Bias in Teacher Observations, As Well

Following a post last month titled “New Empirical Evidence: Students’ ‘Persistent Economic Disadvantage’ More Likely to Bias Value-Added Estimates,” Matt Barnum — senior staff writer for The 74, an (allegedly) non-partisan, honest, and fact-based news site backed by Editor-in-Chief Campbell Brown and covering America’s education system “in crisis” (see, also, a prior post about The 74 here) — followed up with a tweet via Twitter. He wrote: “Yes, though [bias caused by economic disadvantage] likely applies with equal or even more force to other measures of teacher quality, like observations.” I replied via Twitter that I disagreed with this statement in that I was unaware of research in support of his assertion, and Barnum sent me two articles to review thereafter.

I attempted to review both of these articles herein, although I quickly figured out that I had actually read and reviewed the first (2014) piece on this blog (see original post here, see also a 2014 Brookings Institution article summarizing this piece here). In short, in this study researchers found that the observational components of states’ contemporary teacher systems certainly “add” more “value” than their value-added counterparts, especially for (in)formative purposes. However, researchers  found that observational bias also exists, as akin to value-added bias, whereas teachers who are non-randomly assigned students who enter their classrooms with higher levels of prior achievement tend to get higher observational scores than teachers non-randomly assigned students entering their classrooms with lower levels of prior achievement. Researchers concluded that because districts “do not have processes in place to address the possible biases in observational scores,” statistical adjustments might be made to offset said bias, as might external observers/raters be brought in to yield more “objective” observational assessments of teachers.

For the second study, and this post here, I gave this one a more thorough read (you can find the full study, pre-publication here). Using data from the Measures of Effective
Teaching (MET) Project, in which random assignment was used (or more accurately attempted), researchers also explored the extent to which students enrolled in teachers’ classrooms influence classroom observational scores.

They found, primarily, that:

  1. “[T]he context in which teachers work—most notably, the incoming academic performance of their students—plays a critical role in determining teachers’ performance” as measured by teacher observations. More specifically, “ELA [English/language arts] teachers were more than twice as likely to be rated in the top performance quintile if [nearly randomly] assigned the highest achieving students compared with teachers assigned the low-est achieving students,” and “math teachers were more than 6 times as likely.” In addition, “approximately half of the teachers—48% in ELA and 54% in math—were rated in the top two performance quintiles if assigned the highest performing students, while 37% of ELA and only 18% of math teachers assigned the lowest performing students were highly rated based on classroom observation scores”
  2. “[T]he intentional sorting of teachers to students has a significant influence on measured performance” as well. More specifically, results further suggest that “higher performing students [are, at least sometimes] endogenously sorted into the classes of higher performing teachers…Therefore, the nonrandom and positive assignment of teachers to classes of students based on time-invariant (and unobserved) teacher
    characteristics would reveal more effective teacher performance, as measured by classroom observation scores, than may actually be true.”

So, the non-random assignment of teachers biases both the value-added and observational components written into America’s now “more objective” teacher evaluation systems, as (formerly) required of all states that were to comply with federal initiatives and incentives (e.g., Race to the Top). In addition, when those responsible for assigning students to classrooms (sub)consciously favor teachers with high, prior observational scores, this exacerbates the issues. This is especially important when observational (and value-added) data are to be used for high-stakes accountability systems in that the data yielded via really both measurement systems may be less likely to reflect “true” teaching effectiveness due to “true” bias. “Indeed, teachers working with higher achieving students tend to receive higher performance ratings, above and beyond that which might be attributable to aspects of teacher quality,” and vice-versa.

Citation Study #1: Whitehurst, G. J., Chingos, M. M., & Lindquist, K. M. (2014). Evaluating teachers with classroom observations: Lessons learned in four districts. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Evaluating-Teachers-with-Classroom-Observations.pdf

Citation Study #2: Steinberg, M. P., & Garrett, R. (2016). Classroom composition and measured teacher performance: What do teacher observation scores really measure? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(2), 293-317. doi:10.3102/0162373715616249  Retrieved from http://static.politico.com/58/5f/f14b2b144846a9b3365b8f2b0897/study-of-classroom-observations-of-teachers.pdf

 

The “Value-Added” of Teacher Preparation Programs: New Research

The journal Education of Economics Review recently published a study titled “Teacher Quality Differences Between Teacher Preparation Programs: How Big? How Reliable? Which Programs Are Different?” The study was authored by researchers at the University of Texas – Austin, Duke University, and Tulane. The pre-publication version of this piece can be found here.

As the title implies, the purpose of the study was to “evaluate statistical methods for estimating teacher quality differences between TPPs [teacher preparation programs].” Needless to say, this research is particularly relevant, here, given “Sixteen US states have begun to hold teacher preparation programs (TPPs) accountable for teacher quality, where quality is estimated by teacher value-added to student test scores.” The federal government continues to support and advance these initiatives, as well (see, for example, here).

But this research study is also particularly important because while researchers found that “[t]he most convincing estimates [of TPP quality] [came] from a value-added model where confidence intervals [were] widened;” that is, the extent to which measurement errors were permitted was dramatically increased, and also widened further using statistical corrections. But even when using these statistical techniques and accomodations, they found that it was still “rarely possible to tell which TPPs, if any, [were] better or worse than average.”

They therefore concluded that “[t]he potential benefits of TPP accountability may be too small to balance the risk that a proliferation of noisy TPP estimates will encourage arbitrary and ineffective policy actions” in response. More specifically, and in their own words, they found that:

  1. Differences between TPPs. While most of [their] results suggest that real differences between TPPs exist, the differences [were] not large [or large enough to make or evidence the differentiation between programs as conceptualized and expected]. [Their] estimates var[ied] a bit with their statistical methods, but averaging across plausible methods [they] conclude[d] that between TPPs the heterogeneity [standard deviation (SD) was] about .03 in math and .02 in reading. That is, a 1 SD increase in TPP quality predict[ed] just [emphasis added] a [very small] .03 SD increase in student math scores and a [very small] .02 SD increase in student reading scores.
  2. Reliability of TPP estimates. Even if the [above-mentioned] differences between TPPs were large enough to be of policy interest, accountability could only work if TPP differences could be estimated reliably. And [their] results raise doubts that they can. Every plausible analysis that [they] conducted suggested that TPP estimates consist[ed] mostly of noise. In some analyses, TPP estimates appeared to be about 50% noise; in other analyses, they appeared to be as much as 80% or 90% noise…Even in large TPPs the estimates were mostly noise [although]…[i]t is plausible [although perhaps not probable]…that TPP estimates would be more reliable if [researchers] had more than one year of data…[although states smaller than the one in this study — Texs]…would require 5 years to accumulate the amount of data that [they used] from one year of data.
  3. Notably Different TPPs. Even if [they] focus[ed] on estimates from a single model, it remains hard to identify which TPPs differ from the average…[Again,] TPP differences are small and estimates of them are uncertain.

In conclusion, that researchers found “that there are only small teacher quality differences between TPPs” might seem surprising, but not really given the outcome variables they used to measure and assess TPP effects were students’ test scores. In short, students’ test scores are three times removed from the primary unit of analysis in studies like these. That is, (1) the TPP is to be measured by the effectiveness of its teacher graduates, and (2) teacher graduates are to be measured by their purported impacts on their students’ test scores, while (3) students’ test scores are to only and have only been validated for measuring student learning and achievement. These test scores have not been validated to assess and measure, in the inverse, teachers causal impacts on said achievements or on TPPs impacts on teachers on said achievements.

If this sounds confusing, it is, and also highly nonsensical, but this is also a reason why this is so difficult to do, and as evidenced in this study, improbable to do this well or as theorized in that TPP estimates are sensitive to error, insensitive given error, and, accordingly, highly uncertain and invalid.

Citation: von Hippela, P. T., Bellowsb, L., Osbornea, C., Lincovec, J. A., & Millsd, N. (2016). Teacher quality differences between teacher preparation programs: How big? How reliable? Which programs are different? Education of Economics Review, 53, 31–45. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.05.002

VAM-Based Chaos Reigns in Florida, as Caused by State-Mandated Teacher Turnovers

The state of Florida is another one of our state’s to watch in that, even since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last January, the state is still moving forward with using its VAMs for high-stakes accountability reform. See my most recent post about one district in Florida here, after the state ordered it to dismiss a good number of its teachers as per their low VAM scores when this school year started. After realizing this also caused or contributed to a teacher shortage in the district, the district scrambled to hire Kelly Services contracted substitute teachers to replace them, after which the district also put administrators back into the classroom to help alleviate the bad situation turned worse.

In a recent post released by The Ledger, teachers from the same Polk County School District (size = 100K students) added much needed details and also voiced concerns about all of this in the article that author Madison Fantozzi titled “Polk teachers: We are more than value-added model scores.”

Throughout this piece Fantozzi covers the story of Elizabeth Keep, a teacher who was “plucked from” the middle school in which she taught for 13 years, after which she was involuntarily placed at a district high school “just days before she was to report back to work.” She was one of 35 teachers moved from five schools in need of reform as based on schools’ value-added scores, although this was clearly done with no real concern or regard of the disruption this would cause these teachers, not to mention the students on the exiting and receiving ends. Likewise, and according to Keep, “If you asked students what they need, they wouldn’t say a teacher with a high VAM score…They need consistency and stability.” Apparently not. In Keep’s case, she “went from being the second most experienced person in [her middle school’s English] department…where she was department chair and oversaw the gifted program, to a [new, and never before] 10th- and 11th-grade English teacher” at the new high school to which she was moved.

As background, when Polk County School District officials presented turnaround plans to the State Board of Education last July, school board members “were most critical of their inability to move ‘unsatisfactory’ teachers out of the schools and ‘effective’ teachers in.”  One board member, for example, expressed finding it “horrendous” that the district was “held hostage” by the extent to which the local union was protecting teachers from being moved as per their value-added scores. Referring to the union, and its interference in this “reform,” he accused the unions of “shackling” the districts and preventing its intended reforms. Note that the “effective” teachers who are to replace the “ineffective” ones can earn up to $7,500 in bonuses per year to help the “turnaround” the schools into which they enter.

Likewise, the state’s Commissioner of Education concurred saying that she also “wanted ‘unsatisfactory’ teachers out and ‘highly effective’ teachers in,” again, with effectiveness being defined by teachers’ value-added or lack thereof, even though (1) the teachers targeted only had one or two years of the three years of value-added data required by state statute, and even though (2) the district’s senior director of assessment, accountability and evaluation noted that, in line with a plethora of other research findings, teachers being evaluated using the state’s VAM have a 51% chance of changing their scores from one year to the next. This lack of reliability, as we know it, should outright prevent any such moves in that without some level of stability, valid inferences from which valid decisions are to be made cannot be drawn. It’s literally impossible.

Nonetheless, state board of education members “unanimously… threatened to take [all of the district’s poor performing] over or close them in 2017-18 if district officials [didn’t] do what [the Board said].” See also other tales of similar districts in the article available, again, here.

In Keep’s case, “her ‘unsatisfactory’ VAM score [that caused the district to move her, as] paired with her ‘highly effective’ in-class observations by her administrators brought her overall district evaluation to ‘effective’…[although she also notes that]…her VAM scores fluctuate because the state has created a moving target.” Regardless, Keep was notified “five days before teachers were due back to their assigned schools Aug. 8 [after which she was] told she had to report to a new school with a different start time that [also] disrupted her 13-year routine and family that shares one car.”

VAM-based chaos reigns, especially in Florida.

New Mexico Is “At It Again”

“A Concerned New Mexico Parent” sent me yet another blog entry for you all to stay apprised of the ongoing “situation” in New Mexico and the continuous escapades of the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED). See “A Concerned New Mexico Parent’s” prior posts here, here, and here, but in this one (s)he writes what follows:

Well, the NMPED is at it again.

They just released the teacher evaluation results for the 2015-2016 school year. And, the report and media press releases are a something.

Readers of this blog are familiar with my earlier documentation of the myriad varieties of scoring formulas used by New Mexico to evaluate its teachers. If I recall, I found something like 200 variations in scoring formulas [see his/her prior post on this here with an actual variation count at n=217].

However, a recent article published in the Albuquerque Journal indicates that, now according to the NMPED, “only three types of test scores are [being] used in the calculation: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers [PARCC], end-of-course exams, and the [state’s new] Istation literacy test.” [Recall from another article released last January that New Mexico’s Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera is also the head of the governing board for the PARCC test].

Further, the Albuquerque Journal article author reports that the “PED also altered the way it classifies teachers, dropping from 107 options to three. Previously, the system incorporated many combinations of criteria such as a teacher’s years in the classroom and the type of standardized test they administer.”

The new state-wide evaluation plan is also available in more detail here. Although I should also add that there has been no published notification of the radical changes in this plan. It was just simply and quietly posted on NMPED’s public website.

Important to note, though, is that for Group B teachers (all levels), the many variations documented previously have all been replaced by end-of-course (EOC) exams. Also note that for Group A teachers (all levels) the percentage assigned to the PARCC test has been reduced from 50% to 35%. (Oh, how the mighty have fallen …). The remaining 15% of the Group A score is to be composed of EOC exam scores.

There are only two small problems with this NMPED simplification.

First, in many districts, no EOC exams were given to Group B teachers in the 2015-2016 school year, and none were given in the previous year either. Any EOC scores that might exist were from a solitary administration of EOC exams three years previously.

Second, for Group A teachers whose scores formerly relied solely on the PARCC test for 50% of their score, no EOC exams were ever given.

Thus, NMPED has replaced their policy of evaluating teachers on the basis of students they don’t teach to this new policy of evaluating teachers on the basis of tests they never administered!

Well done, NMPED (not…)

Luckily, NMPED still cannot make any consequential decisions based on these data, again, until NMPED proves to the court that the consequential decisions that they would still very much like to make (e.g., employment, advancement and licensure decisions) are backed by research evidence. I know, interesting concept…

A Case of VAM-Based Chaos in Florida

Within a recent post, I wrote about my recent “silence” explaining that, apparently, post the passage of federal government’s (January 1, 2016) passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that no longer requires teachers to be evaluated by their student’s tests score using VAMs (see prior posts on this here and here), “crazy” VAM-related events have apparently subsided. While I noted in the post that this also did not mean that certain states and districts are not still drinking (and overdosing on) the VAM-based Kool-Aid, what I did not note is that the ways by which I get many of the stories I cover on this blog is via Google Alerts. This is where I have noticed a significant decline in VAM-related stories. Clearly, however, the news outlets often covered via Google Alerts don’t include district-level stories, so to cover these we must continue to rely on our followers (i.e., teachers, administrators, parents, students, school board members, etc.) to keep the stories coming.

Coincidentally — Billy Townsend, who is running for a school board seat in Polk County, Florida (district size = 100K students) — sent me one such story. As an edublogger himself, he actually sent me three blog posts (see post #1, post #2, and post #3 listed by order of relevance) capturing what is happening in his district, again, as situated under the state of Florida’s ongoing, VAM-based, nonsense. I’ve summarized the situation below as based on his three posts.

In short, the state ordered the district to dismiss a good number of its teachers as per their VAM scores when this school year started. “[T]his has been Florida’s [educational reform] model for nearly 20 years [actually since 1979, so 35 years]: Choose. Test. Punish. Stigmatize. Segregate. Turnover.” Because the district already had a massive teacher shortage as well, however, these teachers were replaced with Kelly Services contracted substitute teachers. Thereafter, district leaders decided that this was not “a good thing,” and they decided that administrators and “coaches” would temporarily replace the substitute teachers to make the situation “better.” While, of course, the substitutes’ replacements did not have VAM scores themselve, they were nonetheless deemed fit to teach and clearly more fit to teach than the teachers who were terminated as based on their VAM scores.

According to one teacher who anonymously wrote about her terminated teacher colleagues, and one of the district’s “best” teachers: “She knew our kids well. She understood how to reach them, how to talk to them. Because she ‘looked like them’ and was from their neighborhood, she [also] had credibility with the students and parents. She was professional, always did what was best for students. She had coached several different sports teams over the past decade. Her VAM score just wasn’t good enough.”

Consequently, this has turned into a “chaotic reality for real kids and adults” throughout the county’s schools, and the district and state apparently realized this by “threaten[ing] all of [the district’s] teachers with some sort of ethics violation if they talk about what’s happening” throughout the district. While “[t]he repetition of stories that sound just like this from [the districts’] schools is numbing and heartbreaking at the same time,” the state, district, and school board, apparently, “has no interest” in such stories.

Put simply, and put well as this aligns with our philosophy here: “Let’s [all] consider what [all of this] really means: [Florida] legislators do not want to hear from you if you are communicating a real experience from your life at a school — whether you are a teacher, parent, or student. Your experience doesn’t matter. Only your test score.”

Isn’t that the unfortunate truth; hence, and with reference to the introduction above, please do keep these relatively more invisible studies coming so that we can share out with the nation and make such stories more visible and accessible. VAMs, again, are alive and well, just perhaps in more undisclosed ways, like within districts as is the case here.

47 Teachers To Be Stripped of Tenure in Denver

As per a recent article by Chalkbeat Colorado, “Denver Public Schools [is] Set to Strip Nearly 50 Teachers of Tenure Protections after [two-years of consecutive] Poor Evaluations.” This will make Denver Public Schools — Colorado’s largest school district — the district with the highest relative proportion of teachers to lose tenure, which demotes teachers to probationary status, which also causes them to lose their due process rights.

  • The majority of the 47 teachers — 26 of them — are white. Another 14 are Latino, four are African-American, two are multi-racial and one is Asian.
  • Thirty-one of the 47 teachers set to lose tenure — or 66 percent — teach in “green” or “blue” schools, the two highest ratings on Denver’s color-coded School Performance Framework. Only three — or 6 percent — teach in “red” schools, the lowest rating.
  • Thirty-eight of the 47 teachers — or 81 percent — teach at schools where more than half of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty.

Elsewhere, in Douglas County 24, in Aurora 12, in Cherry Creek one, and in Jefferson County, the state’s second largest district, zero teachers teachers are set to lose their tenure status. This all occurred provided a sweeping educator effectiveness law — Senate Bill 191 — passed throughout Colorado six years ago. As per this law, “at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation [must] be based on student academic growth.”

“Because this is the first year teachers can lose that status…[however]…officials said it’s difficult to know why the numbers differ from district to district.” This, of course, is an issue with fairness whereby a court, for example, could find that if a teacher is teaching in District X versus District Y, and (s)he had an different probability of losing tenure due only to the District in which (s)he taught, this could be quite easily argued as an arbitrary component of the law, not to mention an arbitrary component of its implementation. If I was advising these districts on these matters, I would certainly advise them to tread lightly.

However, apparently many districts throughout Colorado use a state-developed and endorsed model to evaluate their teachers, but Denver uses its own model; hence, this would likely take some of the pressure off of the state, should this end up in court, and place it more so upon the district. That is, the burden of proof would likely rest on Denver Public School officials to evidence that they are no only complying with the state law but that they are doing so in sound, evidence-based, and rational/reasonable ways.

Citation: Amar, M. (2016, July 15). Denver Public Schools set to strip nearly 50 teachers of tenure protections after poor evaluations. Chalkbeat Colorado. Retrieved from http://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/co/2016/07/14/denver-public-schools-set-to-strip-nearly-50-teachers-of-tenure-protections-after-poor-evaluations/#.V5Yryq47Tof

One Score and Seven Policy Iterations Ago…

I just read what might be one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time on using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness, and why this is such a bad idea. Not surprisingly, unfortunately, this article was written 20 years ago (i.e., 1986) by – Edward Haertel, National Academy of Education member and recently retired Professor at Stanford University. If the name sounds familiar, it should as Professor Emeritus Haertel is one of the best on the topic of, and history behind VAMs (see prior posts about his related scholarship here, here, and here). To access the full article, please scroll to the reference at the bottom of this post.

Heartel wrote this article when at the time policymakers were, like they still are now, trying to hold teachers accountable for their students’ learning as measured on states’ standardized test scores. Although this article deals with minimum competency tests, which were in policy fashion at the time, about seven policy iterations ago, the contents of the article still have much relevance given where we are today — investing in “new and improved” Common Core tests and still riding on unsinkable beliefs that this is the way to reform the schools that have been in despair and (still) in need of major repair since 20+ years ago.

Here are some of the points I found of most “value:”

  • On isolating teacher effects: “Inferring teacher competence from test scores requires the isolation of teaching effects from other major influences on student test performance,” while “the task is to support an interpretation of student test performance as reflecting teacher competence by providing evidence against plausible rival hypotheses or interpretation.” While “student achievement depends on multiple factors, many of which are out of the teacher’s control,” and many of which cannot and likely never will be able to be “controlled.” In terms of home supports, “students enjoy varying levels of out-of-school support for learning. Not only may parental support and expectations influence student motivation and effort, but some parents may share directly in the task of instruction itself, reading with children, for example, or assisting them with homework.” In terms of school supports, “[s]choolwide learning climate refers to the host of factors that make a school more than a collection of self-contained classrooms. Where the principal is a strong instructional leader; where schoolwide policies on attendance, drug use, and discipline are consistently enforced; where the dominant peer culture is achievement-oriented; and where the school is actively supported by parents and the community.” This, all, makes isolating the teacher effect nearly if not wholly impossible.
  • On the difficulties with defining the teacher effect: “Does it include homework? Does it include self-directed study initiated by the student? How about tutoring by a parent or an older sister or brother? For present purposes, instruction logically refers to whatever the teacher being evaluated is responsible for, but there are degrees of responsibility, and it is often shared. If a teacher informs parents of a student’s learning difficulties and they arrange for private tutoring, is the teacher responsible for the student’s improvement? Suppose the teacher merely gives the student low marks, the student informs her parents, and they arrange for a tutor? Should teachers be credited with inspiring a student’s independent study of school subjects? There is no time to dwell on these difficulties; others lie ahead. Recognizing that some ambiguity remains, it may suffice to define instruction as any learning activity directed by the teacher, including homework….The question also must be confronted of what knowledge counts as achievement. The math teacher who digresses into lectures on beekeeping may be effective in communicating information, but for purposes of teacher evaluation the learning outcomes will not match those of a colleague who sticks to quadratic equations.” Much if not all of this cannot and likely never will be able to be “controlled” or “factored” in or our, as well.
  • On standardized tests: The best of standardized tests will (likely) always be too imperfect and not up to the teacher evaluation task, no matter the extent to which they are pitched as “new and improved.” While it might appear that these “problem[s] could be solved with better tests,” they cannot. Ultimately, all that these tests provide is “a sample of student performance. The inference that this performance reflects educational achievement [not to mention teacher effectiveness] is probabilistic [emphasis added], and is only justified under certain conditions.” Likewise, these tests “measure only a subset of important learning objectives, and if teachers are rated on their students’ attainment of just those outcomes, instruction of unmeasured objectives [is also] slighted.” Like it was then as it still is today, “it has become a commonplace that standardized student achievement tests are ill-suited for teacher evaluation.”
  • On the multiple choice formats of such tests: “[A] multiple-choice item remains a recognition task, in which the problem is to find the best of a small number of predetermined alternatives and the cri- teria for comparing the alternatives are well defined. The nonacademic situations where school learning is ultimately ap- plied rarely present problems in this neat, closed form. Discovery and definition of the problem itself and production of a variety of solutions are called for, not selection among a set of fixed alternatives.”
  • On students and the scores they are to contribute to the teacher evaluation formula: “Students varying in their readiness to profit from instruction are said to differ in aptitude. Not only general cognitive abilities, but relevant prior instruction, motivation, and specific inter- actions of these and other learner characteristics with features of the curriculum and instruction will affect academic growth.” In other words, one cannot simply assume all students will learn or grow at the same rate with the same teacher. Rather, they will learn at different rates given their aptitudes, their “readiness to profit from instruction,” the teachers’ instruction, and sometimes despite the teachers’ instruction or what the teacher teaches.
  • And on the formative nature of such tests, as it was then: “Teachers rarely consult standardized test results except, perhaps, for initial grouping or placement of students, and they believe that the tests are of more value to school or district administrators than to themselves.”

Sound familiar?

Reference: Haertel, E. (1986). The valid use of student performance measures for teacher evaluation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 8(1), 45-60.

Center on the Future of American Education, on America’s “New and Improved” Teacher Evaluation Systems

Thomas Toch — education policy expert and research fellow at Georgetown University, and founding director of the Center on the Future of American Education — just released, as part of the Center, a report titled: Grading the Graders: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education. He sent this to me for my thoughts, and I decided to summarize my thoughts here, with thanks and all due respect to the author, as clearly we are on different sides of the spectrum in terms of the literal “value” America’s new teacher evaluation systems might in fact “add” to the reformation of America’s public schools.

While quite a long and meaty report, here are some of the points I think that are important to address publicly:

First, is it true that using prior teacher evaluation systems (which were almost if not entirely based on teacher observational systems) yielded for “nearly every teacher satisfactory ratings”? Indeed, this is true. However, what we have seen since 2009, when states began to adopt what were then (and in many ways still are) viewed as America’s “new and improved” or “strengthened” teacher evaluation systems, is that for 70% of America’s teachers, these teacher evaluation systems are still based only on the observational indicators being used prior, because for only 30% of America’s teachers are value-added estimates calculable. As also noted in this report, it is for these 70% that “the superficial teacher [evaluation] practices of the past” (p. 2) will remain the same, although I disagree with this particular adjective, especially when these measures are used for formative purposes. While certainly imperfect, these are not simply “flimsy checklists” of no use or value. There is, indeed, much empirical research to support this assertion.

Likewise, these observational systems have not really changed since 2009, or 1999 for that matter and not that they could change all that much; but, they are not in their “early stages” (p. 2) of development. Indeed, this includes the Danielson Framework explicitly propped up in this piece as an exemplar, regardless of the fact it has been used across states and districts for decades and it is still not functioning as intended, especially when summative decisions about teacher effectiveness are to be made (see, for example, here).

Hence, in some states and districts (sometimes via educational policy) principals or other observers are now being asked, or required to deliberately assign to teachers’ lower observational categories, or assign approximate proportions of teachers per observational category used. Whereby the instrument might not distribute scores “as currently needed,” one way to game the system is to tell principals, for example, that they should only allot X% of teachers as per the three-to-five categories most often used across said instruments. In fact, in an article one of my doctoral students and I have forthcoming, we have termed this, with empirical evidence, the “artificial deflation” of observational scores, as externally being persuaded or required. Worse is that this sometimes signals to the greater public that these “new and improved” teacher evaluation systems are being used for more discriminatory purposes (i.e., to actually differentiate between good and bad teachers on some sort of discriminating continuum), or that, indeed, there is a normal distribution of teachers, as per their levels of effectiveness. While certainly there is some type of distribution, no evidence exists whatsoever to suggest that those who fall on the wrong side of the mean are, in fact, ineffective, and vice versa. It’s all relative, seriously, and unfortunately.

Related, the goal here is really not to “thoughtfully compare teacher performances,” but to evaluate teachers as per a set of criteria against which they can be evaluated and judged (i.e., whereby criterion-referenced inferences and decisions can be made). Inversely, comparing teachers in norm-referenced ways, as (socially) Darwinian and resonate with many-to-some, does not necessarily work, either or again. This is precisely what the authors of The Widget Effect report did, after which they argued for wide-scale system reform, so that increased discrimination among teachers, and reduced indifference on the part of evaluating principals, could occur. However, as also evidenced in this aforementioned article, the increasing presence of normal curves illustrating “new and improved” teacher observational distributions does not necessarily mean anything normal.

And were these systems not used often enough or “rarely” prior, to fire teachers? Perhaps, although there are no data to support such assertions, either. This very argument was at the heart of the Vergara v. California case (see, for example, here) — that teacher tenure laws, as well as laws protecting teachers’ due process rights, were keeping “grossly ineffective” teachers teaching in the classroom. Again, while no expert on either side could produce for the Court any hard numbers regarding how many “grossly ineffective” teachers were in fact being protected but such archaic rules and procedures, I would estimate (as based on my years of experience as a teacher) that this number is much lower than many believe it (and perhaps perpetuate it) to be. In fact, there was only one teacher whom I recall, who taught with me in a highly urban school, who I would have classified as grossly ineffective, and also tenured. He was ultimately fired, and quite easy to fire, as he also knew that he just didn’t have it.

Now to be clear, here, I do think that not just “grossly ineffective” but also simply “bad teachers” should be fired, but the indicators used to do this must yield valid inferences, as based on the evidence, as critically and appropriately consumed by the parties involved, after which valid and defensible decisions can and should be made. Whether one calls this due process in a proactive sense, or a wrongful termination suit in a retroactive sense, what matters most, though, is that the evidence supports the decision. This is the very issue at the heart of many of the lawsuits currently ongoing on this topic, as many of you know (see, for example, here).

Finally, where is the evidence, I ask, for many of the declaration included within and throughout this report. A review of the 133 endnotes included, for example, include only a very small handful of references to the larger literature on this topic (see a very comprehensive list of these literature here, here, and here). This is also highly problematic in this piece, as only the usual suspects (e.g., Sandi Jacobs, Thomas Kane, Bill Sanders) are cited to support the assertions advanced.

Take, for example, the following declaration: “a large and growing body of state and local implementation studies, academic research, teacher surveys, and interviews with dozens of policymakers, experts, and educators all reveal a much more promising picture: The reforms have strengthened many school districts’ focus on instructional quality, created a foundation for making teaching a more attractive profession, and improved the prospects for student achievement” (p. 1). Where is the evidence? There is no such evidence, and no such evidence published in high-quality, scholarly peer-reviewed journals of which I am aware. Again, publications released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and from the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies, as still not externally reviewed and still considered internal technical reports with “issues”, don’t necessarily count. Accordingly, no such evidence has been introduced, by either side, in any court case in which I am involved, likely, because such evidence does not exist, again, empirically and at some unbiased, vetted, and/or generalizable level. While Thomas Kane has introduced some of his MET study findings in the cases in Houston and New Mexico, these might be  some of the easiest pieces of evidence to target, accordingly, given the issues.

Otherwise, the only thing I can say from reading this piece that with which I agree, as that which I view, given the research literature as true and good, is that now teachers are being observed more often, by more people, in more depth, and in perhaps some cases with better observational instruments. Accordingly, teachers, also as per the research, seem to appreciate and enjoy the additional and more frequent/useful feedback and discussions about their practice, as increasingly offered. This, I would agree is something that is very positive that has come out of the nation’s policy-based focus on its “new and improved” teacher evaluation systems, again, as largely required by the federal government, especially pre-Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Overall, and in sum, “the research reveals that comprehensive teacher-evaluation models are stronger than the sum of their parts.” Unfortunately again, however, this is untrue in that systems based on multiple measures are entirely limited by the indicator that, in educational measurement terms, performs the worst. While such a holistic view is ideal, in measurement terms the sum of the parts is entirely limited by the weakest part. This is currently the value-added indicator (i.e., with the lowest levels of reliability and, related, issues with validity and bias) — the indicator at issue within this particular blog, and the indicator of the most interest, as it is this indicator that has truly changed our overall approaches to the evaluation of America’s teachers. It has yet to deliver, however, especially if to be used for high-stakes consequential decision-making purposes (e.g., incentives, getting rid of “bad apples”).

Feel free to read more here, as publicly available: Grading the Teachers: A Report on Teacher Evaluation Reform in Public Education. See also other claims regarding the benefits of said systems within (e.g., these systems as foundations for new teacher roles and responsibilities, smarter employment decisions, prioritizing classrooms, increased focus on improved standards). See also the recommendations offered, some with which I agree on the observational side (e.g., ensuring that teachers receive multiple observations during a school year by multiple evaluators), and none with which I agree on the value-added side (e.g., use at least two years of student achievement data in teacher evaluation ratings–rather, researchers agree that three years of value-added data are needed, as based on at least four years of student-level test data). There are, of course, many other recommendations included. You all can be the judges of those.

Teacher Protests Turned to Riots in Mexico

For those of you who have not yet heard about what has been happening recently in our neighboring country Mexico, a protest surrounding the country’s new US inspired, test-based reforms to improve teacher quality, as based on teachers’ own test performance, as been ongoing since last weekend. Teachers are to pass tests themselves, this time, and if they cannot pass the tests after three attempts, they are to be terminated/replaced (i.e., three strikes, they are to be out). The strikes are occurring primarily in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, and they have thus far led to nine deaths, including the death of one journalist, upwards of 100 injuries, approximately 20 arrests, and the “en masse” termination of many teachers for striking.

As per an article available here, “a massive strike organized by a radical wing of the country’s largest teachers union [the National Coordinator of Education Workers (or CNTE)] turned into a violent confrontation with police” starting last weekend. In Mexico, as it has been in our country’s decade’s past, the current but now prevailing assumption is that the nation’s “failing” education system is the fault of teachers who, as many argue, are those to be directly (and perhaps solely) blamed for their students’ poor relative performance. They are also to be blamed for not “causing” student performance throughout Mexico to improve.

Hence, Mexico is to hold teachers more accountable for what which they do, or more arguably that which they are purportedly not doing or doing well, and this is the necessary action being pushed by Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. Teacher-level standardized tests are to be used to measure teachers’ competency, instructional approaches, etc., teacher performance reviews are to be used as well, and those who fail to measurably perform are to be let go. Thereafter, the country’s educational situation is to, naturally, improve. This, so goes the perpetual logic. Although this is “an evaluation system that’s completely without precedent in the history of Mexican education.” See also here about how this logic is impacting other countries across the world, as per the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).

“Here is a viral video (in Spanish) of a teacher explaining why the mandatory tests are so unwelcome: because Mexico is a huge, diverse country (sound familiar?) and you can’t hold teachers in the capital to the same standards as, say, those in the remote mountains of Chiapas. (He also says, to much audience approval, that Peña Nieto, who has the reputation of a lightweight, probably wouldn’t be able to meet the standards he’s imposing on teachers himself.)…And it’s true that some of the teachers in rural areas might not have the same academic qualifications—particularly in a place like Oaxaca, which for all its tourist delights of its capital is one of Mexico’s poorest states, with a large indigenous population and substandard infrastructure.”

Teachers in other Mexican cities are beginning to mobilize, in solidarity, although officially still at this point, these new educational policies are “not subject to negotiation.”

No More EVAAS for Houston: School Board Tie Vote Means Non-Renewal

Recall from prior posts (here, here, and here) that seven teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), with the support of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), are taking HISD to federal court over how their value-added scores, derived via the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS), are being used, and allegedly abused, while this district that has tied more high-stakes consequences to value-added output than any other district/state in the nation. The case, Houston Federation of Teachers, et al. v. Houston ISD, is ongoing.

But just announced is that the HISD school board, in a 3:3 split vote late last Thursday night, elected to no longer pay an annual $680K to SAS Institute Inc. to calculate the district’s EVAAS value-added estimates. As per an HFT press release (below), HISD “will not be renewing the district’s seriously flawed teacher evaluation system, [which is] good news for students, teachers and the community, [although] the school board and incoming superintendent must work with educators and others to choose a more effective system.”

here

Apparently, HISD was holding onto the EVAAS, despite the research surrounding the EVAAS in general and in Houston, in that they have received (and are still set to receive) over $4 million in federal grant funds that has required them to have value-added estimates as a component of their evaluation and accountability system(s).

While this means that the federal government is still largely in favor of the use of value-added model (VAMs) in terms of its funding priorities, despite their prior authorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) (see here and here), this also means that HISD might have to find another growth model or VAM to still comply with the feds.

Regardless, during the Thursday night meeting a board member noted that HISD has been kicking this EVAAS can down the road for 5 years. “If not now, then when?” the board member asked. “I remember talking about this last year, and the year before. We all agree that it needs to be changed, but we just keep doing the same thing.” A member of the community said to the board: “VAM hasn’t moved the needle [see a related post about this here]. It hasn’t done what you need it to do. But it has been very expensive to this district.” He then listed the other things on which HISD could spend (and could have spent) its annual $680K EVAAS estimate costs.

Soon thereafter, the HISD school board called for a vote, and it ended up being a 3-3 tie. Because of the 3-3 tie vote, the school board rejected the effort to continue with the EVAAS. What this means for the related and aforementioned lawsuit is still indeterminate at this point.