This post was written by Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. Burris was an award-winning principal at a New York high school, and she is the author of numerous articles, books and blog posts about the botched school reform efforts in her state, including about the teacher evaluation system at the center of this case.
By Carol Burris
Sheri Lederman, the beloved fourth-grade teacher from Great Neck, New York, was victorious in her battle to have her 2013-14 VAM score of “ineffective” rating vacated and set aside by the Supreme Court of New York State. Justice Roger D. McDonough, who heard the case, recognized that score for what it was — “arbitrary” and “capricious.”
Answer Sheet readers will remember that her husband argued the irrationality of VAM scores before the court in August of 2015, laying out a careful, systematic argument that you can read about here. During the trial, Bruce Lederman, Sheri’s lawyer and husband, described the production of the score as a “black box” system that spit out predictions comparing his wife’s students to “avatar students.” He noted that “the magic of numbers brings a suspension of common sense.”
In his ruling, McDonough cited affidavits submitted by Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University, Aaron Pallas of Columbia University, Audrey Amrien-Beardsley of Arizona State University, Sean Corcoran of New York University, Jesse Rothstein of University of California at Berkeley, clinical school psychologist Brad Lindell, and me. Each of us used research and data to demonstrate that the VAM system was indeed arbitrary and capricious, and therefore an abuse of discretion by the New York State Education Department. In his ruling, the judge characterized that evidence as “overwhelming.”
The defendant was John B. King, the former New York State education commissioner and present U.S. Department of Education Secretary, who did not appear in court to defend the system he commissioned and defended as valid, reliable and fair when he was working in New York. Instead, an affidavit was submitted by Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz, who claimed that the New York VAM system (which is actually considered one of the better VAM systems) to be a rational and fair system to measure student growth.
McDonough was not convinced. He based his decision on the following five factors:
- the convincing and detailed evidence of VAM bias against teachers at both ends of the spectrum (e.g. those with high-performing students or those with low-performing students);
- the disproportionate effect of petitioner’s small class size and relatively large percentage of high-performing students;
- the functional inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students;
- the wholly unexplained swing in petitioner’s growth score from 14 to 1 despite the presence of statistically similar scoring students in her respective classes;
- the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a “bell curve” that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous
According to the justice, the state failed to make its case in rationally explaining how Lederman’s score could so wildly swing in one year and the petitioner met the high burden of proof needed for the ruling.
There are thousands of teachers like Sheri Lederman all across this nation who suffer in silence when they receive a VAM score labeling them ineffective. They and all teachers and principals owe the Ledermans a great debt. Sheri was willing to be publicly identified as “ineffective” while her attorney husband spent countless hours preparing meticulous briefs and cajoling experts to write affidavits in support.
The Ledermans knew they were fighting against the testocracy that is destroying the schools that they love. Across the country, students are laboring over unfair tests that are too long in order to produce enough “data” for a teacher score. News agencies have printed these invalid scores, humiliating teachers across the nation. Politicians, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have raised the weight of those ludicrous scores to 50 percent of a teacher’s and principal’s evaluation, and Brian Davison of Loudon County Schools petitioned the court (and won), to turn this nonsensical data with teacher names over to him so he can have the power to publish it on his Facebook page.
It is time for the madness to stop. It is time for other teachers to stand up and legally challenge their scores. And it is past time for taxpayers to stop these silly measures that cost them millions while enriching test companies and the research firms that produce the teacher scores.
Let’s hope that this judge’s decision has unmasked VAM and other growth scores for what they are—arbitrary and capricious numbers that require the suspension of common sense.