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

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.