Political winds seem to be blowing against U.S. teachers. Republican state governments accuse teachers of having lavish benefits, and pass laws to tear-up their contracts and destroy their unions.1 A public school district superintendent refuses to bargain, fires the entire teaching staff, and the Obama Administration applauds.2 3 4 These same policy-makers take standardized testing of students, now used, with questionable reliability, to rate schools, and push it to rate — and fire — teachers.5 6 7 8 All of these actions seem to come from a notion that there are a great many bad teachers that should be fired and lazy teachers that could be threatened into working harder. But who has seen many of these bad and lazy teachers? Among my 50 or so public school teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, all but one did a passable job or better. The one who didn’t was just old and too unaware to rein in her wild ninth-graders, and soon retired. Nevertheless, let’s count her as failing, giving us one-in-fifty, 2% of teachers that could not do the job. That hardly makes a great many. Now think back on all of your teachers, K through 12. Leaving aside whether you liked a teacher, what percent really did not do a passable job?
(2012-02-18: Poll closed.)
What percent of your teachers K-12 did NOT do a passable job?
- 0% (12%, 3 Votes)
- 2% (16%, 4 Votes)
- 5% (4%, 1 Votes)
- 10% (20%, 5 Votes)
- 20% (0%, 0 Votes)
- 30% (0%, 0 Votes)
- 40% (4%, 1 Votes)
- 50% (4%, 1 Votes)
- 60% (0%, 0 Votes)
- 70% (8%, 2 Votes)
- 80% (0%, 0 Votes)
- 90% (8%, 2 Votes)
- 100% (24%, 6 Votes)
Total Voters: 25
35. By letter dated February 9, 2010, Gallo informed the Union that unless it agreed to her demands, as aforesaid, she would either terminate all of the teachers or inform Commissioner Gist that “we have collectively failed to select an intervention model for the high school.”
36. By letter dated February 11, 2010, Jane Sessums informed Gallo that she could not and would not agree to change the collective bargaining agreement without reviewing certain relevant information and meeting with the Dr. Gallo regarding “changes in time, compensation, or other issues related to the transformation model.”
37. After receiving Sessums’ letter, on or about February 11, 2010, Gallo announced that she would fire every teacher at CFHS.
Meanwhile, state and local education officials received some high-powered support of their own, when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, saying he “applauded” them for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”
“But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” the president continued.
“And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent. When a school board wasn’t able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff,” Mr. Obama said.
Union officials quickly criticized what they called Mr. Obama’s comments “condoning the mass firing.” A joint statement, issued from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington; Marcia Reback, president of the state affiliate, and Central Falls Teachers Union President Jane Sessums, said Mr. Obama’s remarks “completely ignore” key particulars of the dispute.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a far-reaching teacher merit-pay bill that will overhaul how teachers across the state will be evaluated and paid.
The law creates an evaluation system that relies heavily on student test score data to judge teacher quality. For new teachers, it also creates a performance-based pay system and ends tenure-like job protections.
Florida’s merit-pay push is part of a national effort to improve education by tying teachers’ pay to their overall effectiveness.
“Value-added modeling” is indeed all the rage in teacher evaluation: The Obama administration supports it, and the Los Angeles Times used it to grade more than 6,000 California teachers in a controversial project. States are changing laws in order to make standardized tests an important part of teacher evaluation.
Unfortunately, this rush is being done without evidence that it works well. The study, by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit think tank based in Washington, concludes that heavy reliance on VAM methods should not dominate high-stakes decisions about teacher evaluation and pay.
How to Find and Fire Bad Teachers the Reform Way
The ed reformers have a formula for producing an outstanding teaching force: identify and dismiss all bad teachers, replace them with excellent ones, keep the latter on staff by paying them more, and evaluate everyone regularly to make sure no teacher is slipping. Private schools have the freedom to do this. But public schools, according to the credo, are hamstrung by protections for teachers—due process (imprecisely called tenure), seniority, and set salary scales—which are written into state laws and union contracts.* Because of due process, the reformers claim, it’s too difficult to get rid of bad teachers; because of seniority, they aren’t necessarily the first laid off; because of salary scales, they get paid as much as better teachers. The reformers want the quality of teaching alone to determine if a public school teacher stays employed or gets a raise.
But how do you measure quality accurately? The reformers promote relying heavily on students’ standardized test scores: students who do well on these tests have clearly learned something, the argument goes. Therefore if you track the test scores of each teacher’s students every year, you can measure how much students have learned and use that number to make personnel decisions. The traditional protections can go, the unions will be weaker (a boon to reformers who consider them roadblocks to change), and, voilà, public schools will improve.
Due process, seniority, and salary scales predate unionization; they grew out of state and local civil service reforms in the early twentieth century when political machines thrived in large part by controlling jobs. Civil service laws protected teachers against the graft, cronyism, and favoritism that plagued public school systems under the thumb of political bosses and run by patronage. The laws benefited children by aiming for a meritocracy: teaching jobs would go to those who had training and skills. Since the 1960s when public employees in many states won the right to bargain collectively, teachers’ contracts have included the same protections.
The traditional protections are just that—protections against corruption and favoritism; they have nothing to do with evaluating teachers. Even if an ideal evaluation system existed, teachers would still need recourse when administrators and politicians ignored regulations. Yet the reformers have misleadingly conflated the two issues: we can’t get proper evaluations, they claim, without eliminating protections. Since state laws can be written to take precedence over teachers’ contracts, the most effective way to eliminate protections is to get state laws changed. This is what the reform campaign is doing around the country.
A short digression on due process: it doesn’t mean that public school teachers cannot be fired. The problem is extremely drawn-out and costly procedures for hearings and rulings. Unions get the blame for this, but departments of education (notorious for bureaucratic snafus and foot-dragging) and the lawyers on both sides (also foot-draggers) bear equal responsibility. The solution is straightforward: strict time limits for the process. But, perversely, with the escalation of the reform campaign, “reform superintendents” have a greater interest in showing that due process doesn’t work than in repairing it.
The Political Triumph of VAM
The Bush Administration launched the era of federally mandated, high-stakes testing in public schools with its “No Child Left Behind” program in 2001. Schools not making “adequate yearly progress” in raising math and reading scores risked being re-staffed, replaced with charters, or shut down. This quickly produced predictable results: teaching to the test, narrowed curriculum, and incidents of cheating. But the next step—the federal drive to use student test scores to grade teachers—came exclusively from the Obama administration.
Obama chose ed reformer Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, and Duncan, in turn, hired John Schnur, another reformer, as an advisor. Schnur came up with the idea of using the reform agenda as the core of a contest for federal grants. Called “Race to the Top” (RTTT), the contest offered states the chance to win funds if they pledged to mandate specific reforms, including test-based teacher evaluations in all subjects (for an account of RTTT’s genesis, see the New York Times Magazine, May 17, 2010). Desperate for funds, states accepted this micromanagement. Duncan announced the winners in 2010, and since then, those states have been passing laws to fulfill their pledges. Other states are following suit in large part because the reform movement has so effectively popularized the notion of holding every teacher accountable with “objective, performance-based” measures.
The following states have passed laws or have legislation in the works: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Others are coming on board every month. Many of the new laws require test scores to count for as much as 50 percent of an evaluation (given the unreliable calculations, even 10 percent could distort an assessment); the rest is made up by a combination of “traditional measures” such as principals’ observations, reviews of lesson plans, and portfolios of student work. All the new laws weaken protections for teachers.
Florida’s new law, for example, requires the commissioner of education to come up with a value-added model that will determine 50 percent of every teacher’s and principal’s evaluation; the evaluations will decide salaries and dismissals. On April 4, 2011, Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a tireless ed-reform advocate, wrote this about Florida’s law in his Education Week blog:
I’ll bet right now that SB 736 is going to be a train wreck. Mandatory terminations will force some good teachers out of good schools because of predictable statistical fluctuations, and parents will be livid. Questions about cheating will rear their ugly head. A thrown-together growth model and rapidly generated tests, pursued with scarce resources and under a new Commissioner, are going to be predictably half-baked and prone to problems.
Evaluating Teachers: It’s Not Rocket Science and Shouldn’t Be
While ed reformers push a top-down technocratic procedure, the programs for assessing teacher performance that actually work take a radically different approach. They’re based on two assumptions: administrators and teachers should design and implement a program together, and it should incorporate “professional development” (showing teachers how to improve). One such program—“Peer Assistance and Review” (PAR)—is being used successfully in seven school districts around the country: in Toledo since 1981, Cincinnati since 1985, Rochester since 1987, Minneapolis since 1997, San Juan since 2000, Montgomery County since 2001, and Syracuse since 2005.
A PAR program has two main components: a district PAR Panel made up of seven to twelve members, half of them teachers and half administrators, and a corps of Consulting Teachers (CTs). Typically, teachers who want to become CTs apply to the panel. Those who are chosen take a leave of absence from their classrooms for three to five years and assume responsibility for a caseload of ten to twenty teachers who are either new or low-performing. The CTs observe “their” teachers at work regularly during the school year, provide intensive mentoring, keep detailed records of progress and problems, and report to the panel on each teacher’s development. They also recommend retaining, dismissing, or giving the teachers more assistance. The panel reviews reports and records, interviews each teacher, and makes a decision. The CTs receive extra pay during their term and then return to teaching (see “A User’s Guide to Peer Assistance and Review”).
Established in 1996, the Baltimore Curriculum Project currently oversees four charter schools.
According to the government, all four of those schools failed in their mission last year.
According to [the president, Muriel] Berkeley, the schools were successful.
“Teachers were happy with the improvements they saw,” Berkeley said. “Principals, parents and family were all excited about the progress the students were making. But it didn’t necessarily translate into test scores.”
No Child Left Behind relies solely on state tests to determine whether schools are a success (and thus eligible for federal funds). Between grades 3 and 8, students are given an annual multiple choice state test, and the percentage of students who pass it are used as a yardstick of the school’s success. The goal of NCLB is to achieve 100 percent proficiency — every single child in the U.S. passing their state math and reading tests — by 2014. Every year, the yardstick for achievement gets longer, and more schools are considered “failing,” and are in danger of mass layoffs, loss of funding or even closure of the school altogether.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan predicted that this year, 82 percent of the country’s 100,000 public schools would be labeled as failing.
“The idea that you can measure the quality of a school based on answers to an arbitrary state test is misguided,” Berkeley said. …
“The minute you define the purpose of public education as a result on a test, you’ve ruined it,” she said.