Friday, April 01, 2011

Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie

Here's another classic Winerip article from last week, about a teacher who has great credentials, is really dedicated, and is widely loved, but who isn't likely to get tenure because student test scores show they're not making much progress.  Winerip writes his article in a way designed to make it seem like all tests and accountability are evil (surprise!), but he fails to dig deeper into this issue.  One possibility is that the tests and/or accountability system messed up – that's certainly possible, but what harm has been done?  She's not being fired, but rather just denied tenure (which no teacher should have anyway, but that's another story…).  If she is, in fact, doing great work, then she just has to keep doing it and the misleading test scores will probably go away next year and she'll earn tenure then.  Most importantly, even if the system messed up with this particularly sympathetic teacher, we shouldn't make policy based on the Tyranny of the Anecdote.


More likely, however, is that the test scores and accountability system are correct: that despite her dedication and hard work, she's not very effective at imparting knowledge to children (at least not yet – she sounds like the kind of teacher who could really improve over time – I'd highly recommend that she read and digest Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion (  Yes, tests can often be wrong and they're not very good at differentiating between at teacher at the 55th percentile vs. the 45th, but she's in the bottom 7%!

No one at the Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies works harder than Stacey Isaacson, a seventh-grade English and social studies teacher. She is out the door of her Queens home by 6:15 a.m., takes the E train into Manhattan and is standing out front when the school doors are unlocked, at 7. Nights, she leaves her classroom at 5:30.

Though her principal praised her work, Stacey Isaacson received a poor ranking in a statistical model used by New York City schools to evaluate teachers.

"She's very dedicated," said Tejal Bahtt, a fellow teacher. "She works way harder than I work. Yesterday I punched in at 7:10 and her time card was already there."

Last year, when Ms. Isaacson was on maternity leave, she came in one full day a week for the entire school year for no pay and taught a peer leadership class.

Her principal, Megan Adams, has given her terrific reviews during the two and a half years Ms. Isaacson has been a teacher. "I know that this year had its moments of challenge — you always handled it with grace and presence," the principal wrote on May 4, 2009. "You are a wonderful teacher."

On the first day of this school year, the principal wrote, "I look forward to being in your classroom and seeing all the great work you do with your students," and signed it with a smiley face.

The Lab School has selective admissions, and Ms. Isaacson's students have excelled. Her first year teaching, 65 of 66 scored proficient on the state language arts test, meaning they got 3's or 4's; only one scored below grade level with a 2. More than two dozen students from her first two years teaching have gone on to Stuyvesant High School or Bronx High School of Science, the city's most competitive high schools.

"Definitely one of a kind," said Isabelle St. Clair, now a sophomore at Bard, another selective high school. "I've had lots of good teachers, but she stood out — I learned so much from her."

You would think the Department of Education would want to replicate Ms. Isaacson — who has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia — and sprinkle Ms. Isaacsons all over town. Instead, the department's accountability experts have developed a complex formula to calculate how much academic progress a teacher's students make in a year — the teacher's value-added score — and that formula indicates that Ms. Isaacson is one of the city's worst teachers.

According to the formula, Ms. Isaacson ranks in the 7th percentile among her teaching peers — meaning 93 per cent are better.

This may seem disconnected from reality, but it has real ramifications. Because of her 7th percentile, Ms. Isaacson was told in February that it was virtually certain that she would not be getting tenure this year.


On Education

Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie

Published: March 6, 2011

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