Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Teacher Evaluations

The issue of teacher evaluations has come to the forefront all over the country.  Everyone – even the unions at least pay lip service to it – agrees that there are huge differences among teachers that have an enormous impact on students, so it's critically important to attract, train, and retain talented teachers – and improve or get rid of ineffective teachers.  To do so, there needs to be a robust, fair system of evaluating teachers, which is REALLY hard to do.  Many smart people are working hard on this – a task made more difficult by the unions, who have effectively taken the position that if an evaluation system is unfair to even one teacher, then it's unacceptable.


I wrote about this twice a few months ago:


A), in response to a critique of value-added metrics:


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.


B), in response to a Mathematica study, I wrote:


It's an important study.


What I'm puzzled by is why you think it in any way contradicts what every sensible reformer thinks – it's much more devastating to the absurd union position that no test can ever be used in any part of a teacher's evaluation unless it's proven to be 100% accurate (an obviously impossible bar, which is exactly what it's intended to be).


Let's be clear what this study does (and doesn't) say.  It says that value-added models correctly identify above average, average, and below average teachers with 74% accuracy, but that's obviously far from perfect so they shouldn't be relied on solely.  I think we can both agree that no teacher should be fired based solely on value-added tests –  NOBODY thinks this!


Here's what's needed:


1) Comprehensive evaluation systems like Michelle Rhee's IMPACT in DC or what Chris Cerf is setting up in NJ (per my last email).


2) Better tests to reduce the 26% error rate.


3) More principal discretion.  I also trust you saw this line on page 36: "…principals' assessments of teacher effectiveness are reasonably accurate at identifying the best and worst teachers in a given school…"  If I had my way, every principal in America would have the ability to build their team, just as every KIPP principal does.  Yes, I know there are lots of horrible, vindictive principals, which is why, concurrent with giving principals this power, they'd also truly be held accountable for results, just as KIPP principals are (and it's not just based on test scores, but that's certainly an important part of it).  I was heartened to see in the study that the error rate at the SCHOOL-LEVEL was a mere 10%:


Corresponding error rates for teacher-level estimates will be lower if the focus is on overall false positive and negative error rates for the full populations of low- and high-performing teachers. For example, with three years of data, misclassification rates will be about 10 percent.


Thus, if a principal fires or fails to recruit good teachers, hires his/her relatives and cronies, etc., the school's results will obviously suffer and the principal will soon be unemployed – pretty strong incentive not to engage in bad behavior.


Obviously, the unions are powerful enough to block true principal discretion, so might we agree to compromise on what AJ Duffy suggests (per my last email)?  He:


wants to make it harder for teachers to earn tenure protections and wants to lengthen that process. He even wants to require teachers to demonstrate that they remain effective in the classroom if they want to keep their tenure protections.


And if a tenured teacher becomes ineffective, he wants to streamline dismissals. The process now in place can stretch out for several years, even with substantial evidence of gross misconduct. Some union leaders, notably Duffy, have defended this "due process" as a necessary protection against administrative abuses.


"I would make it 10 days if I could," Duffy now says of the length of the dismissal process.

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