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John Thompson: The Center for American Progress Pushes the Good, Bad and Ugly in Teacher Evaluation: Part 1

Guest post by John Thompson. Part One of Two.

The Center For American Progress (CAP) is a progressive think tank founded by former Clinton staffer John Podesta. The CAP believes, "progressives are idealistic enough to believe change is possible and practical enough to make it happen." It thus collaborates with funders ranging from the liberal George Soros to Walmart to push the Obama Administration's agenda.

The Center For American Progress has published another report justifying the firing of teachers today, based on statistical models that may some day become valid. "Designing High Quality Evaluation Systems for High School Teachers," by John Tyler, recounts the standard reasons why of educators do not trust high-stakes test-driven algorithms, and even contributes a couple of new insights into problems that are unique to high school test scores. An urban teacher reading Tyler's evidence would likely conclude that he has written an ironclad indictment of value-added models for high-stakes purposes. But, as is usually true of CAP's researchers, he concludes that the work of economists in improving value-added models is so impressive that education will benefit from their experiments if educators don't blow it.

One limitation of value-added models, Tyler writes, is that it provides no information to the teacher as to why he or she had a low ranking. But with inner city neighborhood schools, neither do those models provide information as to whether the result was due to the teacher's ineffectiveness or district policies that created intense concentrations of generational poverty that often make it impossible to enforce attendance, disciplinary, or academic standards.

Tyler then observes, "There is also concern that if value-added-based evaluations are used for highstakes decisions, then teachers will have the incentive to 'teach to the test'" or to cheat. Value-added models could incentivize "teachers to encourage their lowest-performing students to either drop out of school or drop the course." (Emphasis mine) That is like blaming teachers for the unintended effects of NCLB, not the administrations that ordered the narrowing of the curriculum, rampant test prep, and teacher-proof rote instruction - or the policy makers who passed the law knowing that it would make those practices inevitable.

Tyler agrees that "the value-added research community is in the early stages of developing and testing models that attempt to address the lack of direct predictors (pretests) in high school." Even so, he asserts without evidence or logic that theoretical research is so "impressive with great strides having been made with many districts and states" that the issue is "how, not whether, to use value-added as one factor in evaluating their high school teachers."

One of the issues that Tyler mentions and then brushes off is education's "dismal record in effectively using technology. If teacher evaluation is to have the impact envisioned by many, we may not be able to afford to follow this pattern." He also cites a study by Battelle for Kids showing that 26% of the time, districts could not even assign the correct students for the correct teachers!

Tyler acknowledges that it is, "unlikely that there will be black and white answers as to what is the 'right' value-added model a district should use to evaluate high school teachers." Considering the inability of many systems to even link the right students with the right teachers, that is an extreme understatement. Also, such a disclaimer is cold comfort for teachers whose careers will be destroyed by districts that chose the "wrong" model. What happens to inner city teachers, for instance, whose districts find it politically inexpedient to control for poverty when creating their models? What about districts that are already attaching high stakes to one year of data, even though such a practice may about as accurate as a coin flip?

Tyler's asserts, probably correctly, that value-added models can provide useful information in systems that take a "holistic approach" when solving problems that have bedeviled education for decades, such as aligning an appropriate curriculum. "Districts on the leading edge of this work understand that using value-added to evaluate high school teachers requires thinking about testing and data issues in a coherent and systematic way." In other words, he is not addressing the actual circumstances of the vast majority of urban school systems.

I have no reason to doubt the quality of any single piece of evidence that Tyler presents, but neither do I understand his logic. He suggests that "putting teacher evaluation front burner in a district can change the way teachers talk about their craft." Would it not make more sense to focus directly on fostering better conversations on teaching and learn?

Tyler's paper reads as if he, and other economists, are frustrated that teachers won't buy into their theories that, to borrow the mathematicians' word, just seem so "sweet." Tyler's wording seems indicative of the most important rationale for test-driven accountability. Tyler concludes, "just because it may be hard to develop value-added measures for all high school teachers in a district, districts should not use this as an excuse to forgo value-added evaluation ..." (Emphasis mine.) But neither does it make sense to use those measures because doing so is hard enough to provide a challenge for the theorists.

One state introduced its experiment in firing teachers using a not-ready-for-prime-time statistical model with a cartoon of mechanics building an airplane while it is in flight. Economists like Tyler would not abide with such disrespect being dumped on their profession. They would not be so cavalier about forcing doctors to act today on information that may or may not prove to be valid. Neither would they be so dismissive of teachers judgments if they sent their own kids to the inner city schools that, to cite Tyler's own words, face the likelihood of, "spending valuable class time on test-taking techniques or focusing on responses to specific, expected questions" which "is teaching that does not promote real and lasting learning gains."

What do you think? Why is it that liberals have chosen teachers to scapegoat? Is it an effort to reach out to corporate powers? Or are they just divorced from the realities in schools?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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