PISA Scores and Poverty Rates


Poverty’s impact on test scores is real I am a bit like a broken record when it comes to talking about poverty and test scores.  I’ve recently heard David Berliner talk about his book 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten … Continue reading

Teachers: The Courts Might Not Care About Bad Evaluation Systems

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.

Won’t Back Down – The Attacks Keep Coming

This new Hollywood anti-union propaganda film will be stirring up lots of commentary as it spreads throughout the nation.  Rather than comment on it’s distortions, I’ll offer two links to other sites that do a great job of identify the problems with the film.

The first comes from Professor Mark Phillips, who writes for Edutopia.  His article Won’t Back Down: An Engaging and Misleading Film includes a few additional links to expand on his thesis.

One of those links is worthy of a direct mention on it’s own.  From the newly formed and still struggling Save our Schools organization, this posting illuminates the agendas and funders who are promoting the anti-union, anti-public school movement in considerable detail.  They are also the funders behind Waiting for Superman, which was a similar distortion of educational reality.  Articles On “Won’t Back Down” The Film and “Teachers Rock” Concert

These are good reads, and shed light on some of the behind the curtain groups who are most influential among those who constantly attack public education and public educators.

On Critical Thinking

While I don’t agree with many critics of public education, my critique would be that schools are failing to produce critical thinkers.  Within schools, the older generation of teachers will often be heard saying the expectations for critical essays in English or History found on state exam questions has declined over the years.  Proof that we don’t value critical thinking is all around us—we reelect politicians who don’t govern for the common good; we uncritically devour the vitriol of the Internet and broadcast media; we too often believe that all sides of an issue have to be reported or respected or given equal time even when one side is objectively or scientifically unfounded. We accept news stories without fact checking.

How would we recognize if renewed efforts to teach critical thinking work?  The next generation would demand truth in advertising, news that’s more than thinly disguised editorializing, and government of the people, by the people, and for the people rather than government by the biggest pocketbook.  We would see decisions based on evidence rather than emotions.  (Isn’t this what reformers are suggesting with changes in the way they propose to evaluate teachers–use test data, not the opinion of administrators?)  The Common Core, if done well, expects critical thinking to be deeply embedded in all that is done in classrooms.  If that actually happens, we are on our way back to the reasoned ideals on which America was built.

A good example of Common Core efforts to improve our critical thinking skills is a model lesson reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Students reading this should come to understand Dr. King’s indictment of Southern white ministerial leaders for their lack of support for the civil rights of minorities. This content will make some parents and teachers uncomfortable.  So teaching critical thinking can be controversial.  Societal discomfort with teaching critical thinking is illustrated by the Texas GOP party platform passed in the early summer.  (Google ‘Texas GOP platform’ for several links, or check out Valerie Strauss’s blog on the topic.) Their platform positions exemplify the occasional local opposition to any instruction that questions authority figures and traditional societal norms.  Teaching children to think for themselves is anathema to some critics of the Common Core, and rote, uncritical classroom instruction is a highlight of some voucher programs and charter schools across the nation.

As students begin to practice critical thinking skills, teachers and parents must be open to those who reach informed and reasoned conclusions that are different than their own. I think good educational practice inevitably challenges traditional authority–we have to teach for the future, and teaching critical thinking will certainly challenge the old ways of doing almost everything. We need young people to learn the skills to pursue ideas in a critical fashion and use that skill to become our future leaders. The Common Core’s emphasis on deep reading and critical thinking is a step in the right direction.