(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Here is a report on what happened this week in a New York court where a judge is hearing the case brought by Sheri G. Lederman, a fourth-grade teacher in the Great Neck public school district, against state education officials over their controversial method of evaluating her — and, by extension, other N.Y. teachers.

The method is known as “value-added modeling,” or VAM, and it purports to be able to use student standardized test scores to determine the “value” of a teacher while factoring out every other influence on a student (including, for example, hunger, sickness, and stress). One way it works is by predicting, through a complicated computer model, how students with similar characteristics are supposed to perform on the exams, and teachers are then evaluated on how well their students measure up to the theoretical students. New York is just one of the many states where VAM is a key component of teacher assessment. Evaluation experts have warned  policymakers that this method is not reliable for evaluating teachers, but VAM became popular among school reformers as a “data-driven” evaluation solution.

Lederman’s suit against state education officials — including John King, the former state education commissioner who is now a top adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — challenges the rationality of the VAM model, and it alleges that the New York State Growth Measures “actually punishes excellence in education through a statistical black box which no rational educator or fact finder could see as fair, accurate or reliable.”

Here’s what happened to Lederman: In 2012-13, 68.75 percent of her New York students met or exceeded state standards in both English and math. She was labeled “effective” that year. In 2013-2014, her students’ test results were very similar, but she was rated “ineffective.” Meanwhile, her district superintendent, Thomas Dolan, declared that Lederman — whose students received  standardized math and English Language Arts test scores consistently higher than the state average — has a “flawless record.”

Lederman and her attorney husband, Bruce Lederman, sued and obtained affidavits of support from a number of education experts. You can read about what they said here.

On Aug. 12, New York Supreme Court Justice Roger McDonough presided over a hearing in the case — and he was not amused with the state’s case. Following is a report on the hearing by Carol Burris, the executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education Fund. Burris retired in June as an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts (including on The Answer Sheet) about the botched school reform efforts in her state.

[Why a master teacher is suing New York state over her evaluation]

 

By Carol Burris

The exasperated New York Supreme Court judge, Roger McDonough, tried to get Assistant Attorney General Galligan to answer his questions. He was looking for clarity and instead got circuitous responses about bell curves, “outliers” and adjustments. Fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederman’s VAM score of “ineffective” was on trial.

The more Ms. Galligan tried to defend the bell curve of growth scores as science, the more the judge pushed back with common sense. It was clear that he did his homework. He understood that the New York State Education Department’s VAM system artificially set the percentage of “ineffective” teachers at 7 percent. That arbitrary decision clearly troubled him. “Doesn’t the bell curve make it subjective? There has to be failures,” he asked.

The defender of the curve said that she did not like the “failure” word.

The judge quipped, “Ineffectives, how about that?” Those in attendance laughed.

Ms. Galligan preferred the term “outlier.” Those who got ineffective growth scores were “the outliers who are not doing a good job,” the attorney said. She seemed oblivious to the fourth-grade teacher who was sitting not 10 feet away from where she stood.

“Did her students learn nothing?” Justice McDonough asked. “How could it be that she went from 14 out of 20 points to 1 out of 20 points in one year?” He noted that the students’ scores were quite good and not that different from the year before.

Back behind the bell curve Ms. Galligan ran. As she tried to explain once again, the judge said, “Therein lies the imprecise nature of this measure.”

I met Sheri Lederman a year before she became an “outlier.” In April of 2013, a group of principals organized a forum at Hofstra University, called More than a Score. Sheri’s principal, Sharon Fougner, recommended her as a panelist. “She is not only a remarkable teacher, she is a scholar in childhood education,” Fougner said.

At that forum, Sheri spoke eloquently about her students. She explained what good elementary education should be. Her thoughtful presentation full of authentic concern for the effects of Pearson testing on her fourth-graders was the most moving presentation of the evening.

The following year, in 2014, Sheri received her ineffective score from the state. Principal Fougner called her into her office to tell her, so she would not have to suffer the indignity of reading it on a computer screen.

The master teacher, known for her high expectations for students and her belief that every single student can succeed with her help, was in shock. Just the year before her score was rated “effective.”

After being told the bad news, Lederman recalls sitting at her desk thinking that there must be some mistake. She thought about quitting — and then she got angry.

What started out as a personal affront became a cause. As she recently told me:

“I spend a lot of time teaching my students about the injustices that have historically plagued populations across the world. It is often the case that one single person must step up and take a stand against an unjust law or governing body, becoming the tipping point for so many others. I could not stand by and accept what SED [State Education Department] and the Legislature were doing to me and every other educator out there. I have made the choice to take a public stand. Win or lose, I won’t stand by and be ineffective in this fight.”

She and her husband, attorney Bruce Lederman, filed for a review. She received a dismissive letter from the State Education Department saying there was no review and if she didn’t like it, the only recourse was an article 78 action.

And that is just what she and her husband began.

Lederman was not the only teacher in the school to get a poor score. In 2014, 21 percent of the staff at E.M. Baker School received a score of “ineffective,” 21 percent “developing” and 57 percent were “effective.”  Just the year before, not one teacher received an “ineffective” score.

[How is this fair? Art teacher evaluated by students’ math test scores]

The irrationality was not limited to the teachers of Sheri Lederman’s school, one of the highest performing elementary schools in the state. In 2014, 44 percent of the teachers of the Fox Meadow School in Scarsdale received growth scores that said they were not “effective” teachers with 22 percent rated “ineffective.”  Yet 61 percent of the school’s students were proficient in English Language Arts, and 75 percent were proficient in math—more that double the state’s proficiency rate.   Similar results were found at the high-achieving Harbour Hill School in Roslyn, where 36 percent of its teachers received growth scores that labeled them “ineffective.”

The Lincoln School in Rochester, is a school designated as a priority/failing school by the state. Its proficiency rate was less than 3 percent. In 2014, 100 percent of its teachers received “effective” state scores, with 7 percent being rated “highly effective.”  At another school facing receivership, The Martin Luther King Jr School in Utica, New York, 60 percent of the teachers received “effective” VAM scores and 40 percent were given VAM scores of “highly effective .”

I point out these dramatic differences not to disparage or embarrass the teachers of any school, but rather to shine a light on the irrational state-produced teacher scores based on the New York Common Core tests. For more information on the unreliable manner in which these scores functioned in 2013 and 2014, read here.

Bruce Lederman argued the irrationality of that rating system before the court. He laid out a careful, systematic argument. He was not opposed to evaluation. He was not even opposed to evaluation based on a measurement of student learning growth. He objected to a rating created in a black box that spit out predictions that compared his wife’s students to “avatar students.” He was disturbed that when questioned, that system responds with “because we say so.” He noted that “the magic of numbers brings a suspension of common sense.”

[How students with top test scores actually hurt their teacher’s evaluation]

“There is nothing in the law that requires a bell curve,” he argued. He explained that a bell curve with its forced failures violates that law that requires that every teacher must be able to get all scores. Not only did he want the court to set aside his wife’s score, he wanted the court to “declare the measure an abuse of discretion” because “the State Education Department does not get a pass on unreasonable and irrational actions.”

After 90 minutes of argument, the court adjourned.

At its core, this story is a love story. It is the story of a teacher who loves her students, her profession and justice so much that she is willing to stand up and let the world know that she was “an outlier” with an “ineffective” score.

It was love that compelled teachers, retired and active, driving from all corners of the state to be in that courtroom to listen on a hot summer’s day. It was love that compelled her principal to drive to Albany to be there. It was the deep and abiding love of a husband for his wife that compelled Bruce Lederman to spend countless hours preparing an extraordinary defense.  And it is love that nourishes and sustains the good school, not avatar score predictions for performance on Common Core tests.

Supreme Court Justice McDonough’s decision is expected in two to three months.