A warning ed policymakers should heed

Here Carol Burris, the award-winning principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, writes about a proposal by Tulane University’s Douglas Harris on how to fairly use “value added models” for teacher assessment (you can read it in the post below.) Burris is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores, which has been signed by thousands of people from different walks of life. You can read the letter by clicking here.

By Carol Burris

In the fall of 2011, over 500 principals from Long Island, signed a letter that stated their concerns regarding New York’s newly enacted teacher evaluation system. Although the evaluation system was hailed by the New York State Education Department as a reform that would improve teaching and learning, the principals strongly, and very publicly disagreed.  In The New York Times, Mike Winerip  referred to the letter as a principals’ revolt.  That letter now has the signatures and support of over 1,500 New York State principals and thousands of teachers across the state—over 7,000 signatures in all.

 What is it about the teacher evaluation system that would cause such a ruckus among these usually quiet and compliant school leaders?  The principals recognized that the evaluation plan, which had been designed to secure Race to the Top funding, contained flaws that would undermine equity initiatives in their schools, damage school culture and result in unfair evaluations of their teachers.  They worried about the primacy of VAM scores and other measures of student achievement in the system, the limitations of which have been well documented on this blog.  They understood the unintended consequences, which include the narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, the expansion of even more testing and competition among teachers.  In addition, the evaluation system was designed as a sorting system based on points, with results of evaluations being available to parents, only further serving to undermine the professionalism of teachers.

 As one of those ‘rebel’ principals, it was therefore with unmitigated, ‘hooray he gets it’ joy that I read Doug Harris’ thoughtful piece about how to create a valid process for using teacher value-added measures [the previous post, which was originally on the Shanker Blog].  Harris has his values, regarding value added, straight.  According to Harris, the requirement to “lump value added or other growth models estimates together with other measures” into teacher evaluations is a mistake.  He explains the problem as a system designed from the point of view of measurement rather than teacher improvement, noting that policymakers have approached evaluation “like measurement experts rather than school leaders.”

 School leaders agree.  We are not looking for a sorting system but rather an effective system that is focused on teacher improvement and on good school values such as collegiality, student-centered practices and instructional risk taking.  These are the values that drive school improvement. We also know that although a focus on test prep might produce a jump in scores, it does not promote deep conceptual understanding or the love of learning. To attach individual high stakes for teachers to test results will inevitably turn schools away from all of the good school values listed above.  Measurement experts may not understand that, but teachers and principals do.

I think most principals and teachers agree with Doug Harris’ assertion that student achievement can play an important role in helping to identify teachers who need to improve. VAM scores could provide important supplementary information, in the aggregate and in the small.  They can guide school improvement while identifying teachers in need of support who might otherwise slip under the radar. The judgment of supervising professionals who understand the dynamics of the class taught by the teacher, as well as information provided by classroom observations, would inform decisions regarding whether the score correctly identified poor teacher performance. It would also be fair that a principal be obligated to defend an evaluation in which a teacher with a low VAM score was not assigned intensive supervision and a poor rating.

 Last year, prior to APPR, (the name of New York’s system) my efforts and those of my assistants were focused on the teachers who needed our attention the most. The high-flying, master teachers were formally observed once a year. They had opportunity to improve their craft by mentoring other teachers, leading professional development and assuming other informal leadership roles in their department.  Meanwhile, we continually worked with probationers and struggling teachers on lesson planning, assessment and instruction.

It is a process that worked—teachers got better or they left. Now, due to the strictures of the evaluation legislation, my fellow principals and I are forced to scatter our efforts—we do not have the time to do the real work that needs to be done as we write 4 to 5 page observation reports and engage in multiple observations of teachers who are doing more than fine.   Teacher improvement has been conflated with teacher dismissal and measurement. Harris’ screening approach, as he states, “helps schools focus their resources where they count.”

 Recently, Bruce Baker of Rutgers wrote a scathing critique of the New York scores for teachers and principals produced by the 2011-12 state growth model.  The biases inherent in the New York model came as no surprise to the educators of New York State who fully expected to see them. What was a surprise, however, was the editorial  written shortly thereafter by New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and New York state Education Commissioner John King defending their reform agenda and the evaluation system that incorporates the faulty scores.  Regrettably, every time ‘full steam ahead’ is the response to critique, the leadership of policymakers, in the eyes of those being led, diminishes.

 The evaluation system of Massachusetts, which is similar to the Harris model, and which is carefully being phased in, is a vast improvement over the ‘point system’ of  New York and other states.  Massachusetts took its time, and yet, secured Race to the Top funds and an ESEA waiver.  It is no wonder that Massachusetts leads the nation in student performance.

 How different it would be if other states followed Harris’ advice and said, “Let’s use these scores, in light of their limitations, not as part of evaluation but rather to identify those who need more support and to make sure that teacher evaluators are doing skillful work.  Perhaps we need to pause, and make sure we are doing this right.” 

 Doug Harris is counseling us what needs to be done.  If his warning is not heeded, considerable damage will be done to our schools and our profession, leaving the revision of teacher evaluation systems as one more failed school reform. And given the importance of high quality teaching, that would be a terrible shame.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 4, 2012