First Person

The Right To Know What?

Each fall, thousands of runners descend on the Big Apple to run the New York City marathon. They’ve trained hard all year, and give their all on the course. Long after the elite runners have finished, they stream across the finish line in clumps, exhausted at the end of their 26.2-mile journey. In the middle of the pack, as many as eight or 10 runners might cross the finish line in a single second, and nearly 400 in a single minute.

The difference between a time of 4:08:00 and 4:09:00, however, isn’t large enough to be important. It’s the difference between a rate of 9:28 per mile and 9:30 per mile. Given the vagaries of marathon running — the wind, the temperature, the features of the course — it would be unwise to conclude that the runner who crossed the finish line in 4:08:00 is a much better marathoner than the one who finished in 4:09:00.

But the runner with a time of 4:08:00 finished several hundred places ahead of the runner who finished in 4:09:00 — surely that counts for something! Not really, I’d say. We can quantify the difference, both in absolute terms and in relative position, but these differences are not large enough to be meaningful.

The same is true of the information in the Teacher Data Reports recently released in New York City. Small differences in the estimated effects of teachers on their students’ achievement can appear to be much larger, because most teachers are about equally successful with the assortment of students they teach in a given year, regardless of whether those students begin the year as low-achievers or high-achievers. A trivial difference can appear much larger than it actually is, because, like the marathoners, many teachers are “crossing the finish line” at about the same time.

Here’s an example drawn from the 2008-09 Teacher Data Reports. (I chose the example because it’s convenient and have no reason to believe it’s unusual.) In 2009, fifth-graders took New York State’s English Language Arts exam, which consisted of 24 multiple-choice test items and three constructed-response items, which were combined to create a raw score ranging from 0 to 31. The raw scores were then converted to scale scores, which were used to classify individual students into four levels of performance, with Level 3 representing grade-level proficiency. The average student in New York City got 25.5 raw score points out of 31, which in New York City’s scheme represented an average proficiency level of 3.29. (Sounds pretty good, right? Of course, this was before the state wised up that being proficient on the test didn’t mean a student was on track to graduate from high school ready for college.)

The logic of the city’s Teacher Data Reports is to estimate Teacher A’s contribution to his or her students’ test-scores by comparing how other students with the same measured characteristics would be expected to do on the state test, based on their prior achievement and individual and classroom characteristics, with how Teacher A’s students actually did on the test. If Teacher A’s students score at the same level as was predicted by a statistical model, Teacher A is claimed to not “add value” to her students. If Teacher B’s students perform better than expected, Teacher B is said to add value. (And poor Teacher C, whose students score lower than they are predicted to do, is subtracting value, I guess. Maybe we should call him Teacher F.) These “value-added” scores are then ranked, and a teacher is assigned a percentile value representing the percentage of other teachers teaching the same grade and subject who scored below he or she did.

An “average” teacher, according to this calculation, is one whose value-added score is 0. Of the 1,751 NYC teachers with three or more years of experience who received a value-added rating in fifth-grade English in 2008-09, 84 got a score that rounded to .00. Their percentile ratings—the number that’s getting all of the attention in the traditional and neo-tabloids—range from 53 to 58. A tiny shift of .01 in either direction yields an additional 152 teachers, and a percentile rating of 48 to 63. What seems to be a small range of value-added scores could be anywhere from the 48th to the 63th percentile, because the value-added scores in this range are clumped together.

But it’s hard to know whether a shift of .01 in either direction is large or small. How can we tell? Here’s an idea. Suppose that Ruiz had 20 students who took the fifth-grade English test in 2009, and they were at the city average of 25.5 out of 31 raw score points on the test. What if half of the students got one more question right on the test? Doesn’t seem like a big stretch, does it? Just like the variation in the conditions on marathon day, half of the students getting one more question correct on a given test on a given day doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

If this were to happen, Ruiz’s value-added score would rise from 0 to .05. And the percentile range associated with a value-added score of .05 is 75 to 77. All of a sudden, an “average” teacher looks pretty good. And this isn’t due to the margin of error! It’s just because many teachers are about equally effective in promoting student achievement, according to the value-added model in use. A relatively small change in student performance shifts a teacher’s location in the value-added distribution by a surprisingly large amount.

To be sure, this example is based on one year of student test-score data, not multiple years. But that’s what New York State is proposing to rely on in its first year of the new Annual Professional Performance Review process, and it’s what other jurisdictions, such as Washington, D.C., use in their teacher-evaluation systems. And, as with the marathon, the clumping together of teachers is more of an issue in the middle of the distribution than among those in the lead or at the back of the pack. But that’s little consolation to the teachers whose percentile rankings will figure into annual evaluations that will determine whether they’re permitted to continue teaching.

Speaking at Coney Island Feb. 28, Mayor Bloomberg defiantly affirmed the public’s right to know the contents of teachers’ performance evaluations. “Parents have a right to know every bit of information that we can possibly collect about the teacher that’s in front of their kids,” he said.

That statement is utterly ridiculous. There’s no legitimate interest in information about teachers’ private lives if it has no bearing on their professional performance. But here’s something parents do have the right to know: just how fragile value-added measures based on the New York State testing system are. The New York State tests were never intended to be used to rate teachers’ contributions to student learning — and so it’s little wonder they do a pretty poor job of it.

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.