First Person

Reasonable Doubt

I’ve been relatively quiet in the ongoing debate about how best to evaluate teachers in New York City and across New York State. I’m not close to the negotiations and can claim no expertise on the political machinations outside of public view. At its heart, this seems to me a dispute over jurisdiction: Who has the legitimate authority to regulate the work of an occupation that seeks the status of a profession—but one that is in a labor-management relationship?

The laws of New York recognize the labor-management fault line, but they do little to guide a collective-bargaining process toward agreements in the many districts in which teacher-evaluation systems are contested. Each side brings a powerful public value to bear on the disagreement.

For the employers, it’s all about efficiency. It’s in the public interest, they argue, to recruit, retain and reward the best teachers, in order to maximize the collective achievement of students. A teacher-evaluation system that fails to identify those teachers who are effective, and those who are ineffective, can neither weed out consistent low-performers nor target those who might best benefit from intensive help. Rewarding high-performing teachers can, in the short run, help keep them in their classrooms, they claim, and, in the long run, can help expand the pool of talented individuals who enter the occupation.

For teachers, the key concern is fairness. Fairness is primarily a procedural issue: Teachers, and the unions that represent them, seek an evaluation process that is neither arbitrary nor capricious, relying on stable and valid criteria that they believe accurately characterize the quality of their work. In this view, an evaluation process is unfair to the extent that it can be manipulated by a building administrator or school district to yield a particular rating for a teacher’s performance. It is also unfair if random factors beyond a teacher’s control unduly influence the evaluation of his or her performance.

The values of efficiency and fairness collide head-on in New York’s Education Law §3012-c, passed as part of the state’s efforts to bolster its chances in the 2010 Race to the Top competition. The law requires annual professional performance reviews (APPRs) that sort teachers into four categories—“highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” and “ineffective”—based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including student growth on state and locally selected assessments and a teacher’s performance according to a teacher practice rubric.

The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to assess the efficiency or fairness of an evaluation system that doesn’t exist yet. There are too many unknowns to be able to judge, which is one of the arguments for piloting an evaluation system before bringing it to scale. The properties of the state tests that are to be used to assess teachers’ contributions to student learning are a moving target; the tests have been changing in recent years in response to concerns about their difficulty, predictability and coverage of state curricular standards. And in a couple of years, those standards and assessments will change, as New York and many other states phase in the Common Core standards and new assessments designed to measure mastery of them. The models to estimate a teacher’s position relative to other teachers in contributing to students’ test performance are imprecise at the level of the individual teacher, and different models yield different results for a given teacher. There’s been little to no discussion of how to incorporate this uncertainty into the single numerical score a teacher will receive.

The evaluation of teachers’ practices via classroom observations using New York State Education Department (NYSED)-approved rubrics, such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching or Robert Pianta’s Classroom Assessment Scoring System, is another unknown. There’s evidence that with proper training, observers can reliably rate teachers’ classroom practices, but the nature of the training is critical, and there is no evidence to date of New York City’s ability to prepare more than 1,500 principals, or the principals’ “designees,” to carry out multiple observations of many teachers, teaching many different school subjects, each year.

Amazingly, there is even uncertainty about whether the evaluations can or should be based solely on a teacher’s performance in a single year. The statute creating the new evaluation system in New York describes it as an “annual professional performance review.” But is this a professional performance review that occurs annually, or a review of annual professional performance—that is, a teacher’s performance in the most recent year? The guidance provided by the NYSED suggests that it has no idea. “For 2011-12, only one year of teacher or principal student growth percentile scores will factor into each educator’s evaluation,” the guidance states. “When more years of data are available, NYSED will consider whether each evaluation year should include more than one year of educator student growth results. Empirical and policy considerations will determine the decision.”

Well, that certainly clarifies matters. In other words, a “bad” year where a teacher is ranked relatively low compared to other teachers might reverberate, affecting his or her ranking in subsequent years. But a good observational rating in a given year seemingly will have no spillover effect into subsequent years. If, as has been true in Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, teachers generally score higher on observational ratings than on their value-added or growth-score rankings relative to other teachers, the carryover for value-added performance—but not observations of teachers’ professional practices—appears unfair. And in D.C., this evaluation system has resulted in the termination of hundreds of teachers based on one or two years of performance.

Teacher-evaluation systems have multiple purposes, which might include certifying teachers as competent or selecting some for particular forms of professional development to enhance their professional practice. For most of these purposes, it’s essential that those with a stake in the education system view these evaluation systems as legitimate—and the perceived efficiency and fairness of an evaluation system are central to such judgments. It’s not hard to see why a great many teachers, in New York City and across the state, have serious doubts about the fairness of New York State’s APPR process. And if future teachers do as well, the process could have the unintended consequence of reducing, rather than increasing, the pool of individuals willing to consider teaching as a vocation. This, coupled with the more than 1,300 principals across the state who have raised questions about the efficiency of the process, illuminates the challenges confronting the state as it seeks to implement the APPR system and avoid a scolding from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

William Blackstone, an 18th-century English legal scholar, wrote “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of our country, later upped the ante to 100 to one. The principle captures squarely the trade-off between the value of efficiency and the value of fairness. A legal system that lets the guilty go free is inefficient, as these offenders are free to continue to transgress against the common good. But to Franklin and others, that was still preferable to a legal system that did not provide adequate procedural protections for all, whether innocent or guilty, because such a system would be inconsistent with the principle of fairness so central to the American polity.

It’s important to note that Blackstone and Franklin were concerned with the workings of government; fairness in the private sector was not a central concern, and efficiency was taken for granted as a consequence of market forces. Civil servants, as agents and employees of the state, arguably are subject to a different set of rights and responsibilities than those working in the private sector, and teachers are one of the largest groups of such public servants. What’s an acceptable tradeoff between efficiency and fairness in the mix of teachers’ rights and responsibilities? It’s a lot easier to speculate about percentages in the abstract than to confront the possibility that you, or someone close to you, might be out of a job because of an untested teacher-evaluation system that cuts corners on fairness.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.