teacher data reports (school|life 20)

recently, the new york state supreme court ordered the state to release teacher data reports to the public.  the teacher reports attempt to measure the impact of individual teachers on student learning.  “value-added” assessments compare student demographics, student histories, and school norms to help project expected student achievement.  researchers evaluate teacher effectiveness in relation to student achievement on state standardized exams in math and english.  teachers receive high marks when students exceed original expectations, and they receive lower marks when students fail to achieve the original standards.

the teachers’ union has fought strongly against the release of the teacher data reports, and even bill gates wrote a recent opinion-editorial in the new york times against the public release of the reports.  gates and the teacher union are strange bedfellows: gates has argued strenuously for school and teacher accountability, often directly against local and state teachers’ unions.  however, in the times, he explains that simply “publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve learning.”

he’s probably right.  there’s certainly an analogue for gates’ position in the private sector.  employees are routined evaluated and reviewed; however, their accountability reviews are not released publicly or published in newspapers.

it should also be noted that there are clear challenges to the reliability of the data in the report.  there were consistent errors in early draft reports, including students and teachers listed in incorrect subject areas and classes, and student projections are inherently difficult to make accurately.  they ignore a host of “outside of school” factors and variables.  researchers try to balance this by analyzing more data to create more specific and more effective groups.  of course, triangulating bad data does not necessarily make it more effective data.  in fact, the group of university researchers that originally produced the ratings formula has publicly disavowed the current formula as an effective benchmark, and the city department of education has already stopped using the teacher data reports because they were not consistent or effective enough.

the reports are clearly problematic, and this is clearly a proxy war: education reform advocates like michelle rhee or joe williams take any opportunity to bash unions and debase teacher protections.  they believe that unions only exist to stall and stunt meaningful reform.  there are any amount of private sector examples to convince you they really believe what they believe.

that said, i also think we’re looking at this issue incorrectly.  teacher evaluation and teacher accountability are incredibly important.  we know that the single greatest in-school factor that influences learning is teacher quality.  we agree that good teachers matter.  instruction matters.  and i also believe that the union does teachers a disservice by arguing against teacher accountability and evaluation.  i believe in a strong union. . . but i also believe in strong education.

without the union, i wouldn’t be able to challenge students and parents in ways that i do.  i wouldn’t be able to share content and curriculum that exposes students to new and different ideas and texts.  and i wouldn’t be able to take risks . . . believing that i’ll be able to learn and reflect on and correct my mistakes.

where teacher protections help improve instruction, i stand side by side with my union.  still, where teacher protections interrupt a drive to improve instruction, i disagree with union leadership.  these reports are incredibly problematic, yes, but there’s also something bigger going on: a seeming resistance to any kind of real evaluation and accountability.  and that’s wrong.  teacher evaluation and student achievement can and should be more effectively measured.

teacher evaluations can be an incredibly important tool to promote student learning and student achievement.  some teachers believe that we have an inalienable right to teach how we’ve already been teaching . . . i don’t.  we always need to do better.  there’s just no doubt that some teachers are more effective and some teachers are less effective.  i’ve sat in on enough teachers and witnessed enough classes to know the difference.  and i’ve certainly experienced enough of my own effective and ineffective days to know that we’re not ever perfect.  still, the union’s consistent public resistance to evaluation and accountability reads horribly to the general public, and i think it opens the union for unfair criticism on other issues.

the teacher data reports are not helpful or effective, right now, but i think the more appropriate question is how can we develop more accurate measurements that more effectively measure our performance?  as opposed to being outflanked on this issue, i believe the union should lead the drive to establish more hollistic, more comprehensive, more just, and more accurate teacher evaluations.  can statistical evaluations on a flawed exam ever be an accurate base for teacher evaluations?  what would real accountability and real evaluation really look like?

let’s be first in the race next time.  let’s define the terms and lead the way.  why don’t we champion new and progressive and effective education reforms?  why doesn’t the union become synonymous with good teachers and effective instruction?  too often, we’re caught reacting to bad ideas and even worse policy.  too often, we lose credibility and we lose protections because we’re fighting to protect the wrong group.

i’m just sayin’.

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