“Students” Suing the State of California over Teacher Tenure

As per a recent article in the New York Times, “nine public school students [emphasis added as I use students loosely] are challenging California’s ironclad tenure system, arguing that their right to a good education is violated by job protections that make it too difficult to fire bad instructors. But behind the students stand a Silicon Valley technology magnate [David Welch] who is financing the case and an all-star cast of lawyers that includes Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general of the United States [and George W. Bush’s former Solicitor General], who recently won the Supreme Court case that effectively overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.”

It seems, also, that Students Matter, the organization founded by the aforementioned David Welch is leading the lawsuit. See, for example, the Students Matter’s “Vergara v. California Trial Tracker” that automatically pops up on their homepage when/if you visit, that also makes explicit their overly simplistic, slanted, and divisive position and goals: “Californians shouldn’t have to choose: we can create an education system that gives every child a passionate, motivating and effective teacher and gives effective teachers the respect and rewarding careers they deserve. A statewide lawsuit filed by nine brave kids, Vergara v. California challenges the laws that handcuff schools from giving every student an equal opportunity to learn from effective teachers.”

As per the Times, and more fairly put, “At issue is a set of rules that grant permanent employment status to California teachers after 18 months on the job, require a lengthy procedure to dismiss a teacher, and set up a seniority system in which the teachers most recently hired must be the first to lose their jobs when layoffs occur, as they have regularly in recent years.”

In addition, John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and “a staunch opponent of tenure rules and ‘last in, first out’ seniority for teachers,” testified on the side of the plaintiffs, while also noting, however, that “good administrators don’t grant due process rights to ineffective teachers.” Inversely, and as per a recent blog on The Huffington Post, is that the California Teachers Association is arguing that “the lawsuit is both destructive and unnecessary, because reform efforts are already underway to make it easier to dismiss teachers.”

Regardless, and while whatever is decided in the Los Angeles Court will likely be appealed to the State Supreme Court, this is certainly “one-to-watch” as funders/backers are certainly putting teacher employment laws to the test, not only in California but all of America’s public schools. While tenure has been eliminated in some states, including DC (the source of many other posts on this blog), this is the first lawsuit to take on large states with large urban districts with largely “blue” political histories. This is also the first lawsuit to claim that in the state of California students are being “hurt” by teachers who are protected by their employment laws.

Most concerning for readers of this blog is that without teacher tenure, increased reliance will be placed on teacher-level estimates derived via value-added measures to determine which teachers should be terminated and when. But this will be done, as evidenced here and elsewhere (largely in the research literature), in highly arbitrary, inconsistent, invalid, unfair, idiosyncratic, and prejudiced ways, particularly as teachers will no longer be protected under such teacher tenure systems, losing as well their due process rights to (often rightfully) defend themselves against unfair human capital decisions based on such systems.

An AZ Teacher’s Perspective on Her “Value-Added”

This came to me from a teacher in my home state – Arizona. Read not only what is becoming a too familiar story, but also her perspective about whether she is the only one who is “adding value” (and I use that term very loosely here) to her students’ learning and achievement.

She writes:

Initially, the focus of this note was going to be my 6-year long experience with a seemingly ever-changing educational system.  I was going to list, with some detail, all the changes that I have seen in my brief time as a K-6 educator, the end-user of educational policy and budget cuts.  Changes like (in no significant order):

  • Math standards (2008?)
  • Common Core implementation and associated instructional shifts (2010?)
  • State accountability system (2012?)
  • State requirements related to ELD classrooms (2009?)
  • Teacher evaluation system (to include a new formula of classroom observation instrument and value-added measures) (2012-2014)
  • State laws governing teacher evaluation/performance, labeling and contracts (2010?)

have happened in a span of, not much more than, three years. And all these changes have happened against a backdrop of budget cuts severe enough to, in my school district, render librarians, counselors, and data coordinators extinct.  In this note, I was going to ask, rhetorically: “What other field or industry has seen this much change this quickly and why?” or “How can any field or industry absorb this much change effectively?”

But then I had a flash of focus just yesterday during a meeting with my school administrators, and I knew immediately the simple message I wanted to relay about the interaction of high-stakes policies and the real world of a school.

At my school, we have entered what is known as “crunch time”—the three-month long period leading up to state testing.  The purpose of the meeting was to roll out a plan, commonly used by my school district, to significantly increase test scores in math via a strategy of leveled grouping. The plan dictates that my homeroom students will be assigned to groups based on benchmark testing data and will then be sent out of my homeroom to other teachers for math instruction for the next three months. In effect, I will be teaching someone else’s students, and another teacher will be teaching my students.

But, wearisomely, sometime after this school year, a formula will be applied to my homeroom students’ state test scores in order to determine close to 50% of my performance. And then another formula (to include classroom observations) will be applied to convert this performance into a label (ineffective, developing, effective, highly effective) that is then reported to the state.  And so my question now is (not rhetorically!), “Whose performance is really being measured by this formula—mine or the teachers who taught my students math for three months of the school year?” At best, professional reputations are at stake–at worse, employment is.

One Teacher’s Dystopian Reality

Chris Gilbert, an English teacher from North Carolina, a state that uses the well-known and widely used (and also proprietary) Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) emailed the other day, sharing two articles he wrote for the Washington Post, on behalf of his fellow teachers, about his experiences being evaluated using the EVAAS system.

This one (click here) is definitely worth a full read, especially because this one comes directly from an educator living out VAMs in practice, in the field, and in what he terms his dystopian reality.

He writes: “In this dystopian story, teachers are evaluated by standardized test scores and branded with color-coded levels of effectiveness, students are abstracted into inhuman measures of data, and educational value is assessed by how well forecasted “growth” levels are met. Surely, this must be a fiction.”


Elliot Eisner Obituary

Following up from our recent farewell to Elliot Eisner, here is his obituary just released from the Stanford School of Education.

The most pertinent tributes taken from this piece, also for readers of this blog, follow:

“Eisner eschewed the more popular argument for the arts — that some research showed music, dance, and painting actually boosted test scores in math and science. Eisner, rather, talked about art for art’s sake.”

“He figured out that there was something missing from mainstream educational theory and method,” said his friend and Stanford colleague Professor Raymond McDermott. “He wanted to address matters of the heart, whereas most of the discipline was pushing a more mechanical view of the child and the act of teaching or researching.”

“Eisner’s unrelenting advocacy of the arts continued during periods in which arts programs were cut in schools, and a chorus of administrators and policymakers, faced with budget constraints, focused on test scores, worried that spending time painting or drawing  was not academic enough…One of the casualties of our preoccupation with test scores is the presence — or should I say the absence — of arts in our schools,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “When they do appear they are usually treated as ornamental rather than substantive aspects of our children’s school experience. The arts are considered nice but not necessary.” Eisner advocated a strict, more sophisticated and rigorous arts curriculum that would put arts instruction on par with lessons in reading, science and math.

“His work with the Getty Center advanced what is called Discipline-Based Art Education.  The curriculum structure advocated in DBAE stresses four aspects of the arts: making it, appreciating it, understanding it and making judgments about it.”

“His voice for evaluating teaching and student learning through many means, not just standardized testing, continued to be heard during the past three decades of standards-based school reform, testing and accountability,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford. “Eisner’s eloquence in writing and speech gave heart to and bolstered many educators who felt that the humanities, qualitative approaches to evaluation and artistic criticism had been hijacked by those who wanted only numbers as a sign of effectiveness.”

*In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the National Art Education Association’s Elliot Eisner Lifetime Achievement Award, established by the Eisners to recognize individuals in art education whose career contributions have benefited the field.  The address for the NAEA is: 1806 Robert Fulton Drive, Suite 300, Reston, Virginia 20191.

The Passing of Dr. Elliot Eisner – Stanford

Eisner-Profile-200x275It saddens me to announce, for those of you who do not know already, that the wonderful scholar and person, Dr. Elliot Eisner, passed away last weekend due to complications of Parkinson’s disease and pneumonia.

Elliot, professor emeritus at Stanford University, widely known for his contributions to art education, curriculum studies, and qualitative research methods, dedicated his career to advancing the role of the arts in education. He lectured throughout the world, received five honorary doctoral degrees, received numerous awards, and beyond scholarly journal articles authored/edited sixteen books (e.g., Educating Artistic Vision (1972), The Educational Imagination (1979), Cognition and Curriculum (1982), The Enlightened Eye (1991), The Kind of Schools We Need (1998),  Arts Based Research (2011 with Tom Barone)).

I had the pleasure of getting to know Elliot personally, starting about two years ago, when I interviewed him, about not only his scholarly accomplishments but also his extraordinary life, and his extraordinary history as such an extraordinary person. What I most admired in him from a scholarly standpoint was his continuous dedication to keeping the arts alive in America’s public schools. We agreed that tests, like those of more interest nowadays than really ever before, are not the things that really should “count” the most in America’s public schools. What I most admired about him as a person? His sense of humility, his passion for not only his life but the lives of others, his aesthetic sense of beauty, his keen capacity to find beauty elsewhere, and to also make wise and fine distinctions about it, his wonderful wife and family, and the like.

May he rest in peace, and rest assured, that his legacy will go on well past the precious time he devoted to those of us in the education profession here.

To see the interview I conducted with him click here. In this link you can also find a photo gallery including pictures of Elliot and his family, a series of wonderful tributes his friends, family members and colleagues wrote on his behalf, a list of his scholarly accomplishments, and the like. For the shorter, YouTube version of the above, click here.

A memorial symposium will be held at the 2014 American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Philadelphia in April.

More VAM Opposition from Weingarten

In a recent post, I wrote that Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has (finally) expressed her full opposition against the use of value-added models (VAMs) to evaluate and measure teacher effectiveness. She has elaborated on her reasons why in a recent article, also about the Common Core and its relationship with VAMs, in the Huffington Post.

She writes: “Just look at what’s happened with the over-reliance on tests and value-added methodology (VAM). VAM is an incomprehensible formula, at least to those who don’t have a Ph.D. in advanced statistics, which attempts to predict how a teacher’s students will score in the future by using past test scores and other various assumptions — and then compares that prediction to actual results. Like predicting the weather, VAM is subject to many factors that influence the final result. That VAM score is then used to sort, rank and evaluate teachers.

The AFT has always been leery about VAM — and we’ve said since day one that VAM should never be the singular measure of student learning used to evaluate teachers. In fact, I questioned the fairness, accuracy and reliability of value-added metrics in a 2007 New York Times column. We have enough evidence today to make it clear that not only has VAM not worked, it’s been really destructive and it’s emboldened those seeking to turn public education into a numbers game.

Pittsburgh teachers acted in good faith to partner with the district on an evaluation system that included VAM with multiple measures of student learning. But while the system was being designed, anti-public education legislation was passed in Pennsylvania that hijacked a promising professional growth system by making it a numbers game fixated on ranking, sorting and firing teachers.

In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught or who weren’t even in the same building. One example is Mrs. Cook, an elementary school teacher who was named teacher of the year by her colleagues but was labeled unsatisfactory based on a VAM score calculated the performance of students she hadn’t taught.

In 2011, the average margin of error for VAM scores in New York City was plus or minus 28 points.

We have heard similar stories in Los Angeles, New Mexico, Houston and elsewhere. But what happened in Washington, D.C., was really the last straw. Last month, right before the holiday break, the district announced that some VAM scores were incorrect due to a technical glitch — a technical glitch that affected the lives and livelihoods of the educators who received these scores. As of today, 44 teachers have been told their scores from last year were wrong (including one teacher who was fired). And the district’s response was simply to say it was a minor issue. Would the district have the same reaction if it involved 44 students? When you use a system for such high stakes–a system that lacks transparency, accuracy and reliability on so many levels–how can you ever expect the teachers to trust the system?

I may have labeled VAM a sham, but many others built the evidence base for it.

The RAND Corp. and the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences both conclude that VAM results shouldn’t be used to evaluate individual teachers.

It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Follow-Up to Previous Post

I want to bring attention to a revision I made on the previous post about the 44 teachers “misclassified” in DC. I want to be clear that while only 44 teachers were officially acknowledged as having received incorrect teacher evaluation scores, this number is unquestionably much higher than that given these formulas are always “subject to error”… and actually subject to gross errors, always, across the board. Regardless of what the official reports might reveal, it should be duly noted that it was not just these 44 who were “misclassified” due to this “minor glitch.”

Thanks to Bruce Baker, Professor at Rutgers and author of School Finance 101, for the collegial reminder to clarify this point.

One of the “Forty-Four” Misclassified DC Teachers Speaks Up and Out

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about what’s going in DC’s public schools with their value-added-based teacher evaluation system, and more specifically about the 44 DC public school teachers who received “incorrect” VAM scores for the last academic year (2012-2013). While this occurred for more than just these 44 teachers because VAM formulas are always “subject to error” across the board, as per the official report just these 44 were misclassified because of a “simple” algorithmic error in the Mathematica Inc. (third party) formula used to calculate DC teachers’ scores. One of the 44 teachers was fired as a result.

Another “One of the ‘Forty-Four’ Teachers” is now speaking up and speaking out about this situation, using as a base for his reflections the email he received from the district with, most pertinent (in my opinion), all of its arbitrariness included. Check out the email he received, but also “the district’s” explanations of both the errors and the system, and in particular its weighting schema. As you read, recall another previous VAMboozled! post, whereas actual administrator and master educator scores (the scores at the source of the errors for this teacher) evidenced themselves as wholly invalid as well.

Read this DC teacher’s other thoughts as well, as they too are pertinent and very personal. My favorite: “What is DCPS’ plan for re-instituting the one teacher who was ‘fired mistakenly?’ I may not speak legalese, but I’m sure there are legal ramifications for this ‘error.’ Side note, suggesting the teacher was ‘fired mistakenly’ is akin to saying someone was ‘robbed accidentally.'”

AFT’s Randi Weingarten (Finally) Speaking Out Against VAMs

As just posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog, Randi Weingarten, the current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has (finally) expressed her full opposition against using value-added models (VAMs), the statistical measures of utmost interest on this blog, for teacher evaluation, accountability, and merit pay purposes.

I echo Diane’s sentiments that this is indeed “great news!” and that Weingarten should be saluted for her courage and insight, particularly as Weingarten has given up her previously held position, given the research evidence. She is now launching a campaign against VAMs and their (mis)uses.

As background, Randi wrote the foreword to the only academic book that has been released on VAMs to date — Value-Added Measures in Education — written by now Tulane Associate Professor of Economics, Douglas Harris. In addition, Weingarten unfortunately wrote the foreword in support of Harris’s overall (and, in my opinion, highly misguided and prematurely enthusiastic) stance on VAMs, writing things like Harris “presents a convincing argument that value-added’s imprecision need not be a deal breaker as long as we understand where it comes from and how to account for it when these measures are used in schools. We cannot expect any measures of teacher quality – value-added or others – to be perfect.” Unfortunately, Weingarten co-signed Harris’s stance that VAMs are “good enough” for their current uses and utilities, mainly riding on the fact that they are better than the other test-based accountability options used in the past. For more about Harris’s book and his overall position, read a commentary I wrote in Teachers College Record in review of his book and his “good enough” stance.

As per a recent post on politico.com, Weingarten’s new mantra is that “VAM is a sham.” This is “a notable shift for the AFT and its affiliates, which have previously ratified contracts and endorsed evaluation systems that rely on VAM. Weingarten tells Morning Education that she has always been leery of value-added ‘but we rolled up our sleeves, acted in good faith and tried to make it work. Now, she says, she’s disillusioned.”

“What changed her mind? Weingarten points to a standoff in Pittsburgh over the implementation of a VAM-based evaluation system the union had endorsed. She says the algorithms and cut scores used to rate teachers were arbitrary. And she found the process corrosive: The VAM score was just a number that didn’t show teachers their strengths or weaknesses or suggest ways to improve. Weingarten said the final straw was the news that the contractor calculating VAM scores for D.C. teachers made a typo in the algorithm, resulting in 44 teachers receiving incorrect scores — including one who was unjustly fired for poor performance.”

“What’s next? The AFT’s newly militant stance against VAM will likely affect contract negotiations in local districts, and the union also plans to lobby the Education Department.”

A Consumer Alert Issued by The 21st Century Principal

In an excellent post just released by The 21st Century Principal the author writes about yet another two companies calculating value-added for school districts, again on the taxpayer’s dime. Teacher Match and Hanover Research are the companies specifically named and targeted for marketing and selling a series of highly false assumptions about teaching and teachers, highly false claims about value-added (without empirical research in support), highly false assertions about how value-added estimates can be used for better teacher evaluation/accountability, and highly false sales pitches about what they as value-added/research “experts” can do to help with the complex statistics needed for the above

The main points of the articles, as I see them, pulled from the main article and in order of priority follow:

  1. School districts are purchasing these “products” based entirely on the promises and related marketing efforts of these (and other) companies. Consumer Alert! Instead of accepting these (and other) companies’ sales pitches and promises that these companies’ “products” will do what they say they will, these companies must be forced to produce independent, peer-reviewed research to prove that what they are selling is in fact real. If they can’t produce the studies, they should not earn the contracts!!
  2. Doing all of this is just another expensive drain on what are already short educational resources. One district is paying over $30,000 to Teacher Match per year for their services, as cited in this piece. Related, the Houston Independent School District is paying SAS Inc. $500,000 per year for their EVAAS-based value-added calculations. These are not trivial expenditures, especially when considering the other potential research-based inititaives towards which these valuable resources could be otherwise spent.
  3. States (and the companies selling their value-added services) haven’t done the validation studies to prove that the value-added scores/estimates are valid. Again, almost always is it that the sales and marketing claims made by these companies are void of evidence that supports the claims being made.
  4. Doing all of this elevates standardized testing even higher in the decision-making and data-driven processes for schools, even though doing this is not warranted or empirically supported (as mentioned).
  5. Related, value-added calculations rely on inexpensive (aka “cheap”) large-scale tests, also of questionable validity, that still are not designed for the purposes for which they are being tasked and used (e.g., measuring growth upwards cannot be done without tests with equivalent scales, which really no tests at this point have).

The shame in all of this, besides the major issues mentioned in the five points above, is that the federal government, thanks to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration, is incentivizing these and other companies (e.g. SAS EVAAS, Mathematica) to exist, construct and sell such “products,” and then seek out and compete for these publicly funded and subsidized contracts. We, as taxpayers, are the ones consistently footing the bills.

See another recent article about the chaos a simple error in Mathematica’s code caused in Washington DC’s public schools, following another VAMboozled post about the same topic two weeks ago.