Yesterday evening, when I turned on the TV for my very occasional Jeopardy fix, I thought I had time-traveled back to before the presidential election. There in prime time was a slick campaign commercial. But, instead of a Sheldon Adelson-funded Romney ad, what I saw was a Michelle Rhee-backed StudentsFirst commercial warning dire consequences for New York City kids if the union and the city do not come to an agreement on teacher evaluations.
“A good teacher evaluation can help a teacher understand where they’re weak, and help them grow stronger,” says a teacher named Heather in the opening seconds of the ad. The spot closes with a stark warning that schools risk losing $300 million if the union and the city do not come to a deal.
StudentsFirst, an education advocacy organization founded by Rhee, the former Washington D.C. schools chancellor, aims to raise $1 billion to support candidates and policies that share her pro-charter, anti-union views. The group has already influenced state and local school-board elections from Michigan to California.
The new ad spotlights the latest standoff between the teachers’ union and the Bloomberg administration about implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system. According to the New York Daily News, the two sides are at odds over when and how principals can give teachers poor ratings.
Governor Cuomo has threatened to withhold funding if the city and the union cannot come to an agreement by January. And Mayor Bloomberg has said that he would rather lose the money than compromise on the evaluations.
The StudentsFirst ad and the mayor’s tough talk highlight one of several problems with the teacher-evaluation debate. While employee evaluations work when they are part of a system-wide effort at continuous improvement, they are often counterproductive when used as a cudgel against employees.
The cheerful-sounding teachers in the StudentsFirst ad not withstanding, everything about the teacher-evaluation debate has been framed in punitive terms. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, wants to continue to publish teacher ratings—despite the brouhaha over the disclosure of teacher ratings earlier this year and the New York State Legislature’s decision to limit future public disclosures. “It seems like we’ve got the torches and the pitchforks and we’re coming after the teaching profession,” New York State assemblyman Steven F. McLaughlin told the New York Times, referring to how easy it is to find teacher ratings on line.
Both Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp have said that “shaming” and “humiliating” teachers by publishing their ratings is counterproductive. As Gates puts it: “(S)haming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.”
Meanwhile, charter schools refuse to turn in their teacher ratings.
At the same time, Gates and Kopp and other education reformers continue to advocate evaluations based on highly controversial “value-added measures”, which are intended to gauge student improvement on state tests–they account for 20 percent of teacher evaluations in New York public schools (another 20 percent is based on other “objective” measures, and 60 percent on subjective measures, such as observations.) However, VAM is not only methodologically flawed, it has no value in terms of showing teachers how they might improve. Even Anthony Lombardi, the principal of P.S. 49, a K-8 school in Queens, who has locked horns with the teachers’ union (he told Steven Brill that union leader Randi Weingarten “would protect a dead body in the classroom”) calls VAM a “failure.” If a whole class were to go down 40 points, from one year to the next, he says,“I never understood what that means. No one has been able to explain it to me.”
Numerous studies, including ones by the Rand Corp. and Economic Policy Institute, have enumerated the methodological flaws with VAM. A National Academy of Science’s Board on Testing and Assessment warns:
…VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.…
The new evaluations will take effect even as teachers and schools are under pressure to align their courses to the new common core standards and what Shael Polakow Suransky, Chief Academic Officer of the New York City Department of Education, has characterized as “significantly more challenging,” tests. In a letter to schools last month, Suransky wrote: “At least initially, students’ scores may go down.” The decline will undoubtedly impact teacher evaluations.
With so much riding on the common core—and a great many questions and challenges relating to its implementation–this would seem to be an ideal moment for teachers, administrators, politicians and union leaders to do some collaborative problem solving.
But that kind of cooperation takes trust and leadership, both of which are in short supply. Punitive evaluations—and divisive advertising—are only likely to make things worse.