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The Smoking Gun

I’ve been skeptical of New York City’s Teacher Data Initiative for some time. As I’ve commented previously here and here, I see few ways in which the Teacher Data Reports produced via a value-added assessment of student performance on state math and ELA tests could actually lead to better teaching. What the Teacher Data Reports do is rank teachers, and they’re not even very good at that, given the unreliability of student performance.

Lurking in the background is the fear that the Teacher Data Reports will be used to evaluate teachers. “Absolutely not,” is the steady refrain from Chancellor Joel Klein. “The Teacher Data Reports are not to be used for evaluation purposes. That is, they won’t be used in tenure determinations or the annual rating process,” wrote Chancellor Klein and UFT President Randi Weingarten, in a joint letter last October. I think that this is the primary purpose of the Teacher Data Reports, but they are being cloaked in rhetoric that describes them as a professional development tool.

It turns out that there’s a smoking gun. Today’s New York Times feature story on Chancellor Joel Klein makes mention of a recently-published book by Terry Moe and John Chubb for which he wrote a book-jacket blurb, entitled “Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of Education.” The book has a brief section on New York City, drawn, a footnote tells us, from the public record and an interview with Deputy Chancellor Chris Cerf. Here’s what Moe and Chubb write:

“The district aims to use the [value-added teacher effectiveness] indicators to make major personnel decisions. Most important, it wants to take tenure decisions out of the hands of principals and base them instead on three years of value-added assessment data. By sorting the wheat from the chaff at tenure time, the district’s goal is to slowly but surely upgrade the quality of its teachers. Unfortunately, that goal cannot be met in the near future-for as we discussed in Chapter Three, the teachers union went straight to the New York legislature in protest, and used its political power to engineer new legislation that prevents the city school district (and indeed, all school districts in the state) from using student performance data as a factor (even if one of many) in teacher tenure decisions.”

Certainly nothing in the public record says this. So I’m inferring that it comes from the interview with Cerf, in which he probably let down his guard, not realizing that his friendly conversation with like-minded folks would wind up in print. And there’s no telling whether Joel Klein even saw this in whatever he read to write a blurb for the book. I think we can expect some weaselly back-pedaling on this: the authors misheard what Cerf was saying, or they overstated what he said, or misinterpreted it.

Anything but what the text says in black and white. Which is that the New York City Department of Education wants to turn over decisions about which teachers should get tenure to a computer algorithm crunching test scores, and to rob principals and teachers in a school of the right to exercise their professional judgment about all of the things that make up good teachers and good teaching.

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