Splits, Rotations, and Other Consequences of Teaching in a High-Stakes Environment in an Urban School

An Arizona teacher who teaches in a very urban, high-needs schools writes about the realities of teaching in her school, under the pressures that come along with high-stakes accountability and a teacher workforce working under an administration, both of which are operating in chaos. This is a must read, as she also talks about two unintended consequences of educational reform in her school about which I’ve never heard before: splits and rotations. Both seem to occur at all costs simply to stay afloat during “rough” times, but both also likely have deleterious effects on students in such schools, as well as teachers being held accountable for the students “they” teach.

She writes:

Last academic year (2012-2013) a new system for evaluating teachers was introduced into my school district. And it was rough. Teachers were dropping like flies. Some were stressed to the point of requiring medical leave. Others were labeled ineffective based on a couple classroom observations and were asked to leave. By mid-year, the school was down five teachers. And there were a handful of others who felt it was just a matter of time before they were labeled ineffective and asked to leave, too.

The situation became even worse when the long-term substitutes who had been brought in to cover those teacher-less classrooms began to leave also. Those students with no contracted teacher and no substitute began getting “split”. “Splitting” is what the administration of a school does in a desperate effort to put kids somewhere. And where the students go doesn’t seem to matter. A class roster is printed, and the first five students on the roster go to teacher A. The second five students go to teacher B, and so on. Grade-level isn’t even much of a consideration. Fourth graders get split to fifth grade classrooms. Sixth graders get split to 5th and 7th grade classrooms. And yes, even 7th and 8th graders get split to 5th grade classrooms. Was it difficult to have another five students in my class? Yes. Was it made more difficult that they weren’t even of the same grade level I was teaching? Yes. This went on for weeks…

And then the situation became even worse. As it became more apparent that the revolving door of long-term substitutes was out of control, the administration began “The Rotation.” “The Rotation” was a plan that used the contracted teachers (who remained!) as substitutes in those teacher-less classrooms. And so once or twice a week, I (and others) would get an email from the administration alerting me that it was my turn to substitute during prep time. Was it difficult to sacrifice 20-40 % of weekly prep time (that is used to do essential work like plan lessons, gather materials, grade, call parents, etc…) Yes. Was it difficult to teach in a classroom that had a different teacher, literally, every hour without coordinated lessons? Yes.

Despite this absurd scenario, in October 2013, I received a letter from my school district indicating how I fared in this inaugural year of the teacher evaluation system. It wasn’t good. Fifty percent of my performance label was based on school test scores (not on the test scores of my homeroom students). How well can students perform on tests when they don’t have a consistent teacher?

So when I think about accountability, I wonder now what it is I was actually held accountable for? An ailing, urban school? An ineffective leadership team who couldn’t keep a workforce together? Or was I just held accountable for not walking away from a no-win situation?

Coincidentally, this 2013-2014 academic year has, in many ways, mirrored the 2012-2013. The upside is that this year, only 10% of my evaluation is based on school-wide test scores (the other 40% will be my homeroom students’ test scores). This year, I have a fighting chance to receive a good label. One more year of an unfavorable performance label and the district will have to, by law, do something about me. Ironically, if it comes to that point, the district can replace me with a long-term substitute, who is not subject to the same evaluation system that I am. Moreover, that long-term substitute doesn’t have to hold a teaching certificate. Further, that long-term substitute will cost the district a lot less money in benefits (i.e. healthcare, retirement system contributions).

I should probably start looking for a job—maybe as a long-term substitute.

Teacher Won’t be Bullied by Alhambra (AZ) School Officials

Lisa Elliott, a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and 18-year veteran teacher who has devoted her 18-year professional career to the Alhambra Elementary School District — a Title I school district (i.e., having at least 40% of the student population from low-income families) located in the Phoenix/Glendale area — expresses in this video how she refuses to be bullied by her district’s misuse of standardized test scores.

Approximately nine months ago she was asked to resign her teaching position by the district’s interim superintendent – Dr. Michael Rivera – due to her students’ low test scores for the 2013-2014 school year, and despite her students exceeding expectations on other indicators of learning and achievement. She “respectfully declined” submitting her resignation letter because, for a number of reasons, including that her “children are more than a test score.” Unfortunately, however, other excellent teachers in her district just left…

The Silencing of the Educators: A Shocking Idea, and Trending

In a recent post I published titled, “New Mexico UnEnchanted,” I described a great visit I recently made to Las Cruces to meet with students, parents, teachers, school board members, state leaders, and the like. In this post, I also described something I found shocking as I had never heard of this before. Under the “leadership” of Hanna Skandera — former Florida Deputy Commissioner of Education under former Governor Jeb Bush and head of the New Mexico Public Education Department — teachers throughout the state are being silenced.

New Mexico now requires teachers to sign a contractual document that they are not to “diminish the significance or importance of the tests” (see, for example, slide 7 here) or they could lose their jobs. Teachers are not to speak negatively about the tests or say anything negatively about these tests in their classrooms or in public; if they do they could be found in violation of their contracts. At my main presentation in New Mexico, a few teachers even approached me after “in secret” whispering their concerns in fear of being “found out.” Rumor also has it that Hanna Skandera has requested the names and license numbers of any teachers who have helped or encouraged students to protest the state’s “new” PARCC test(s), as well.

One New Mexico teacher asked whether “this is a quelling of free speech and professional communication?” I believe it most certainly is a Constitutional violation. I am also shocked to now find out that something quite similar is occurring in my state of Arizona.

Needless to say, neither of our states (or many states typically in the sunbelt for that matter) are short on bad ideas, but this is getting absolutely ridiculous, especially as this silencing of the educators seems to be yet another bad idea that is actually trending?

As per a recent article in our local paper – The Arizona Republic – Arizona “legislators want to gag school officials” in an amendment to Senate Bill 1172 that will prohibit “an employee of a school district or charter school, acting on the district’s or charter school’s behalf, from distributing electronic materials to influence the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation.”

The charge is also that this is a retaliatory move by AZ legislators, in response to a series of recent protests in response to serious budget cuts several weeks ago. “Perhaps [this is] to keep [educators] from talking about how the legislature has shortchanged Arizona’s school kids by hundreds of millions of dollars since the recession, and how the legislature is still making it nearly impossible for many districts to take care of even [schools’] most basic needs.”

In addition, is this even Constitutional? An Arizona Schools Boards Association (ASBA) spokesperson is cited as responding, saying “SB 1172 raises grave constitutional concerns. It may violate school and district officials free speech rights and almost certainly chills protected speech by school officials and the parents and community members that interact with them. It will freeze the flow of information to the public that seeks to ascertain the impact of pending legislation on their schools and children’s education.”

As per a related announcement released by the ASBA, this “could have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of school and district officials” throughout the state but also (likely) beyond if this continues to catch on. School officials may be held “liable for a $5,000 civil fine just for sharing information on the positive or negative impacts of proposed legislation to parents or reporters.”

Time to fight back, again. If you are a citizen of Arizona (citizens only) and feel that the Arizona community (and potentially beyond) is entitled to the free flow of information and that free speech is worth protecting, click here to contact your legislators to oppose SB1172.

Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) as a Measure of Teacher Effectiveness: A Survey of the Policy Landscape

I have invited another one of my former PhD students, Noelle Paufler, to the VAMboozled! team, and for her first post she has written on student learning objectives (SLOs), in large part as per the prior request(s) of VAMboozled! followers. Here is what she wrote:

Student learning objectives (SLOs) are rapidly emerging as the next iteration in the policy debate surrounding teacher accountability at the state and national levels. Purported as one solution to the methodologically challenging task of measuring the effectiveness of teachers of subject areas for which large-scaled standardized tests are unavailable, SLOs prompt the same questions of validity, reliability, and fairness raised by many about value-added models (VAMs). Defining the SLO process as “a participatory method of setting measurable goals, or objectives, based on the specific assignment or class, such as the students taught, the subject matter taught, the baseline performance of the students, and the measurable gain in student performance during the course of instruction” (Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network, 2010, p. 1), Lacireno-Paquet, Morgan, and Mello (2014) provide an overview of states’ use of SLOs in teacher evaluation systems.

There are three primary types of SLOs (i.e., for individual teachers, teams or grade levels, and school-wide) that may target subgroups of students and measure student growth or another measurable target (Lacireno-Paquet et al., 2014). SLOs relying on one or more assessments (e.g., state-wide standardized tests; district-, school-, or classroom measures) for individual teachers are most commonly used in teacher evaluation systems (Lacireno-Paquet et al., 2014). At the time of their writing, 25 states had included SLOs under various monikers (e.g., student learning targets, student learning goals) in their teacher evaluation systems (Lacireno-Paquet et al., 2014). Of these states, 24 provide a structured process for setting, approving, and evaluating SLOs which most often requires an evaluator at the school or district level to review and approve SLOs for individual teachers (Lacireno-Paquet et al., 2014). For more detailed state-level information, read the full report here.

Arizona serves as a case in point for considering the use of SLOs as part of the Arizona Model for Measuring Educator Effectiveness, an evaluation system comprising measures of teacher professional practice (50%-67%) and student achievement (33%-50%). Currently, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) classifies teachers into two groups (A and B) based on the availability of state standardized tests for their respective content areas. ADE (2015) defines teachers “who have limited or no classroom level student achievement data that are valid and reliable, aligned to Arizona’s academic standards and appropriate to teachers’ individual content area” as Group B for evaluation purposes (e.g., social studies, physical education, fine arts, career and technical education [CTE]) (p. 1). Recommending SLOs as a measure of student achievement for these teachers, ADE (2015) cites their use as a means to positively impact student achievement, especially when teachers collaboratively create quality common assessments to measure students across a grade level or within a content area. ADE (2015) describes SLOs as “classroom level measures of student growth and mastery” that are “standards based and relevant to the course content,” “specific and measureable,” and “use [student data from] two points in time,” specifically stating that individual lesson objectives and units of study do not qualify and discouraging teaching to the test (p. 1). Having piloted the SLO process in the 2012-2013 school year with full implementation in the 2013-2014 school year in five Local Education Agencies (LEAs) (four district and one charter), ADE (2015) continues to discuss next steps in the implementation of SLOs.

Despite this growing national interest in and rapid implementation of SLOs, very little research has examined the perspectives of district- and school-level administrators and teachers (in both Groups A and B or their equivalent) with regards to the validity, reliability, and fairness of measuring student achievement in this manner. Additional research in early adopter states as well as in states that are piloting the use of SLOs is needed in order to better understand the implications of yet another wave of accountability policy changes.


Arizona Department of Education. (2015). The student learning objective handbook. Retrieved from http://www.azed.gov/teacherprincipal-evaluation/files/2015/01/slo-handbook-7-2.pdf?20150120

Lacireno-Paquet, N., Morgan, C., & Mello, D. (2014). How states use student learning objectives in teacher evaluation systems: A review of state websites (REL 2014-013). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory North-east & Islands. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/projects/project.asp?projectID=380

Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network. (2010). Measuring student growth for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects: A primer. Washington, DC: ICF International. Retrieved http://nassauboces.org/cms/lib5/NY18000988/Centricity/Domain/156/NTS__PRIMER_FINAL.pdf

“Dear Teacher, You Are Not the Most Important Thing in the Universe”

Gene Glass (Regents’ Professor Emeritus from ASU) just posted this post below this morning, here, and I thought it important to share will all of you.
The Arizona Republic has a very conservative Editorial Board for a very conservative newspaper in a very conservative state. So when they address the subject of teacher preparation, it’s no surprise that they parrot folk wisdom about schools and teachers.In addressing Arne Duncan’s new guidelines on teachers colleges, the Editorial Board strikes its closing notes by perpetrating one of the more pernicious myths about teachers and schools.

Plenty of research has come to a common-sense conclusion: Nothing is more important to the success of a student than a highly qualified teacher. But we don’t have enough of them, nor will we as long as teacher colleges are not held accountable.

Now that’s a statement that packs a big load of deceit into just 43 words. First, it’s highly doubtful that the Arizona Republic Editorial Board has made itself familiar with “plenty of research” about education. Second, in their review of “plenty of research,” apparently their faith in the ability of test scores to hold teachers colleges “accountable” was never shaken?* But worst of all is the repeat of that tired wheeze that nothing is more important than a teacher.What makes the All-Important-Teacher myth so pernicious is that teachers themselves occasionally and the general public usually take it as a compliment when in fact it is an attack on teacher tenure and professional autonomy.The facts of the matter are that teachers are not the most important thing determining what a child gets out of school. What a child brings to school is much more important. Jim Coleman showed this in 1966 in Equality of Educational Opportunity, and though he softened his position slightly in 1972 when he accorded a bit more important to schooling that he had 6 years prior, out-of-school influences remained dominant in determining how much kids learned during their years in school. Parents, home and neighborhood conditions, physical health, language use and language complexity in the home, whether the student lives in a psychologically and physically healthy environment with access to competent medical care, access to books, games and activities that prepare the student for school, and even genetic endowment can greatly contribute to or restrict a child’s development. What walks in the door on Day #1 has more to do with what leaves on Day #2340 (180 X 13) than what transpires during the few hours of students’ lives that they are in the classroom, attentive, and capable of absorbing what that teacher is talking about.

Teachers are wonderful human beings. For many children, teachers are the most caring and competent individual whom they will encounter during their lifetime. But teachers cannot undo the damage inflicted on youngsters by a society in which nearly half of all births are to unwed mothers and in which more than 20% of children live below the poverty level (income below $23,000 for a family of 4).

So, my fellow teachers, beware. Don’t fall for the false compliment that you are so important — so important that you should be fired if your students’ test scores are lagging behind, so important that your school’s graduation rate is a moral and a civil rights issue, so important that you should be replaced by an inexperienced liberal arts major on a two-year resume building junket.

*Just take a look at Bruce Baker’s analysis of the absurdity of judging teachers by their students’ test scores.

Interested in Earning a PhD in Ed Policy at ASU?

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Education-Related Election Updates

Great news! The state of Missouri did not pass its “VAM with a Vengeance” constitutional amendment proposing to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores and require teachers to be dismissed, retained, promoted, demoted, and paid based primarily on the test scores of their students. It was also to require teachers to enter into contracts of three years or less, eliminating seniority and tenure. Well done, voters of Missouri!!

Uncertain news! My state of Arizona is still counting ballots to determine who will be our new State Superintendent of Public Instruction. For the first time in history, we have somebody who actually knows a lot about education running – Dr. David Garcia – an associate professor colleague of mine at Arizona State University who also studies educational policy. He would also be the first Latino elected to a state office in over 30 years. He is running as a Democrat, though, and in a very red state, a win for him and others before him have often turned impossible. His opponent is Diane Douglas, a former school board member who focused everything about her campaign in protest of the Common Core Standards and the federal government’s involvement in state-level educational policies. She ran a low-key campaign, she dodged the media spotlight, and she avoided all but one debate with David during which David literally ate her lunch. BUT lucky for her, she ran on the Republican ticket. While there are still 300,000 votes to be counted, she has a narrow lead which is making many on both sides of the party line very upset with those in our state who perpetually vote along the party line. Even with David drawing some very significant endorsements from Republicans and conservative business groups throughout this red state, the state’s conservative voters continue to dominate. Many agree on this note and “see her success as part of the decisive Republican sweep and not a triumph of ideology.” So very sad for our state is this one here. The next move might just be amend the state constitution and make this a state appointed position in that David is by far the best and most informed candidate our state has likely every had in the running (anonymous phone conversation, this morning ;).

Unfortunate news! As per a recent post by Diane Ravitch, the other election news as related to education was bad. There were many victories for similar people “who hold the public sector in contempt and believe in Social Darwinism. It was a bad night for those who hope for a larger vision of the common good, some vision grander than each one on his own. American history and politics are cyclical. It may require the excesses of this time to bring a turn of the wheel. It’s always darkest just before dawn.”

Unidentified Bloggers Defending Themselves Anonymously

“People should stand behind their own words…that’s doubly-true of people in public life.”

For those of you who missed it, about two weeks ago Diane Ravitch posted a piece about (and including) a set of emails exchanged between Diane, Raj Chetty, and me (although this post did not include Chetty’s emails as he did not grant Diane permission to share) about Chetty et al.’s now infamous study, the study at the heart of the recent Vergara v. California win (see Diane’s post here). In the comments section of this blog post, a unidentified respondent by the name of “WT,” as in “What The…,” went after me and my review/critique of Chetty et al.’s study, also referenced in this same post. See WT’s comments, again here, about 40 comments down: “WT on June 2, 2014 at 4:00 p.m.”

Anyhow, it became clear after a few back-and-forths that “WT” was closer to this study than (s)he seemingly wanted to expose. Following these suspicions, I wrote that I was at that point “even more curious as to why the real “WT” [wasn’t] standing up? Who [was] hiding behind (a perhaps fictitious) set of initials, or perhaps an acronym? Whoever “WT” [was] seem[ed] to care pretty deeply about this study, not to mention know a lot about it to cite directly from [very] small sections of the 56 pages (something I for sure would not be able to do nor, quite frankly, would I take the time to do given I’ve already conducted two reviews of this study since 2011). Might “WT” [have been] somebody a bit too close to this study, hence the knee-jerk, irrational reactions, that (still) lack[ed] precision and care? Everyone else (besides Harold [another commentator on this blog post]) ha[d] fully identified themselves in this string. So what [was to say] WT?”

Well, “WT” said nothing, besides a bunch of nothingness surrounding his anonymous withdrawal from the conversation string. Perhaps this was Chetty as “WT?” Perhaps not, but I’d bet some serious cash whoever “WT” was was pretty darn close to the Chetty et al. study and didn’t want to show it.

Sooo…now getting to the best part of all of this and how this has, in an interesting and similar turn of events, evidenced itself elsewhere. This video just came out on our local news station in Phoenix about a very similar situation in the state of Arizona and the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction – John Huppenthal – engaging in some equally shady blogging tactics. Do give it a watch if you want yet another check on reality.

View Video Here

Consequences of Non-Compliance in the State of Washington

In case you missed it, from a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, about U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan withdrawing the state of Washington’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waiver for noncompliance re: VAMs:

The Education Department is pulling Washington state’s No Child Left Behind waiver because the state has not met the department’s timeline for tying teacher evaluations to student performance metrics.

Washington is the first state to lose its waiver. The loss will give local districts less flexibility in using federal funds. For instance, they may now be required to spend millions on private tutoring services for at-risk students. The waiver revocation could also result in nearly every school across the state being labeled as failing under NCLB.

Washington had pledged in its waiver application to make student growth a significant factor in teacher and principal evaluations by the 2014-15 school year. But the state Legislature refused to pass a bill mandating that student performance on statewide assessments be included in teacher evaluations. The department placed the state on “high-risk” status in August. Arizona, Kansas and Oregon are also at risk of losing their waivers.

Saturday’s Book Presentation

This past Saturday, those involved with Arizona State University’s edXchange initiative invited me to speak on VAMs and my new book, Rethinking Value-Added Models: Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability.

I would venture to say that most professional fields wouldn’t attract many Saturday lecture attendees. But, as most of you know, educators are certainly not the norm! We had a house full of educators from every corner of the field—classroom teachers, school administrators, school board members, college professors, parents, and everyone else you can imagine. Needless to say, it was an honor to share my work and engage in dialogue with so many concerned citizens. I left hopeful that more were informed, and in many ways armed, to help others make more informed decisions, at least in Arizona’s schools.

Thank you to those who were able to attend, and thank you all for continuing to do your part in improving the lives of our teachers and students, hopefully throughout the country.

See a few photos from the event below.


edXchangeBookTalk  edXchangeBookTalk5