipher john's post above? It makes no sense whatsoever. Please Scholastic and Russo: Be a bit more discriminating when it comes to turning over the car keys to the teenager.

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