light of day

City releases Teacher Data Reports — and a slew of caveats

When the Department of Education’s embargo of Teacher Data Reports details lifted at noon today, news organizations across the city rushed to make the data available.

The Teacher Data Reports are “value-added” assessments of teachers’ effectiveness that were produced from 2008 to 2010 for reading and math teachers in grades 3 to 8.

This morning, department officials including Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky met with reporters to offer caution about how the data reports should be used. They emphasized the reports’ wide margins of error — 35 percentage points for math teachers and 53 percentage points for reading teachers, on average — and that the reports reflect only a small portion of teachers’ work.

“We would never advise anyone — parent, reporter, principal, teacher — to draw a conclusion based on this score alone,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Most of the news organizations that filed Freedom of Information Law requests for the ratings plan to publish them in searchable or streamlined databases, with the teachers’ names attached. GothamSchools does not plan to publish the data with teachers’ names or identifying characteristics included because of concerns about the data’s reliability.

At least two other news organizations that cover education are also not publishing the data: the local affiliate of Fox News, according to a representative of Fox, and the nonprofit school information website Insideschools.

Department officials are asking schools not to release the reports to parents. They issued a guide today advising principals about how to handle parents who demand that their child be removed from the class of a teacher rated ineffective.

“Resist changing student/teacher assignments mid-year, as doing so is disruptive to all students’ learning,” the guide advises.

“We definitely will not be moving kids around based on a data point that is two years old,” Polakow-Suransky said today.

Joel Klein, who was chancellor when the reports were launched, was a public champion of the idea that releasing teacher ratings would empower parents to demand better schools and teachers for their children. He argued publicly that the ratings of individual teachers should be released after news organizations filed legal requests for them.

But Walcott began distancing himself from that position almost immediately after becoming chancellor last year. And last fall, his administration announced it had stopped producing the reports, citing a new state teacher evaluation system that will include value-added measures. Walcott explained in a Daily News column today that he is not thrilled that teachers “might be denigrated” as a result of the data dump.

Today, Walcott and Polakow-Suransky argued that Klein’s initial stance was justified — at the time. “What we’re looking at in 2012 is quite different from what Joel was looking at in 2010,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Because New York City adopted value-added measures relatively early, he said, the ratings were in fact among the most sophisticated measures available at the time. But even at the time, the ratings were not meant for public consumption or to be used in high-stakes decision-making, he said.

Polakow-Suransky acknowledged one exception to the high-stakes decision ban: School officials did use value-added ratings to inform decisions about whether to grant some teachers tenure.

We reported last year that principals said they were being prevented from granting tenure to teachers whose students had low test scores, particularly if they were among the roughly 12,000 teachers annually to receive a data report.

Polakow-Suransky said today that 133 teachers up for tenure last year were flagged because of low value-added scores. More than a third of the flagged teachers received tenure after their principals and superintendents determined that other factors carried more weight, he said.

The city released reports for about 18,000 different teachers over the course of the three school years during which they were produced. About 12,000 teachers received reports in each of the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, and about half of them received two because they taught both reading and math. (A smaller pilot group received reports in 2007-2008.)

Because many teachers’ students were tested in both math and English, some teachers were given two different value-added ratings for a single year — below average in one subject and above average in the other.

The reports also indicate whether teachers were found to have done especially well at boosting the test scores of particular types of students, such as students with disabilities, low-income students, or students who are considered English language learners.

Department officials said 77 percent of the teachers who received reports are still working in the city schools.

Next week, ratings will be released for teachers in schools for students with severe disabilities and for charter school teachers. The release of charter school teachers’ data reports reverses the department’s earlier decision not to release them because charter schools had opted into the Teacher Data Report program voluntarily.

Officials cautioned that the scores were especially unreliable for teachers with relatively few students. That group includes elementary school teachers, who typically had fewer than 30 students factor into their scores.

They also said reports are less reliable for teachers whose students were either all high-performing or mostly low-performing. The difference is due to the nature of the state tests, which were designed to distinguish among middle-level students — those just above and below the state’s proficiency cutoff. As a result, small differences among students at the top and bottom had an outsized impact on a teachers’ rating, Polakow-Suransky said.

The issue was one of several lessons learned that Polakow-Suransky said the city has flagged for the State Education Department, which is building its own value-added algorithm to be used as a part of new teacher evaluations.

The state is working with the American Institute of Research to build its model; the city’s model was designed by a research center at the University of Wisconsin.

Other lessons Polakow-Suransky identified include the importance of publishing value-added scores in the context of their margins of error and the need to create a way for teachers and principals to verify data.

The city introduced a verification system that teachers could use two years into the Teacher Data Report project. Less than 40 percent of teachers signed in to use it, but a significant number of them found major errors. For example, three percent of the teachers who signed in discovered that they had been marked as teaching classes that they had not actually taught.

In their lawsuit attempting to stop the ratings from being released, United Federation of Teachers officials identified more than 200 such errors. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today that the errors showed that the city had not been respectful of teachers in developing or releasing the ratings.

“This was a complete debacle in terms of how the DOE has handled [the reports] and the mismanagement of the data inside of the system,” he said.

Asked whether he thought the state’s model would avoid the pitfalls the UFT identified in the city’s reports, Mulgrew said, “I’m not confident.”

But he said the state’s evaluation requirements are an improvement over the Teacher Data Reports because the new evaluations will showcase the value-added calculations alongside other measures of teacher quality.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”