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School-Performance Measure or School-Income Measure?

How do you quantify the educational improvement of a student whose family is prevented from being homeless? Can you capture the impact of a in-school day-care center on a new mother's GPA?

Community schools in Baltimore are working hard to keep their students on track for graduation, and they've recently received national honors for their work. However, teachers in community schools lost several points on their end of year evaluations because of a low School Performance Measure—a data point that calculates a school's effectiveness to the second decimal place. We're trusting quantitative data farther than we should when we try to boil a school's performance down to a single number.

As part of a new multiple-measure evaluation in my district, each teacher receives a school-wide School Performance Measure, which, along with observation and student-achievement data, makes up a teacher's evaluation grade. When teachers in my district were told about the SPM, we were assured that its calculations would accurately measure school progress. Nonetheless, teachers were concerned that comparisons between schools would result in high-achieving schools getting high SPMs, and low scores for everyone else. Not so, we were told. The math was a little too complicated to explain, we were told, but schools would be compared to other schools with similar populations, and a formula based on multiple inputs would accurately weigh each school's ability to meet it's students' needs.

Fast forward to the end of the year, and the data is in, and it's precisely what teachers feared and predicted. At the city's most selective high schools, SPMs range from 90 to 100. At schools with a higher proportion of low-income students, the numbers are significantly lower. The SPM is calculated based on factors like SAT participation and the percent of parents who return the school survey, so it's now wonder that high-poverty schools would get a lower score. Meanwhile, teachers at such schools are being unfairly penalized for factors beyond their control. At a teacher's union meeting I asked a district official about the correlation between poverty and a low SPM, and he responded that he was disappointed that I didn't believe that low-income students could achieve.

Furthermore, the SPM is a lagging indicator, which means that data from 13-14 was used to create the SPM numbers for teachers evaluations in school year 14-15. Measuring school progress this way is fundamentally at odds with Baltimore's recent commitment to community schools, because a community school model works to create long-term change in chronically under-served communities. Not only is the "data" incomplete at telling the story of a school's progress, it's a year out of date.

Teachers are rational actors. Highly skilled teachers are in demand, and are needed in high-poverty schools. Few teachers would willingly enter a challenging environment where it becomes harder to earn positive evaluations. In my district this is especially true because salary increases are tied to evaluation scores. The current SPM formula disincentivizes teachers from working with the students who need them the most, and it's a ridiculous step backwards that plainly hurts low-income students.  

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