Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York City, an incredibly wealthy man named Michael Bloomberg, compared my union, the United Federation of Teachers to the National Rifle Association because we will not agree to a deeply flawed, poorly thought out system of rating teachers.

The mayor thinks what he wants and expresses himself in whatever way he chooses. No one need comment on his incredible statement because it speaks very loudly on its own about what kind of man is running New York City and the New York City schools.

But the mayor is right about one thing. My union is refusing to cave into his and the state’s demand that we accept a teacher-rating system that is largely based on student performance on standardized tests.

The NY Post reports that teachers who rate poorly on the current system are offered satisfactory final ratings if they resign. Teacher evaluations have always been political — one intent of all this testing is to eliminate subjective rating, but it just moves it into sleazier territory. What the City is saying, in essence, is we think you’re a bad teacher but we’ll tell some other district that you apply to that you’re an okay teacher and let them take their chances. Doubly dishonest, and this is what we model for our students.

The problem is, there is absolutely no way to rate the effectiveness teachers because the result of what we do or don’t do in the classroom is not readily apparent in any meaningful way for several years at best and by then it is impossible to tell what influence any one or collection of teachers had, as if it were ever possible.

In my life, all the really influential teachers retired or died before the fruits of their influence developed enough to become apparent to me, much less anyone else.

The problem is we’re educating for the long run and the powers that be keep trying to assess us on the short run.

It is like judging the health of a business based on its performance in one or two quarters. By that standard, Enron looked fantastic, just like all the slick no-credit-check mega-mortgages and the derivatives based on them. We all know how that turned out

If they really want us to teach for short-term student gains we all can do it, we know how, but that is not what our students need and most definitely is not what our society needs.

Just like in business, taking the long view might not work out as well for the current investors, but is often advantageous for the society as a whole.

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4 Responses to Assessing Teachers: Almost Impossible

  1. For how many of us were the teachers, the one who didn’t get past the Civil War.

  2. markwalker says:

    Well lots to agree with here. It seems that only standardised test results truly measure learning and therefore teaching. I’m here to say that formative assessment, challenge (goal setting) and feedback make a difference (Hattie). Walking into classrooms observing instruction – giving feedback and speaking to students informs me about teacher quality. I challenge teachers to strengthen their instruction and its through conversation over time that I form the picture about competence and effectiveness. I do look at formative data to calculate effectiveness as well and that forms a picture. Rarely have I as a principal had to let teachers go (yes sometimes and there are often other factors at play as well) but for the most part teachers improve and gain positions and promotions at others schools. So it seems that except for the few who ought not to teach (and we need to be able to look them in the eye and respectfully tell them). It’s about improving the profession not penalising them.

    • Deven Black says:

      I’ve had a principal observe me for five minutes and give me almost immediate, useful, feedback. I’ve had that same principal tell me to do something with an unruly class one day, then ask me why I was doing that on the second day (um, because you told me it would work?). I’ve been observed by one assistant principal one day and gotten feedback and been observed by another principal the next day, before I’ve had a chance to incorporate the prior day’s feedback, and the second AP tells me to do something diametrically opposed to what the first AP told me. In the process of all this my teaching ability declined, at least partially to my utter confusion as to what it was I was supposed to do.

      In a prior school, the principal changed my rating on a lesson observed by the Special Ed director from a Satisfactory to an Unsatisfactory even though she was not in the room at all during the lesson.

      As a librarian, the student test score portion of my rating, somewhere between 20% and 40% of my overall rating, will be based on the growth in ELA scores for every student in the school, even though no more than 100 or so out of the 750 ever set foot in the library in the course of a year and I see each of the three (out of 8) 6th grade classes scheduled into the library all of 84 minutes a week, barely enough time to do some reader advisory and check all the books out.

      I can understand the desire to somehow quantify a teacher’s effectiveness. I don’t think it is possible, but I understand the desire. My real complaint is that the development and application of this new system is being done in about ten months. No scientific basis, no field testing, no study and no negotiation. It is the rough equivalent of a student copying and pasting from Wikipedia for a report without reading the article or understanding the material. It is the anti-scientific method and, if anyone in charge knew anything about how children learn, they might realize that this kind of damn-the-torpedos-full-speed-ahead method of problem solving is not what we want to model for our students because it frequently leads to things like the charge of the light brigade, the Alamo, and other notable disasters.

      It is an anti-intellectual, pandering, knee-jerk reaction to an overblown problem. It is not leadership; it is tyranny of the willfully ignorant.

  3. RjWassink says:

    This new teacher evaluation system – the HEDI model (Highly effective, Effective, Developing, Ineffective) – at first seemed like an insult to the teachers. I was completely against it because I felt it was treating teachers like kids rather than professionals with 5+ years of education under their belts… and even our students were placed higher on the totem pole because rather than being held responsible for their own learning it was all thrown back onto the teachers.

    After being observed with the new system in place and really exploring the intricacies of it, my new opinion is that it is a huge slap in the face to administrators in this country. Essentially the problem with education – according to the government – is that the administrators haven’t been able to weed out the bad teachers and have allowed them to gain tenture and continue their haphazard paths through an education-based career. Apparently administrators can’t identify bad teaching if it hits them squarely in the face. If they could we wouldn’t have bad teachers anywhere, Right? Ha – the ineffective teachers would all go back and get their administration certificates :)

    It’s all laughable. I’ve been evaluated by six different administrators so far in my career and I’ve yet to have similar suggestions for growth. Not only are their comments based on a 40-minute pre-planned observation, but each lesson and group of students can be as opposite as A and Z. It’s a dog and pony show. And if the administrator likes you – or, for whatever reason wants to keep you – they’ll overlook some issues and rate you higher than a similar teacher who may rock the boat a bit more. If they don’t like you they can make a squeaky piece of chalk seem like the final straw of your tenure there. I try to keep my nose clean and play by the rules most of the time, but I’ve been on the wrong side of my evaluator’s naughty list a few times and have seen this happen firsthand.

    As for your union – good for them to resist a little. It’s a lot less political up here (in the land where mayors take care of cities and school boards take care of education)… This system is based 60% on observations and 40% on assessment data. My evaluation (I’m a technology teacher) for one portion is based on my students’ yearlong increase in their ELA score. That doesn’t take into account the fact that there is no known standard for technology terminology; Reading in our content area can range from reading rulers (math) to understanding measurement units (science) to being able to read and understand a programming language. Will this help them with their ELA scores? Not very much, that’s for sure. So why am I tied to them? What about the dozen or so students who randomly answer questions on their assessment because they’re bored or because they purposely want to screw over the teachers? Anyone saying these students don’t exist has never taught 8th grade (or even high school) before. And when some kids are missing 20-30 days of school in a year it’s no wonder their scores are lower – but they count the same as if those kids were there every day. Really?

    The other portion of this evaluation system is based on the students’ performance on a pre-test and the associated post-test. Ok, so on the first day of class you give a test that is purposely hard that nobody will do well on. Then 3 days before the post-test you start reviewing what they need to know to ace it. The teachers write the tests, so it’s no secret what they’re going to ask. Is this a valid measure of learning? Ha! What a joke.

    I agree, there is no way to assess teacher performance by using standardized tests. There is no one single method of pedagogy that works for every teacher, every class, or every student. Regardless of the framework being used there is plenty of room for interpretation in any observation. Let me teach how and what I need to teach and I’ll do 50% better than trying to teach by your rules.

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