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Incomprehensible, Again

by  David A. Lehrer

January 22, 2013 | 3:37 pm

Last week’s blog described the challenges inherent in attempting to improve under-performing public schools. There are multiple moving parts, no simple answers and no silver bullets to answer the almost irrational burden society places on teachers to magically transform kids from educationally challenged /impoverished backgrounds into students that perform well on tests and succeed academically. A herculean task.

But recognizing the enormous challenge that many urban teachers face does not diminish the need to reform the process by which teachers are evaluated, paid, promoted and improved. A process that is, almost always, controlled by collective bargaining agreements between the teachers’ unions and school district management.

For decades, the general principle prevailed that teaching is a unique profession that isn’t amenable to evaluation like most other jobs. Teachers often toiled in isolation—confronted by thirty kids and no one to really see the daily challenges that were faced. Additionally, some teachers got better students whose potential was unlimited while others got laggards---how did each get evaluated in a fair manner? As a result of these difficulties, and a history of principals/supervisors who played favorites and rewarded buddies, many districts (at the behest of their unions) simply rewarded teachers on the basis of their longevity, their graduate courses taken and their ability to avoid trouble. Outstanding teachers were treated the same as mediocre and poor teachers.

The magic of computer technology with its capacity to track individual kids, their backgrounds and their test scores over time as well as far reaching longitudinal studies of what it takes for a teacher to succeed have led to a rethinking of how teachers can be evaluated. In fact, it is now possible to evaluate the capacity of teachers to teach comparable cohorts of students and determine which one does a better job over time.

If teacher X has students from disadvantaged backgrounds who test at a certain level and after a year have shown no appreciable improvement but teacher Y has a similar cohort but accomplishes meaningful increases in achievement and the gap between what the two teachers’ students achieve persists over time---something needs attending to.

That reality has resulted in diverse groups of political leaders demanding that the new evaluation techniques and technology now be utilized when teachers are assessed. It isn’t a vast conspiracy of “anti-union reactionaries” seeking vengeance against union rabble. It is the Race to the Top advocates in the Obama Administration, it is the Democratic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it is the Democratic governor of New York Andrew Cuomo who just last week observed in frustration, “it’s not about the adults; it’s about the children….Our schools are not an employment program.”

The argument that the teaching profession is unique among careers in defying our capacity to fairly and systematically evaluate its practitioners is losing its believability. We can figure out who is a good teacher and who isn’t.

Nevertheless, Friday’s New York Times offered evidence of how entrenched the leadership of teachers’ unions can be when it comes to altering old ways of doing business. Not unlike the recent conduct of United Teachers of Los Angeles in nixing a $40 million grant to the Los Angeles School District in Race to the Top funds, the New York teacher’s union has refused to allow new evaluation techniques to be used for measuring its teachers. Even though both federal and New York state rules now require that at least part of the teachers’ assessment include their students’ test scores and that the city and the school district stood to lose $250 million, the Times reported that the union remained adamant. The NY union’s willingness to reject $250 million makes United Teachers Los Angeles look like amateurs (we only lost $40 million in federal funds).

As one reads the Times’ article it becomes clear that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor the federal government was asking for anything more or less than was just recommended as the fairest and most accurate way to evaluate teachers by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in a multi-year $45 million study (published in early January reporting on over 3,000 teachers and three years of study from across the country).

The Gates Foundation study recommended that a combination of student test scores (one half to one third of the evaluation metrics), “well-crafted observations” of classroom teaching (preferably with two observers) and even student surveys of teacher quality should be combined in a teacher’s evaluation. That formula was the most predictive of teacher quality as well as offering teachers the feedback they need to improve their performance. As the leader of the project, Harvard Professor Tom Kane noted, “this is not about accountability, it’s about providing the feedback every professional needs to strive towards excellence.”

Mayor Bloomberg was asking for 20% of the evaluation process to be comprised of students’ growth on state test scores (considerably less than the Gates’ recommended 33% minimum), another 20% based on local measures that the union would negotiate, and 60% based on classroom observations---those indices were unacceptable to the union.

It is clear that a reckoning is near when the leadership of teachers’ unions will discern where the world is moving and see that standing in the way of change isn’t going to continue to work; the price they will pay will simply be too burdensome. 

Hopefully, it will happen sooner rather than later and the students won’t continue to pay the price of their intransigence.

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