2011-03-25 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Evaluating Teachers Is Not As Easy As It Looks
Commentary By Howard Schwach

When I was young, or reasonably so, I taught for a while in a small Connecticut community called Portland. It was east of the river, as they say in the Nutmeg State, and there were about 6,000 people in the town altogether. There were two elementary schools, a junior high school and a high school.

It was 1979, and the school superintendent made $23,000 a year. Since there was no union, each teacher negotiated a salary and benefits with the superintendent and the school board and each contract was for one year duration.

I believe that I made about $12,000 a year as a learning facilitator in an experienced based career education program.

The powers that be on the school board decided that the system needed a merit pay system for teachers.

Seven of the nine school board members were engineers at Pratt and Whitney, an aircraft engine manufacturer only 20 miles away in East Hartford.

They had a merit pay system at their aircraft engine plant, and they figured that it would be relatively easy to transfer the philosophy of that system to the schools.

Basically, at Pratt and Whitney, the more engines a team produced and the less accidents or other glitches it had, the more it earned.

Simple: Number of engines manufactured each week minus accidents and glitches equals pay.

The board worked for the six years that I was in the system working out the details, and they never got it to the point where it could be presented to the community, nonetheless be implemented.

They quickly found out that students were not airplane engines.

While all the workers at Pratt and Whitney started out with basically a level playing field – the same engine parts and facilities, teachers did not.

Teachers at one of the elementary schools – the one “under the bridge” dealt mostly with the only minority population in town who lived in the one state housing complex. They were mostly poor and way behind in skills. The teachers at the other end of town dealt mostly with the engineer’s kids and those of doctors, attorneys and store owners.

There was no level playing field and the board could never figure out how to make a merit plan work when the “raw material” at one school was so different from the others.

That sounds a lot like the “Value Added” plan that Bloomberg, Klein and Black are trying to implement in New York City.

That mathematical formula takes into account such variables as student scores, student characteristics, true total classroom effect, classroom participation indicator, school participation indicator, student test term and district participation indicator.

Add it all up, and you get a value added grade for each teacher.

If the value added grade is good, the teacher earns more and gets tenure. If not, then the teacher is terminated.

Simple? Too bad it doesn’t work in the real world.

Michael Winerip, writing his “On Education” column in the New York Times in on March 7, did an in depth study of the value added plan.

The headline on his findings: “Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie.”

Winerip focused on one young teacher, Stacey Isaaccon, who teaches at the Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies.

She works from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, worked one day a week for free when she was on maternity leave, and gets the highest reviews from her principals and her peers.

The school has selective admissions, and in her first year of teaching, 65 of her 66 students achieved “proficient” on the ELA test, meaning that they got 3’s or 4’s on the test. More than two dozen of her students have gone on to the elite high schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

There is one problem.

The value added mathematics show that she is a bad teacher.

She ranks in the seventh percentile of all teachers, meaning that 93 percent of the teachers in the city are better than she is, if you believe the value added mathematics.

Because she is in the seventh percentile, she was told that she would not get tenure when she comes up for it this year.

If the mayor and the governor get their way, she will lose her job for being a poor teacher.

Although she loves teaching, and, based on her evaluations, she is an excellent teacher, she plans to leave teaching and to go back to advertising, a successful career she left to become a teacher because she loved working with kids.

Everyone who teaches English or Mathematics has received a teacher data report from the DOE.

Isaacson’s students had a prior proficiency score of 3.57. They were predicted to have a score of 3.69, based on scores of comparable students around the city. Her students actually scored 3.63.

So, her value added score was 3.63- 3.69. She was minus 0.06.

Bad teacher. The math says so. Off with her head.

Drive her from the profession. Wipe her from the obelisks. So let it be written, so let it be done.

In response to the Times article, John Browne wrote a letter to the paper. A former teacher and an instructor at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, Browne wrote, “I had the good fortune to have had Stacey as a student and to have been involved in her student teaching experience. She is an extraordinary person and an exceptional teacher. To deny her tenure would be a bizarre injustice.

“George W. Bush had his Texas Miracle in education which proved to be a fraud. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former chancellor Joel Klein had their test score miracle, which has proved to be just as false.

“Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has followed their lead with misleading promises. The result is technocrats at the helm and the teacher’s voice stilled.

“How can teachers be effectively evaluated? How about asking them for their ideas?”

The state legislature has bought into the value added formula to evaluate teachers.

They are the ones who gave us Bloomberg and mayoral control.

They need to do their homework before voting for value added, and I suggest they start with the New York Times.

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