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Teacher Evaluation: Two Stories, from the Satirical to the Really, Really Ridiculous

It’s not often that one comes across two articles in the same day that put the reader into a surreal mindset. But today I am stuck in that literary “Twilight Zone.”

The first story appeared August 7 in The Onion, the widely-read satirical “news source.” It’s titled, “New Statewide Education Standards Require Teachers To Forever Change Lives Of 30% Of Students.”

In this fictitious story, the state of Illinois mandates that teachers forever change the lives of at least 3 out of 10 of their students, and “instill a love of learning in them that lasts the rest of their lives,” or be “immediately dismissed.”

The move was made “in an effort to hold classroom instructors more accountable,” the story tells us.

Of course, this is farcical. No one would ever base a teacher’s job on such an unrealistic standard, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The second story is more complicated, but it’s real. It appeared on August 9 in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post. Its title is “Master teacher suing New York state over ‘ineffective’ rating is going to court.” It tells us about Sheri G. Lederman, a veteran fourth grade teacher in New York’s Great Neck School District. We read that District Superintendent Thomas Dolan says she is “highly regarded as an educator” and has a “flawless record.” Her students have consistently performed above the state average in both math and English Language Arts.

And yet, in her 2013-2014 evaluation, Lederman was rated “ineffective” due, in part, to her students’ test performance. How can this be?

New York is among the states using VAM or Value-Added Measurement (or “Method”) to determine teacher “ratings.” New York’s system uses a complicated computer program to predict how similar students would perform on standardized tests. In the previous year, Lederman’s students did well on their tests in math and English Language Arts, earning her an “effective” rating. The next year, however, even though her students performed just as well, she was rated “ineffective.”

How is this possible? It’s all about the algorithm used to calculate the predicted scores. If a teacher has a group of students that is above average, realistically, how much can we expect those students to improve? What is the “predicted” score next year if a student achieves a perfect score this year? As ridiculous as it may seem, there have been cases where teachers have been penalized because these students did not “improve,” even though it was nearly impossible for them to score any higher. That’s why, in a previous article, Ms. Strauss points out that many statisticians find fault with the VAM.

The VAM system in New York also presents content challenges. Since the state’s tests are given only in math and English Language Arts, and since all teachers must be evaluated in part based on their students’ performance on these tests, then social studies teachers are often evaluated, in part, on how their students do on English Language Arts tests. Science teachers are often evaluated based on their students’ scores on math tests.

I don’t know how you feel, but the idea of awarding electricians their licenses based on how their plumber colleagues did on their tests makes me want to re-wire my house.

For years, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores has been a source of controversy among educators, parents and policymakers around the country. As mentioned, New York is not the only state taking this approach. But in New York, more than 1500 principals signed a position paper urging the legislature to abandon this practice and “stop harmful education practices not grounded in research.” Yet there are many who claim that this is a tangible way to bring accountability into the classroom.

Most teachers I know have no problem with accountability. But in order for one to be held accountable, the system of evaluation has to be reliable. No matter how much an algorithm claims to account for factors in a child’s life beyond a teacher’s control, is it fair that a prediction of a child’s performance on a test is something that should determine the direction of a professional’s career?

Put this formula in front of any other profession and there would be a rebellion.

My doctor is one of the best I know. Every year I go for my physical and get some really good, practical advice on how to live healthier. I’m armed with the knowledge I need to live a better life when I leave her office. I’m sure there are statistical models that could predict how much healthier I’d be if I follow her advice to the letter. But suppose I choose not to, or I simply can’t do what she tells me to do? When I return the next year, if I’m five pounds heavier and the blood pressure is up, should she be penalized by the medical board because the prediction said I’d be in better shape?  What if my numbers were “ideal”? If, statistically speaking, I can’t be any healthier than I am, is it realistic to expect improved numbers next year?

You can replace “teacher” and “student” with any professional and client and understand what makes tying teacher evaluation to student test performance such a dicey proposition, even if there is a magical calculation involved.

Whenever human beings are involved, outcomes can be — and often are — unpredictable. There are too many variables to account for that can’t be subtracted away by an algorithm.

Back to Lederman, who has strong backing from many well-respected educators, including her principal and district superintendent: Oral arguments in her suit against the state are scheduled for August 12. If she prevails, state legislators will have to go back to the drawing board to devise a system for teacher evaluation that makes sense.

But we live in a society that demands defined, measurable results, regardless of how we arrive at them. The reality is that some things cannot be quantified in orderly, checked boxes. As in any field, education has its good practitioners and bad ones. To be sure, there are many teachers who have a positive effect on their students and inspire their love of learning. But to be “immediately dismissed” unless they “forever change the lives of 30% of their students”? Please tell me there’s no algorithm for that, before some policymaker decides it’s a good idea.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of Donna Krache.



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