Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers

Wendy Kopp published this op ed in the WSJ recently, opposing releasing teacher value-added data:

When I dropped my kids off at school last week, I had a hard time looking their teachers in the eye. The New York City government had just posted their performance assessments online, and though I'm a strong supporter of teacher accountability and effectiveness, I was baffled and embarrassed by the decision.

So-called value-added rankings—which rank teachers according to the recorded growth in their students' test scores—are an important indicator of teacher effectiveness, but making them public is counterproductive to helping teachers improve. Doing so doesn't help teachers feel safe and respected, which is necessary if they are going to provide our kids with the positive energy and environment we all hope for.

The release of the rankings (which follows a similar release last year in Los Angeles) is based on a misconception that "fixing" teachers is the solution to all that ails our education system.

No single silver bullet will close our educational achievement gaps—not charter schools, or vouchers, or providing every child with a computer, or improving teachers. Each of these solutions may have merit as part of a larger strategy, but on their own they distract attention from the long, hard work required to ensure that our schools are high-performing, mission-driven organizations with strong teams, strong cultures and strong results.

It's true that teachers are vitally important.


After reading it, one of my readers (and a former TFA corps and staff member) wrote the following:


Maybe I missed it, but I haven't seen you or anyone else in your email group comment on Wendy's WSJ op-ed about the publishing of the NYC value-added data, which had me a little confused…either her message has gotten lost or she seems to have lost some urgency over ensuring we're making sure every year for every kid counts (because we know the consequences of the alternative for too many are dire). Her personal anecdote below sounds a lot like some of the upper-middle class parents who I get frustrated with for being out of touch with the needs of kids who do not have time to waste:


"A few years ago, my son had a teacher who under the current system would probably be ranked in the bottom quartile of her peers. This wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm or effort on her part—you could see how desperately she wanted to connect with her students and be a great teacher. Knowing my son was in a subpar classroom didn't make me angry at the teacher. It made me frustrated with the school—for not providing this young educator with the support and feedback she needed to improve."


Wendy should be frustrated with a whole lot more than just the school or principal; how about an entire system that allows for someone who ultimately doesn't produce results to teach her kids!? And how can she brush off the value-added data as she does, particularly after the research that's come out over the last few months? (For the record: I do not think publishing the data publicly as-is is super constructive, but I'm not sure of an alternative at this point). I'm discouraged that, even in the very rebuttal you mentioned below, Wendy seems to be trying to jump on the Ravitch "teachers can't do that much" bandwagon.


Unfortunately, this actually is all about whether or not a teacher delivers, and everything else is just a condition we consciously or unconsciously manufacture to allow bad teaching to happen or good teaching to flourish. Wendy's actions and words seem either a little nutty or like an effort to not seem like one of "the bad guys" in this struggle, and while the latter might yield some short-term goodwill for TFA, it does seem like it might just undermine all of this work in the long-run.


Your thoughts?


P.S. I am a TFA alum, and actually worked for TFA for many years. Wendy was God of ed reform for me for a long time. I'm not so sure right now. In her effort to be nuanced and perhaps inclusive, it's become unclear to me what solutions she stands behind now, and whether they reflect the core lessons I've learned in large part because of her pioneering work over the last two decades.


Here's is Wendy's response:


Thanks for this.  My piece isn't motivated by not wanting to seem like one of the 'bad guys' or by going soft in any way.  Rather, it's motivated by a growing conviction that our current reform discussion and the strategies we're pursuing -- exemplified by the NY Post's decision to print the teacher rankings -- oversimplify the problem and solution to educational inequity and won't lead us the kind of transformational change for kids that we actually need. 


My perspective has been shaped by Teach For America's own experience in recruiting and developing teachers over the past twenty years.  We have invested enormous amounts of energy, money and brainpower in the effort to field a leadership force of new teachers who help expand educational opportunity and help close the achievement gap for their students.  We select around one in twelve of our extraordinary applicants and invest a significant amount in them -- not only in a five-week 'boot camp' as our critics like to charge, but in a very extensive two-year program of pre-service training and ongoing coaching and professional development.  Given all we invest, and how driven we are organizationally to act on the data we have to continuously improve, I would imagine that our teachers would , on average, have a very meaningful impact on their students' achievement.  While there's lots of debate over what the research about Teach For America corps members says, the reality is that the most rigorous studies do show that our teachers have a positive impact relative to other new teachers and actually look more like veteran teachers than beginning teachers; In the states that have ranked teacher providers based on their graduates' value-added, Teach For America has been at the top of the rankings.  Still, however, when we consider the magnitude of the impact our teachers are having based on these studies, we have to be real with ourselves that despite all the luxuries we have (relatively small number of rigorously selected teachers, and the funding to invest a lot in them), our teachers are not, on average, by themselves having the magnitude of impact necessary to make a meaningful difference in their students' educational trajectories.


This isn't to say we should stop trying.  In fact, bolstered by all we've learned, we at Teach For America are all the more determined that we must, and can, build a leadership force of new teachers who do on average make a meaningful impact.  We're pursuing this for the sake of kids growing up today and also in order to shape a generation of educational leaders and advocates who have the foundational experience and resulting convictions that come from teaching successfully in low-income communities.  But at the same time, I've come to be highly skeptical that efforts to reform "teaching," and the one million teachers who work with our nation's low-income kids, will in and of themselves effect the change we seek for our least privileged students. 


On the other hand, very encouragingly, we've seen a growing proliferation of very high-performing schools, in the public charter school system and in the traditional public school system, that are making a meaningful impact in their students' lives.  These schools are determined to recruit and select teachers with tremendous promise, and they invest enormously in their development on a day to day basis.  In addition, they pursue important whole school strategies -- building a culture of achievement, increasing the length of time of the school day, providing access to additional student supports -- so that teachers aren't forced to do all these things on their own.  These schools are showing us that meaningful change for kids is possible, without relying on the efforts of all too rare super-heroic teachers -- teachers who are still outliers even in Teach For America's corps which has been selected and trained and developed so carefully -- to make up for schools' inadequacies.


Thinking about all this, I conclude that we should embrace a strategy that looks at schools, rather than classrooms, as the unit of change.  In my mind, we should center everything we do as a 'reform' community around the question of what it will take to realize all the more expediently the day when all high-need kids are in what I would call "transformational schools."


Printing teachers' names in the paper with their value-added scores is inconsistent with this approach. High-performing organizations foster cultures of trust and collaboration among their teams; their leaders assume responsibility for success rather than pointing to staff members as the people to blame when things go wrong.  These leaders hold their staff members accountable for results while providing feedback and professional development to foster continuous improvement; when staff members don't live up to expectations, they intensify support and then, if things don't change, they ask the low performers to leave.  They wouldn't resort to printing their staff members' performance ratings in the newspaper.  


We do need to act with urgency to improve things for the kids who can't wait for all our educational improvement strategies to work.  But I just fear that even in the very short run, the downsides of printing teacher value-add rankings outweigh any positive impact that might result.  This is a longer discussion, but the only real option for parents who are unhappy with their child's teacher is to move them to a new school, and sadly only a tiny fraction of parents in high-need communities will have choice among schools let alone options that would ensure that their child's overall educational experience is a good one. 


We have no time to waste in embracing the effort to improve whole schools, and I fear that we're getting caught up in other strategies that even at best fail to get us where we aspire to be and, at worst, decrease the level of investment and the positive energy of the teaching force on which we must rely to reach a better state.


One final clarification -- In saying that the school must be the unit of change, I don't mean to discount the need for dramatic improvements in the way teachers are recruited, trained, evaluated, and developed.  These efforts are vital if we're going to grow the number of high-performing schools, and must simply be designed with a understanding of how to empower schools to recruit, develop and empower talented, committed teachers to achieve the results we're all looking for.


This is complex stuff and I fear that much will be lost in a short email exchange, but hopefully this helps somewhat in clarifying my view.  I hope the leaders of high-performing urban and rural schools will make their voices heard as well -- those I've heard from have been unanimous in their support of this position, which I think says quite a lot.


The Trouble With Humiliating Teachers

Making rankings public undermines the trust educators need to build collaborative teams.


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