Demeaning the teachers


To much fanfare, and an equal amount of hand-wringing, the city has released the results of a pilot teacher evaluation system which reveals, by name, what is purported to be the relative performance of teachers using a value-added assessment.

As supporters of the release of the data rejoice, we predict that this may well be the last time such data is collected in this way or released in New York. It is just too unreliable and subject to manipulation at every step along the way. Even supporters of “reform” are queasy over the use of the data this way. A backlash seems to be taking hold.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who has turned to philanthropic support of education reform efforts, has criticized the release of this data.

Writing in the New York Times last Thursday, Mr. Gates opined, “publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.”

While most of us would like educators to be evaluated in some reliable objective way, what has been demonstrated in New York City shows how difficult this is. The papers trotted out the high scorers, many of whom debunked the program under which they were being lauded. The tabloids also put the heads of the low scoring educators on spikes, with angry calls for their dismissal. Should we be so quick to accept these scores as accurate, and be willing to demonize individuals by name?

This round of tests in particular shows the weaknesses of the system. Included among them are tests that the State Education Department has already acknowledged were grossly inflated. The city has admitted that the margin of error in their calculations is especially high. How can we allow teachers, who arguably do a very tough job under the best of circumstances, to be demonized by faulty data? Now that the pressure is on, things will surely get worse.

As long as tests have been given, people have found ways to cheat. But in the past, it has usually been the students who have been doing the cheating. This was usually simple stuff, copying answers from the “smart” kid in the next seat, or a student scribbling formulas onto the palm of his hand for quick reference during the exam.

It was the students who did the cheating because they perceived that they had something to gain. As the purpose of testing moves from diagnosing student academic strengths and weaknesses to rating teachers, principals and schools, cheating has taken on a more sinister flavor. It is adults who now derive benefit or sanction and, as predicted by Campbell’s Law, cheating is on the rise.

Sociologist Donald T. Campbell wrote in 1976 that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Campbell specifically applied his principle to testing of students. “When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they … lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”

This is exactly what has happened in many districts, such as Atlanta, GA, where the highly regarded superintendent resigned in disgrace, and perhaps also in Washington, D.C., where the improved scores under resigned education reform icon Michelle Rhee are now under investigation. We have no reason to believe that New York is immune from the laws of human nature.

It can be argued that, perhaps by design, test security here has deteriorated in recent years, providing incentives to educators at every level to try and game the now high stakes system.

The old much-maligned Board of Ed mandated a policy that on days standardized tests were administered, a representative from the local district would be dispatched to each and every school to oversee the testing process. This individual would monitor the unpacking of the cartons, breaking of shrink-wrap, and distribution of tests to classrooms. They would make certain that any instructional materials on display in classrooms were covered or removed.

While the exam was being administered, the district representative would tour the building, making sure hallway security was maintained and spot-checking the testing process in individual classrooms. When the exam was concluded, attention was shifted to the rapid collection of test materials and the secure delivery of those materials to the district office.

This policy initially continued under mayoral control by the then newly formed regional offices. But as the regional staffs were shrunk and testing took on greater influence, the policy was discontinued.

Security surrounding testing serves two purposes. First is to actually “catch” cheating as it occurs. But more importantly, the knowledge that there was an independent monitor watching the process was a powerful weapon in helping to keep teachers and principals from succumbing to temptation.

There is a pervasive sense today that scores need to raised, and by any means necessary. In some cases this is being interpreted literally, too literally. The release of these scores and the public humiliations will only encourage more abuse looking forward. After all, who wants their name on the front page of the tabloids?

If we are to use the tests to evaluate teachers, they must be universally accepted as true and accurate measures. Ours fall short. And if we’re administering such tests, not only should the old test monitoring procedures be restored here in New York, but the city and state should insist on the analysis of erasures and use of statistical programs that can flag unusual patterns of right and wrong answers within a classroom or a school.

It was this methodology that uncovered a cheating scandal some years back in Chicago, courageously applied then by the superintendent there, a fellow named Arne Duncan. Some lost their jobs after hard evidence of cheating was found.

We are investing precious billions in the education of our children, and deserve to get true and accurate data, not just screaming headlines in the tabloids. Our teachers and our children deserve better.

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