Monday, August 29, 2011

Teacher evals

Speaking of interesting debates, Gary Rubenstein, Brill and I had one this morning.  It started with this email from Gary:


Would you be willing to ask Brill to ask the principal of PS 149, Kayrol Burgess-Harper about the test scores of that teacher Brill observed screaming the days of the week?  He wrote "she seemed to know exactly whom I was referring to."  Does she just 'seem' to know who he saw, or can she specifically identify him so we can check his value-added metrics and see if they are poor as one would predict?  (Perhaps a good way to test this is for her to first predict what his gains were and then check the numbers.)


My thought is that many poor teachers can't think of a much more creative thing to do than to drill for the standardized tests so their scores don't reflect how well they are teaching on the low end either.


I forwarded the email to Steve, who replied:


My impression is that she seemed to know from observations and from other teachers, the way most fourth grade teachers know who the good and bad third grade teachers are, etc.


But what's bizarre about this request is that you're asking me to ask her. Why don't you? Principal Harper and that teacher are both public officials. And you're entitled to that information. What amazed me in doing this book is that there was so little actual reporting; instead reporters reported on the various sides assertions.




Steve Brill


P.S. Implicit in the question is also the notion that I or anyone else who has ever run anything think that value added metrics are the be-all and end-all. For my money I'd let Principal Harper spend the first year just giving promoted status and bonuses to her subjective ten best teachers and have the ability to fire her subjective ten worst and have the next ten worst spend two hours a day extra in training and report back a month early. But then the union would demand "objective" reasons for the firings or the bonuses.


Here's what I added:


This is a really interesting conversation, especially your P.S. Steve.  It's the UNIONS that are responsible for the testing/value-added system that EVERYONE knows is quite imperfect – even the biggest defenders of the very best testing/value-added system admit (yes, publicly) that some teachers and even entire schools engage in "teaching to the test" to the detriment of real learning, there's a meaningful error rate, the results can be unstable year to year for some teachers, and it's useless for granular distinctions between, say, a teacher in the 55th percentile vs. 45th.  (I do maintain, however, that a teacher that is consistently in the bottom 10% is almost certain to be really lousy.)


Steve's suggestion is 100x more sensible, but the unions are so distrustful of the system and principals (to be fair, with good reason in many cases) that they're forcing an excessive testing regimen upon the system – and then, ironically, endless criticize that very system.  That's why so many people like me think that their real agenda is to not have any accountability at all: they think and perpetuate the myth that all teachers are equally wonderful, which is an insult to teachers in my opinion.


In my business – and in virtually any business in the country – I can fire whomever I like, if I am dissatisfied with them for whatever reason, even if they're good at their job – if I don't like their attitude or aren't a team player, for example (obviously within the bounds of the law: I can't fire someone because I don't like their ethnicity, age, etc.).  Does this sometimes result in someone being fired "unfairly"?  Sure.  (And if it violates the law, that person can sue me.)  But the alternative – what we have now in our schools, is far worse.

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