Tag Archives: teachers

New TEA teacher evaluation plan flawed?

Having read “TEA teacher evaluation plan flawed”  by Gary G. Godsey, I did some research to discover what the state of Texas had gotten itself into this time. Basically, local school districts will have the opportunity to evaluate teachers in a new system that includes 20% of the score for student achievement on state tests. That achievement will be determined by a Value Added Model (VAM) when appropriate, which the state of Texas noted would only apply for 25% of its teachers. The primary issues center around whether it is reasonable to rate teachers on student test scores from the high stakes STAAR exams and whether the VAM is actually an effective or fair measure of student growth. I am including some thoughts below.

1. Many teachers do not approve of the STAAR exams as effective or fair measurements for student learning, so how could you expect support for using those exam results to evaluate teacher performance?

a. As a math teacher, I understand that when students can’t read, they perform poorly on the math tests, which is not necessarily a reflection of their math ability. If the tests are not measuring students’ learning accurately, how can that be used to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness?

2. If all teachers are not evaluated on the same system, there is already a reason to abandon the system. I can argue both sides of this idea. Why should I be evaluated with the VAM when 75% of my peers are not? Why can’t I be evaluated with a VAM?

3. The quote, “run them through complex mathematical equations,” tells me a few things. Most importantly that the designers of the model do not want those involved with the applications of that model to know what is going on.

a. Teachers will not understand how they are being evaluated. Common teachers, as well as most adults, are challenged by higher mathematics, let alone mysterious complexities in equations.

b. Administrators will not understand how they are going to be evaluating teachers, either.

c. The state appears to want mystery to be the guiding principal for revealing ambiguous information that will not be justified and can be statistically skewed to report anything they want. If they want to say teachers are doing great according to VAM, they will be able to. Likewise, they can report the opposite. They will be able to do this because “complex mathematical equations” means pretty much no one will have a clue as to the intricacies of the calculations.

d. I have seen “complex mathematical equations” that the state has used for other things, such as TAKS testing, even though they do not make these easily accessible or allow for evaluation of their equations. My understanding of many VAMs is that they refuse to allow others to see their models and indicate that there are multiple models available for various situations. It is also highly questionable whether competing VAMs would indicate the same performance reviews in the same situations.

4. On the VAM side, teachers should stop complaining about that “one kid” who will have a bad day and do poorly on the state exam. The VAMs I have read about supposedly take an average of many aspects and would not be severely skewed by one child. Thus, the argument becomes, “my entire class had a bad day.” Then, teachers will sound a little silly.

5. Also on the VAM side, if it were possible to see that Mr. X not only had horrible results for state testing with this year’s class, but every class over the last five years, this information should be valuable. On top of that, what if the other aspects of his evaluations show him to be a poor teacher, and attempts to improve him through professional development have achieved nothing. At that point, aren’t we doing more of a disservice to not only the last 5-6 years of students but future multitudes of students as well by not removing this teacher from his assignment? A better education for all students is a valid argument for teacher evaluation, and complaints about VAM in this regard would be less impactful.

6. Because VAM is generally based on previous test scores, more scores equates to a better model. Therefore, if 3rd grade is your first testing year, 3rd grade teachers should NOT be evaluated with VAM. 4th grade teachers are probably in the same boat as they only have one year to build a model from. What is a sufficient number of previous test results before VAM is actually valid? [These points emphasize the claim that only 25% of teachers will be evaluated with the VAM.]

a. A corollary to the previous point would be when a math student enters high school. Test results from previous years do not necessarily lead towards the “new” mathematical study of Algebra. Furthermore, Geometry is completely different than Algebra. Great Algebra students can perform poorly in Geometry and vice versa. These are just examples. Simply put, the VAM may not make much sense as a straightforward continuation of studies to be tested in the next grade. Additionally, since Algebra is the only tested subject in Texas high schools, the vast majority of math teachers could not be evaluated with this system.

b. Similarly, how do you create a VAM result for U.S. History when the kids have not been evaluated in social studies for at least two years and never for U.S. History content?

7. Similarly, teachers need to have accumulated data on which to compare themselves. So, first year teachers should not be evaluated with a VAM. Like the previous point, how long will a teacher need to have been teaching before the VAM is valid?

8. If the VAM system relies on randomized student placement in teachers’ classrooms, there is a problem with the model as this is rarely the case in any school system.

9. I have read that VAMs consider a massive amount of data that can vary from situation to situation. Additionally, they fill in missing gaps with best guesses. Anyone with any knowledge of statistical analysis knows that the more variables involved in an equation, the more challenging it is to determine what the results mean and which variable is causing the results in each situation. I am not saying it is impossible, but a large number of variables in an equation about raw materials in business, for example, would be more likely to produce a usable result than the variables involved with the tremendously complex realities of human beings.

Having read up on VAMs and seen the impressive controversial debates, I am concerned about teachers receiving poor evaluations or being fired based on highly variable, convoluted results. With only one-fourth of teachers even qualifying for VAM evaluation and the other 75% being evaluated with district-by-district and course-by-course varying measures, I would recommend that Texas does not implement the new teacher evaluation system. I envision lawsuit after lawsuit (already happening in Houston ISD). I know that they will implement it, and the federal government will continue to push for it, but I thought I would get my two cents worth out there.

The following are the best reads I found. mostly opposed to VAMs [incidentally, the information I read in favor of VAMs came primarily from the creators of the VAMs themselves and nowhere else.]:
VAMs and the “Dummies in Charge”
EVAAS’s SAS Inc.: “The Frackers of the Educational World”

 

Judge Rules California Tenure Laws Unconstitutional

Oakland_Court_House_California_USA2I was dismayed to learn of this decision this afternoon and decided that it was worthy of my attention and writing. I will immediately admit that I do not have all the facts and information and have only read three or four pieces on this topic. Let me also preface my comments with the disclosure that I have taught underserved students for the majority of my 18-year teaching career.

According to a CNN article (http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/10/justice/california-teacher-tenure-lawsuit/), “a California judge ruled as unconstitutional Tuesday the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws, saying they keep bad teachers in the classroom and force out promising good ones.” Having taught for a while, I realized I needed a full brush up on tenure.

What is Tenure?

Commonly, the purpose of tenure is to ensure that teachers will not be dismissed for reasons unrelated to their academic performance, such as personal issues with an administrator or school board member, the fact that they make more money than a first year teacher does, the teaching of classic literature that some moms decided is inappropriate for their precious daughters, or pursuit of academic strategies that do not support a rich benefactor of the district. Additionally, a 2008 Time Magazine article (http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1859505,00.html) noted, “In the 1920s, female teachers could be fired for getting married or getting pregnant or (gasp) wearing pants.” Many in education also believe tenure to be a factor in the choice to become a teacher, providing safety and consistency in employment.

Earning tenure.

In the districts that I have worked in, teachers were given two years to prove that they are worthy of being taken off of the provisional (1-year) contract and upgraded to a tenure-type, continuous contract. If they have not shown this level of proficiency in two years, there is a third year in which they can prove it; I believe they are automatically switched to a tenure contract if there is no reason to dismiss them after three provisional years. During the two/three year provisional period, the teacher’s contract can be nonrenewed without extensive cost or proof of ineffectiveness as probationary teachers do not have the same due process as tenured teachers.

The ruling.

The case was developed by an organization that seems to be anti-public education/pro-reform, Students Matter, and is backed by a billionaire reformer. They have also been linked with Michelle Rhee’s Students First organization, which seems to be an anti-teacher and anti-union/pro-reform organization. Students Matter supported nine students suing the state of California because teachers earn tenure too quickly and once they have tenure are nearly impossible to fire. Poor and minority students suffer the most, according to the judge, as “grossly ineffective teachers” work in their schools more often. The Time magazine article highlighted bad teachers saved by tenure: “A Connecticut teacher received a mere 30-day suspension for helping students cheat on a standardized test; one California school board spent $8,000 to fire an instructor who preferred using R-rated movies instead of books; a Florida teacher remained in the classroom for a year despite incidents in which she threw books at her students and demanded they referred to her as ‘Ms. God.’” {Incidentally, I find it interesting that Rhee taped her 8-year-old students’ mouths shut in her first year of teaching.} Arne Duncan supported the judges decision: “At a minimum, …the court decision, if upheld, will bring to California ‘a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve’” (CNN). “An expert called by the defendants estimated there are as many as
8,250 ‘grossly ineffective’ teachers in the state — or up to 3% statewide, the judge said” (CNN).

My opinions.

I cannot stand “grossly ineffective teachers” and have worked with my fair share. I wish there was a fair, easier way to dismiss these teachers. Kids and fellow teachers can easily point to the worst teacher in the building; it baffles my mind to see the administration allow them to continue. For every $100,000, ten year dismissal out there, there are a multitude of options that could have been used to dismiss the teacher more easily. Ultimately, I agree that the worst of the worst should not be able to continue teaching. I have solutions for this dilemma.

I believe it takes about three years in one teaching position to get it figured out. Year one is scary, being an on-your-own (mostly) on-the-job training environment. Year two is developmental. Year three should go swimmingly. Therefore, I would agree to extending California’s tenure beginning to three years. The laws being unconstitutional, however, seems to be a stretch to me. If those laws are unconstitutional, then all tenure and firing protection laws could easily be argued as unconstitutional. This may actually be where this lawsuit is headed in the big picture.

And there my agreement ends. I challenge the motives for the lawsuit based on who is paying for it and the big ideas it seems to support. I do not think charter schools are the answer to all the ills in education; their track record is not that great. That one great charter school you know of down the street is a drop in the bucket of all charter schools. Additionally, removing unions from the American landscape seems to be a flawed path. They came into being for a reason, we should not allow history to repeat itself here. Again, unions are not the issue, but the massive power they have accumulated may be a problem in the other direction. Throwing out babies with bath water is disconcerting.

As cited in the court case, 8,250 teachers (3%) created a need in the judge’s mind to erase the entire system. That seems mathematically illogical. Those teachers ought to indicate a need to change some things around, as I have indicated, not eradicate everything ever created in the world of educational employment. This point actually seems to argue against itself, admitting that 97% of the teachers in the state are at least competent enough to not be included in the statistic. With so many effective teachers performing so well under the umbrella of this system, why would you consider removing the umbrella and getting everyone wet? That type of thinking gives the feel of a knee-jerk reaction.

Every job has grossly ineffective employees: police, politicians, dog trainers, hotel and restaurant employees, etc. They are not all protected by firing policies, and yet the bad ones exist. They do not all earn tenure, and yet the bad ones exist. This is perplexing, to be sure. How would changing the tenure and firing policies lead to better teachers? Training, mentoring, attitude, and experience lead to better teachers. Losing tenure and making it easy to fire teachers will lead to only one thing for certain: less teachers.

Replacing 8,250 teachers would be an incredible challenge, let alone 50,000 (random estimate) when administrators have little challenge to their firings. I am certain that California has a teacher shortage already, which is the main reason bad teachers are allowed to remain. Without enough teachers for the kids, what happens? Overcrowded classrooms and the extensive use of substitutes (less qualified teachers) will become the norm. These poor conditions make all teachers less effective and create a worse job environment. With that having been done, you can look into the eyes of your potential recruits at universities and sob as they laugh in your face because they would rather do ANYTHING but become a teacher in such a repressive environment. Tenure for teachers is one of the few things you can rely on as a 20-year-old deciding on a career. Honestly, school board policies, state boards of education, and the federal government already infringe enough on educational ideas such as homework policies, state testing accountability for teachers, and the teaching of controversial topics in science and history. Speaking mathematically, teachers, regardless of research, personal philosophy, or personal effectiveness, are already heavily influenced concerning calculators, memorization of facts, and algorithmic vs. conceptual approaches to math instruction. The more reasons we have in this country for young men and women not  to go into education, the worse this country will become.

And let me lastly address the concern for the poor and minority students. In reality, this is a governmental/social issue and should truly be addressed. Tenure or not, old firing policies or new, poor and minority kids living in worse neighborhoods with less of the benefits of living in this great nation will have worse schools and worse teachers. They also have worse medical care, worse police and fire protection, and worse McDonald’s. This decision will do nothing to improve California education, in my opinion, but it will work to further destroy American public education as a whole. This is most likely the intent, anyway, and is sad.

 

What Happened to Fran?

tornadoFran’s voice rang out like a gunshot amidst a large, crowded room. With the turmoil surrounding Texas math education and the plethora of data I was collecting in this focus group interview with six Algebra 2 teachers, I was suffering from information overload. At this early stage in my data collection process for my doctoral dissertation, every new statement added to the tornado of statistics, facts, and emotions swirling in my neophyte brain.

I was fighting to maintain my professional demeanor; meanwhile, I was giddy as these teachers not only wanted to participate in my study, but they had a lot of great quotes and thoughts about my research concerns. But then, like the turning point in a great thriller, Fran responded, and I sensed the chills scaling my spine as I realized, “This just got real.”

In attempting to discover the professional opinions of Algebra 2 teachers concerning the changing math landscape, my interview questions encompassed the Algebra-for-All movement, college versus workplace preparation, tracking, the 4×4 Recommended High School Plan (RHSP), graduation rates, and the impact on individual teachers’ teaching environments. Concerning the impact on teachers of the policy positions of the state of Texas, I asked about the panel’s desire to continue teaching high school mathematics. Their answers were contemplative but measured with a determination to remain in the profession despite the enormous challenges and silent agreement in spite of the policymakers. Fran dissented, however, as she spoke honestly with piercing, young eyes stopping and starting, “Yes… The things that we’ve talked about have… me wavering on whether I do want to teach… high school math anymore.”

I had already shifted my young research mind from wanting to prove my point as the impetus for getting a doctorate to wanting to truly find out what teachers believed. Now, my purpose shifted again from wanting to discover teachers’ opinions to needing to tell their story. I realized at that point that the voices of the teachers I would come into contact with along the way were significantly unknown, and their yearning to be heard was often emotionally overpowering. Ultimately, at least I heard their voices; my belief is that their professional opinions should matter to policy makers.

 Interacting with ten teachers at two separate high schools in two focus group interviews; ninety-one respondents to a lengthy online questionnaire; and three individuals during in-depth interviews, I discovered that these Algebra 2 teachers were optimistic about the potential impact of Algebra 2 on all students but were pessimistic regarding the realities of Texas’s expectations for all students. The teachers revealed a number of interesting opinions: graduation rates would probably be negatively affected by graduation and math requirements; Algebra for all was unlikely to be successful because students were generally unprepared for Algebra 1, let alone Algebra 2, and this level of mathematics is overwhelming for many students; honest assessment reveals that all students will not be going to college; high schools ought to work harder at developing alternative paths to graduation for children; requirements involving Algebra 2 need to be reevaluated; a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail; the RHSP is not having the expected positive impact on students or education; tracking is valuable and should be expanded for mathematics while being purposefully monitored to emphasize and maximize success; recent changes were not improving student learning or opportunities for postsecondary endeavors: and, lastly,  more than one-third of the participants had a lessened desire to teach math.

In the end, the doctoral study process was powerful and enlightening. I found that consensus on most issues is difficult to achieve, but the Algebra 2 teachers in my study were passionate and informed members of the educational community who felt that their input was seriously undervalued by decision makers. I am hopeful that I am able to get some of their sentiments into the ears of governmental leaders, which may lead to positive social changes. I have received a lot of great feedback so far from those I have communicated my results to, with one explosively loud exception; when I e-mailed the executive summary of my dissertation to Fran early the following school year, the e-mail was returned with a delivery failure indicating she no longer worked in her previous position. I wonder if Fran will be an example or a trend.question mark

Full dissertation (Teachers’ Perceptions of State Decision-Making Processes for Mathematics Curricula by Brett Bothwell, Ed. D.) can be found in online databases or at http://gradworks.umi.com/35/44/3544187.html.

Student Performance Determines Teacher Success – Fair or Not?

The primary difficulty I have with student performance determining teacher performance is that natural ability seems to play a role in this phenomenon. My experience as a teacher for sixteen years has shown me a few things.

  • I taught 8th graders in an affluent district with kids who had always been successful on our state tests. Parents ran the school with an administration that let kids get away with almost anything for fear of parent interference, the principal was fired (actually promoted to the district offices), and the students did not seem to learn as well as I would have liked. I worked hard that year trying to get 8th grade math into their brains, but did not feel as successful as I had in the past or in the future with that endeavor. In the end, almost all of my students passed the state test that year.
  • I taught Pre-AP Algebra 2 students for four years. I had virtually 100% pass the state tests year after year.
  • I have taught in a dropout recovery program for the last six years. The state test has become easier, and I have become better at working with the students over the years. While there are years when there are great successes and times when things do not go as well, we are still able to get about 80% of the students to eventually pass the state tests. These are mostly kids who would have skipped the state tests at their home campus or failed, some with a record of failing the state math test every single year since they started taking the tests (usually third grade). My feeling is that every kid that passes should be a celebration, but if I happen to run into a semester with a 50% failing rate (which will eventually become 80% or so), that could be devastating to my performance review.

The second issue I have stems from the preceding information. Why would I want to work with the most challenging students to find some success when I could simply work with the best kids in the best districts and cruise through state testing results regardless of how much education was going on? Teachers will fight for the best kids in the best districts. Teachers will fight to get rid of kids on their rosters who have shown a lack of success over the years. Teachers will lie, cheat, and steal to give the appearance of student learning through a state test, especially in lower grades where science and social studies are not tested, for example. How does the fifth grade teacher who is responsible for kids passing a science test for the first time deal with the fact that the third and fourth grade teachers did not teach science to focus on math, which was being tested? Why would I share my teaching strategies that have shown success with my peers (competitors) because my successes will improve my chances of getting the better classes and not helping the other teachers will help weed them out? Why would I help a new teacher who is essentially trying to get my job when I have a track record of success with the GT kids?

Ultimately the only fair way to assess teachers’ effectiveness through student learning is to be able to determine exactly what each student has learned in the past, determine exactly what knowledge and skills have been added purely from that teacher’s efforts, and compare each students potential to the realization of that potential each year. I am pretty sure none of that is possible, let alone through a mostly multiple choice state test given on one day of the year.

Bad teachers

We have all had good teachers and bad teachers. Most people clearly remember the horrible teachers and the fantastic teachers; there is a strange, easily identifiable, innate sense that these teachers are super or terrible. So why is it so difficult to determine where on the scale of terrible to fantastic teachers fall?

There is a current dilemma facing the world of education that is affecting teacher preparation programs, unions, and the upstart charter school programs: Bad teachers are keeping their jobs and not being forced to improve. One problem I have identified with this situation is, What exactly defines a bad teacher? It is certainly a far cry from the evaluation of students or parents, as my career experience has taught me that passing students are generally happy students (same for parents) (often, the same for administrators).

Which of these do you think defines a bad teacher?

  • When a teacher breaks local, state, or federal laws?
  • When a teacher is unprepared to educate students (no or virtually useless lesson plans, for example)?
  • When a teacher is unable to accurately assess student achievement?
  • When a teacher is not a master of the content and/or actively working to master the content that s/he is teaching?
  • When a teacher is incapable of managing the discipline in a classroom?
  • When a teacher does not love children?
Of those you choose from above, which are forgivable, in that the teacher should be offered professional development and mentorship to improve in that area and which are grounds for immediate termination? Furthermore, what amount of assistance should be offered and for how long should s/he be allowed to continue teaching?

A few additional questions worth pondering for this situation:

  • Who should determine which are the good/bad teachers? (Who should determine that those people are doing their jobs correctly?)
  • Is it better to assume teachers are good or bad until a preponderance of evidence might lead to their termination?
  • What responsibility do administrators hold in placing teachers in situations that lead to their failing to be successful, such as forcing a teacher that is good with K-2 kids to work in 4th grade because there is a greater need in that grade?
  • If there is little or no administrative support at the school or district level, how much responsibility can be placed on the teacher?

Please do not be so naive to think that just signing up to be a teacher means you can teach all kids all subjects (and all sub-subjects, such as Economics is a subset of Social Studies) at all levels under almost any circumstances at almost any time.

There are bad teachers and there are good teachers. What suggestions do you have for identifying them correctly and responding to their identification?