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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 02/27/2012

A simple question teachers should now ask about their profession

This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is one of the co-authors of the principals’ letter against evaluating teachers by student test scores, which has been signed by nearly 1,400 New York principals.

By Carol Corbett Burris

New York newspapers just published the evaluation rankings of New York City teachers based on student test scores. A good deal of anger is being directed their way for publishing the results. Although I abhor what the newspapers are doing, much of the anger, I believe is misplaced. This was the inevitable conclusion of an evaluation system, created by folks who knew, or should have known, that the publication of such numbers was the most likely outcome. New York teachers and their principals should brace themselves because with the new state-wide evaluation system, this will probably be a yearly event.

The publication of evaluation scores should not come as a surprise to anyone, including Bill Gates, because it is allowed by the law. It had already occurred in Los Angeles. One would hope that after the tragedy in Los Angeles, when a teacher took his own life, apparently due in part to despondence over the release of his score, our leaders would have paused in their crusade to reduced teachers to numbers. Sadly, this did not occur.

Public disclosure was one of the many reasons why principals opposed the creation of individual numbers for teachers based on test scores. We argued for a school-wide achievement goal instead. Although an achievement goal number based on scores could be publicly available, it would be a school score that all educators would work to achieve, not an individual score that would result in the humiliation of an individual educator. It is also why we suggested that the final evaluation not be a numerical score, which would be subject to public disclosure, as noted by Robert Freeman of the State Committee on Open Government. See here. Evaluation should be about educator improvement, not dismissal. If the dismissal of ineffective educators is a process that is too cumbersome, then we should reform dismissal laws.

In the fall, I attended a conference at which Jonah Rockoff, one of the creators of the New York City evaluation system, lectured about value added measures. I shared my concerns regarding the consequences of publicizing scores, an outcome all participants viewed as likely. Later, when I drove Dr. Rockoff to his train, we continued the conversation. He suggested that schools might want to have a lottery for parents who want their children enrolled in the class of the highly effective teacher, or that ineffective teachers could have low class sizes to appease parents. Dr. Rockoff , a sincere and bright economist, will readily admit he knows little about the culture of schools. I can imagine the conversation at a PTA meeting…. “the good news is your child has this year’s VAM score highly effective teacher. The bad news is, she is in a class of 45 students.”

The reality is that the release of teacher scores based in student test data will exacerbate all of the bad consequences of using test scores to evaluate teachers. Teachers will be even more likely to teach to the test, to resent uncooperative students, and to see fellow teachers as rivals not colleagues. They will hesitate to take on student teachers, who might depress their score. (This is already being reported by some Long Island schools of education). They will be confused as their scores go up and down each year, even as those teachers work harder and harder to prepare students for tests. For evidence regarding the unreliability of VAM scores, see here.

There are even greater worries for those of us who are concerned about equity. My doctoral studies focused on another sort and select system, commonly known as tracking or ability grouping. Research demonstrates how “parents in the know” and those with political power, work the tracking system to gain advantage for their kids. Seeking advantage for a child is a natural parental impulse. What happens, however, is that other children lose out. Poor children, the children of parents with less formal education, and the children whose parents do not speak English are more likely to be left behind. It’s a ‘rich get richer’ system.

My prediction: We will see a tremendous push by the most skilled, demanding, and well-resourced parents to get each year’s “highly effective teacher” and for district offices to “stick” the ineffective teacher in a class (or school) where the parents are less likely to complain. Each parent will make a valid case why their child needs the highly effective teacher, or should not be with a teacher who is “developing”, terms used in the New York State system. Is this ethical or good public policy? Of course not. But if you doubt that this will occur, read the work of scholars such as Jeannie Oakes, Kevin Welner and Amy Stuart Wells about how tracking systems and the high track advantage play out in the real world. High tracks are analogous to the highly effective teacher.

I also predict that student grades assigned by a teacher labeled less than effective will be challenged. One can only imagine the lawsuits that will arise. The evaluation scores given to teachers by principals who themselves are rated less than effective, will be challenged as well. Can a teacher be fairly rated by a principal who was rated ineffective that year? And when the “ineffective principal” is dismissed, who will agree to lead that school, if the ineffective rating was based in large part on student achievement? No administrator will risk that move — achievement cannot be turned around that quickly — and the students in struggling schools will lose again.

I predict that teachers with highly effective evaluations in hand, will head for the Gold Coast of Long Island to land a higher paying teaching job. Superintendents in well resourced districts will vie for the highest share of highly effective teachers in the state. Isn’t that the rule of the marketplace that the reformers embrace? Once again, students in financially struggling schools will be left behind.

I could present other examples but there is no need to depress the reader further. There is every reason, however, for the educators of the nation to stand up and say “no more.” No more to systems that are planes being built in the air with parachutes for the builders but not for the child inside. No more to evaluation systems created by economists that result in the public ridicule of teachers. No more to systems which in any manner or part place teachers on a bell curve and rank them by student scores.

As the debate rages on I suggest that teachers ask themselves one simple question: Should my professional work be reduced to a number that is public and thus will affect my relationship with my community, students and their families? If the answer to that question is “no,” then let your elected representatives know that you are a taxpayer and a voter, as well as a teacher. Educators must not “Race to the Top” of a hill only to find we are lemmings going over a cliff, with our public schools and our students falling behind us.

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