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Why Not Evidence-Based Educational Policy? I’ve just discovered another writer who has impressed me with the first essay I’ve read. Arthur Camins is the Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology … Continue reading
Courts and Teacher Evaluation Systems
Writing in Education Week, September 18, 2013, James Popham and Marguerita DeSander suggest that “thousands of American teachers will lose their jobs in the next few years because of the recently designed, more demand evaluation systems now found in most of our states.” They point out these systems have been triggered by recent federal policies, and then note that most teachers think the dismissals can be reversed in court. The main point of their essay is that the courts, both state and federal, have “historically refused to substitute their judgement for that of a school board in cases where a teacher (whether tenured or probationary) has been terminated for substandard job performance. This has been true if the termination is based on even a scintilla of evidence.”
Popham is a well-know figure among education professors who are experts on evaluation and assessment, with several books, most recently (2013) Evaluating America’s Teachers: Mission Possible? from Corwin Press. DeSander is an ed admin professor and formerly was an attorney specializing in employment law. These are two folks who should be seen as authoritative figures on this topic.
New York Teachers More Protected?
When I first saw the outlines of New York’s response to Race To The Top teacher evaluation changes, I thought that it might be a good time for college grads to go into the practice of education law, particularly if they had any statistical talent and were willing to delve into the psychometrics of testing and its use in teacher evaluation. As New York’s teacher evaluation system, including the use of test scores in teacher evaluation rolled out, I continued to believe the system would collapse under the weight of court challenges to it’s fairness and it’s validity. I still believe that, but I’m not quite so confident with my opinion after reading this piece. If I look at New York’s system, which has a unique additional element–teachers identified as low performing have to be given opportunities for professional development by their school districts–perhaps that district responsibility is going to prevent willy-nilly teacher dismissals. With the greater than anticipated increased costs of testing, and the Governor’s imposition of a 2% tax cap on raises in school budgets, it’s already estimated that 40% of districts across the state will be in bankruptcy in the next few years. So districts won’t have the money to provide professional development to their low performing staff, meaning they might not be able to dismiss them regardless of evaluations. That’s not the case in other states, where these warnings may be far more telling.
Evaluation Systems Show No Evidence of Efficacy
Popham and DeSander recognize that across the nation, the new evaluation systems have serious flaws–relying “too heavily of traditional achievement tests…” They note that the tests “are unaccompanied by any evidence that they are able to distinguish between well-taught and badly taught students.” They also point out that courts, based on past patterns of refusing to rule on the merits or validity of evaluation systems, “will not rule on the appropriateness of a teacher-evaluation system, or the evidence-collection procedures incorporated in that system, if the procedures are applied in a fair and consistent manner to all teachers affected. Thus, even an inadequate evaluation system will avoid the rigor of court scrutiny when it is applied equally to all teachers.” (Emphasis mine.)
The authors also take issue with the validity of classroom observations when they suggest that rating teacher classroom performance on the bases of “a handful of 30-minute classroom visits..” and even when looking at 40 or 50 dimensions of classroom performance, “the resultant observation data are often of little value.”
Courts May Not Overturn Bad Evaluation Systems
So where does that leave teachers all over the nation? I agree with the authors that the evaluation systems lack validity as they are being designed–the reliance on testing is not warranted psychometrically at all, nor are the tests designed for the purposes being implemented. And if courts are likely to disregard expert opinion because they won’t decide on system appropriateness, there is no venue for expert testimony about why these systems should be disregarded. If the legitimacy of procedures is not about to be adjudicated, there’s no place for teachers to turn. One need only review the multiple interpretations of the evaluation designs across 696 districts currently approved by the New York State Education department to know that there is no consistency in their format across the state. If courts give deference to school boards, teachers might be in far more trouble than they currently expect. Finally, a good civics education will remind all of us that courts are not always about right and wrong–they interpret the law. Where courts defer to school boards and states who have implemented bad evaluation systems, teachers beware.
New York schools, despite having one of the largest percentages of students in poverty, consistently rate highly in Quality Counts, from Education Week. The state was a second round winner of $700 million in Race to the Top funds from the Feds, and aggressively rammed new legislation through the state legislature to qualify. The unintended consequences are now being felt by those responsible for implementation. Teacher morale is down, the costs of implementation are proving to be unfunded mandates several times greater than what was gained from ‘winning’ the Race, and a tax cap pushed through by the Governor is wiping out district capacity to raise taxes even where the public would be willing to pay more to maintain quality schools. Moreover, many are estimating that 40% of New York districts face bankruptcy in the next few years.
Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, the Superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Rockland County, NY, contributed a wonderful analysis of the unintended consequences of Race to the Top in New York, published by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Open ‘Discussion Brief 8’ from this link to read the full article. With the cooperation of 18 school districts in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam Counties, the three counties bordering New York City to the North, Dr. Mitchell produced an eye-opening analysis of the impact of RTTT in this relatively wealthy region. These three counties are among the richest in New York–and the 18 districts are representative of the range of wealth found in the 60 districts in the region, though, I think, they would average somewhat above the mean in community wealth because some of the larger and lower income districts did not contribute data to the study.
Financially, Dr. Mitchell reports that the four year return to the 18 districts from RTTT funds will be $520,415, while the expense to districts is estimated to be $6,472,166, for a deficit of $5,951,751, an unfunded mandate of nearly $400 per pupil, to be funded by local taxpayers. And because of the tax cap, which now requires a 60% super majority to pass a budget above the 2% cap, very few districts will be able to fund the mandates without substantial cuts in programs somewhere. The cost of implementing the state’s new Annual Professional Performance Review – APPR (teacher and principal evaluation) by itself represents a 3% increase in local costs to pay for the testing and evaluation training required for implementation without considering the costs of redesigning instruction to move to the Common Core curriculum, which requires new texts, instructional materials, shifts of content from grade to grade, and additional teacher professional development for implementation.
The effects, as gleaned from the 18 districts responses to the program, are disturbing. Despite Race to the Top’s promotion as a school improvement program, districts will see staff cuts and larger class sizes, and non-mandated programs will be cut. Districts are cutting maintenance despite this being a wonderful opportunity to get cost effective pricing during an otherwise slow economy. Priorities are shifting away from instructional services that districts have developed over years of successful local control in order to fund the external mandates. Internal professional development and staff to provide it is being cut, and training is focusing on teacher evaluation requirements, not on classroom instruction. Some districts will be required to hire additional supervisory staff to complete the evaluation mandates, which require more time than existing programs. Curriculum is narrowing as districts prepare for extensive testing that will be used for teacher accountability. And finally, quoting directly from the brief, “..the hidden costs may be greater than the outlay in dollars. Teachers and administrators, stressed by the rapid change, the demand for accountability via the new testing and observation requirements, and anxieties about receiving low scores, are very likely to abandon initiatives that may be innovative and beneficial for preparing the next generation, but are out of alignment with a narrowed professional agenda for staying within the ‘Effective” range on the APPR.”
Dr. Mitchell proposes some reasonable shifts that New York politicians could make to back off and redirect this initiative. He also identifies several sophisticated research groups that question the use of tests for teacher evaluation as Race to the Top demanded, and question the massive national shift to the Common Core curriculum. Both these shifts are untested and lack a research base to justify the depth of the changes. And since the changes were imposed by the legislature in New York, and by legislatures racing to get Federal funds across the nation during the economic slow-down, the changes are out of the hands of state education departments even if those leaders were inclined to back off in the first place. Since they were generally the designers of the system, they are unlikely to be responsive–it’s full steam ahead, into the chaos that will ensure.
Download the article pdf at the link above, and see the research citations in the “Works Cited” link as well.