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Sabotage as a Professional Responsibility

Valerie Strauss has a great guest post on her Answer Sheet blog from NY principal Carol Burris, who argues that new teacher evaluations incorporating student test scores are in fact harming students. She explains that principals are now reassigning students to prevent great teachers from repeatedly receiving low scores:

Some principals stated that they would change their teacher's assignment next year and assign them less needy students so that they could protect these excellent teachers from the ineffective rating. The unintended consequences to students are beginning.

New York principals appear to have numerous concerns about the new evaluation rules, which of course were implemented as part of New York's Race to the Top application. These concerns are outlined in a position paper, which was recently updated now that the first round of scores and ratings are available. More than 1/3 of the principals in New York State have signed the position paper, a fact of which policymakers should take note.

One factoid that's being tossed around is that teachers only contribute to 10-15% of the variance in student test scores. Diane Ravitch has been repeating this figure frequently, and lots of people cite Diane Ravitch, but I did find it in a this 2005 paper (which cites a paper in a 2002 volume that Ravitch edited). I'm not sure how much research is behind this figure, or how disputed it remains, but no amount of statistical athleticism can turn "teachers make a difference" into "teachers control outcomes" when we're only talking about a 15% contribution.

Burris wonders:

How can an evaluation system in which the evaluators themselves have little faith possibly be productive? The question is, what will we collectively, and individually as school leaders do?

I'm not sure I fully agree with her rhetorical point—that systemic change in a profession can't succeed without the full cooperation of the professionals involved—because I've seen so many examples to the contrary in other professions (check out Atul Gawande's books on improvement in medicine and you'll see what I mean). We often have to be dragged kicking and screaming into best practice.

But I do think Burris is on to something here, and it's that front-line professionals—teachers and principals—have extraordinary power to sabotage ill-conceived reforms. As she notes, this is now happening. It's a completely rational response, even though it's not very good for kids.

If I have a superstar 3rd grade teacher who is getting dinged because of low test scores, I can swap that teacher to 2nd grade for a year so there are no standardized test scores for her class. If that's not an option, I can monkey with the class configuration so that she shares responsibility for students with several other teachers, so the formulas are impossible to apply to individual teachers. Or I can have her teach something else altogether. I can do all of this and more, to ensure that none of my teachers end up with a score that is going to harm them professionally.

Of course, all of this monkeying is disruptive, and that means it's probably bad for kids. But it's also bad for kids to fire great teachers for stupid reasons that are linked to their performance only according to arcane and untested statistical formulas.

So we educators get to say "This isn't working—see how many problems it's causing?" and this is ultimately easier than convincing legislators and the public that the math is bad. It's a brilliant move, and one that policymakers should have anticipated.

It may be possible to implement reforms in spite of rather than with educators, but you can't expect great results when money and political will, rather than evidence, are the drivers of those reforms. Professionals need to hear evidence from the field, not just political rhetoric.

Via Larry Ferlazzo

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