Teachers Must Get the Facts Out and Support Smart Evaluation, Pay and Tenure Reform

February 17, 2011

These days teachers find themselves swept up in the cross currents of an education debate about how to evaluate and pay teachers that is more polarizing and ugly by the day. Some days the debate generates much more heat than light, and this topic is greatly in need of illumination. Without at doubt, change is needed. The single salary schedule, which mandates the same salaries for teachers regardless of field, creates shortages of math, science, and special education teachers, and prevents some of the best from entering teaching. It makes sense for “star” teachers to earn more at the same level of experience. Tenure ought not to endlessly protect teachers who end up performing poorly or worse. Yet, that doesn’t mean that every proposed solution is a good idea; and some could turn things from bad to worse. Teachers should take the lead in helping the public understand their jobs and what works. For example, explaining how teaching is not just a matter of each teacher in her own classroom working independently and the many ways in which test scores really don’t capture all that is important about a child’s education.

The most recent example in need of illumination is a proposal released this week by New Jersey’s acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. I find the basic ideas he proposes a pretty good list: more nuanced evaluations of teachers, no moving poorly performing teachers into “less important” teaching positions rather than out of schools altogether, and more clear reliance on supervisor observations and children’s learning to evaluate teachers. Doing this well is not going to be easy, however. Simply calling for teachers to be judged on value-added (VA) evaluations won’t do the job. Broadly speaking, VA calls for using student test scores in deciding how well teachers are doing. This approach has already become policy in some districts and it is beginning to affect which teachers stay, which teachers go, and whether they get a raise. Yet it is highly questionable whether any progress in improving the teacher corps can be made the way that VA is currently done. Too much depends on the children assigned to the teacher and our ability to correctly estimate the teacher’s contribution is far too weak. It matters who else teaches in the same school. First- and second-year teachers are early works in progress and their trajectory matters as much as the level of their performance.

The move to VA teacher evaluation across the country appears to be driven more by political agendas dedicated to blaming teachers and their unions rather than finding effective solutions. I don’t know what else could explain the way VA’s proponents gloss over the fact that as currently implemented it is built on a shaky scientific foundation. However, given this problem it seems likely that public servants like New Jersey’s Commissioner have not been fully informed about the limitations, presenting an opportunity for more illumination to benefit the policy debate.

The VA method calls for estimating through analyses of standardized test scores how much any given teacher helps or hinders the academic progress of students. The Los Angeles Times drew national attention to VA evaluation in a series in which an economist paid by the newspaper rated elementary school teachers according to this method, using a detailed set of data from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Based on this work, the Times then published a 6,000-name list of teachers and their ratings.

Enter the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. Researchers there analyzed the work done at the Times’ behest and found that, while the VA model yielded different outcomes for different teachers, it did not tell them whether those outcomes measured what is important (teacher effectiveness) or something else, such as whether students benefited from other learning resources outside of school. One way to test the validity of the VA model is to investigate whether using it, a student’s future teacher would appear to have an effect on a student’s test performance in the past — something that is impossible in the world most of us inhabit. They found that future teachers did indeed affect the past learning of students, especially in reading, indicating the VA model is faulty. Read the rest of this entry »


Will New Jersey Gut Its Abbott Preschool Program? Or, How to Ruin Absolutely Everything

February 4, 2011

New Jersey Republicans are floating a proposal to cut the state’s highly effective Abbott Preschool Program from a full day of services to half a day. This, they say, would free up about $300 million in school funding that could be “more equitably” disbursed statewide.  As is so often the case with such figures, the math is wrong—the plan might free up $150 million, but that is the least of the proposal’s problems.

They justify their proposal on the basis that the Abbott v. Burke V court decision did not specifically require the state to provide a full day of pre-K in order to provide a thorough and efficient education. Indeed, the justices wrote in 1998 that half a day of pre-K for kids in the state’s disadvantaged districts could represent an “initial reform.” (Emphasis added on the latter.)

It should go without saying that in the intervening years we have learned critical lessons about what it takes to provide disadvantaged kids with the kinds of experiences that enable them to acquire the skills necessary to narrow the achievement gap and enter school ready to learn.  Chief among them is that more is better.  NIEER conducted a randomized trial in the Abbott districts comparing extended-day, extended-year pre-K to the old half-day, school-year model.  The longer day and year had larger effects on test scores than a half-day and these gains persisted.  By first grade, effects of duration were apparent on more complex measures such as reading comprehension and calculation and not just on simple tasks like letter and number recognition.  Other studies show that full-day Abbott preschool delivers high-quality education that significantly raises test scores and reduces school failure.

The Republican proposal would take money from disadvantaged children in the Abbott districts to address problems in New Jersey’s school funding scheme that are not without merit. Districts with a high percentage of senior citizens would get some of the money. So would those that transport children over longer distances or have demonstrated cost efficiencies.  However, the state should address these issues without gutting the Abbott Preschool Program to do it.  One suggestion: forgo the $1 billion dollar voucher bill that would bail out private schools hurt by the recession, but do little to raise test scores.

Backers of the pre-K cut proclaim its virtues based on three principles — equity, efficiency and accountability. It passes none of those tests. The Abbott program was developed to remedy the gap in equity between disadvantaged kids and their more affluent peers. Gutting one of its major components is hardly equitable. Neither does it pass the efficiency test. When kids receive high-quality pre-K such as the Abbott program, the subsequent costs of educating them go down, and the longer term benefits include lower crime rates and a more productive workforce.  Sprinkling the funds freed-up around the rest of the state can’t be shown to produce any comparable returns for the taxpayer — who knows how the funds will be used?  And that brings us to accountability. One must simply ask, “What accountability?”

I subtitled this essay “How to Ruin Absolutely Everything” because it illustrates the kind of state policy making that ruins public education.  Hard evidence on what works and what doesn’t is ignored in favor of wishful thinking, ideology, and special interests.  No studies are conducted to test out new proposals before they are widely implemented.  Financial estimates are put forward that have no basis in reality.

It is a cruel irony that at the same time the proposal to gut the Abbott program surfaced the legislature is rushing to pass a voucher bill that research shows has no hope of significantly improving academic achievement and Governor Christie’s administration has announced a plan for the state to spend as much as $200 million to jump start a stalled Atlantic City casino project from which Morgan Stanley, in its wisdom, bailed out. The governor should insist that his advisors conduct cost/benefit analyses of both the voucher bill and the boardwalk empire plan.  While they are at it they should also run the numbers on the costs and benefits of the state’s investment in the Abbott Preschool Program. If he does, he’ll find the current pre-K program provides a rich return to the public while the other proposals are, as they say, under water.

Steve Barnett

Co-director, NIEER


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