Saturday, September 11, 2010

Grading the Teachers.

The start of the school year holds a lot of similarities between France and the U.S. but it also underlines huge differences between our two countries in how they see the teaching profession - and no, I am not even talking about the French teachers' strikes -

When I was in California this summer, the Los Angeles Times came up with a series of article on education, but it was not about the grades of the students this time, it was about grading teachers. The series was about "exploring the effectiveness of public schools and individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.". LATimes.

Since I'm a teacher myself, it got my attention.

Here's how the assessment was made:
The reporters requested and received seven years of students’ English and math elementary-school test scores from the school district. The economist then used a statistical technique called value-added analysis to see how much progress students had made, from one year to the next, under different third- through fifth-grade teachers. NYTimes.
Or put it another way , "Value-added modeling"....
... looks at each student's past test performance and uses it to project his or her future performance. The difference between the child's actual and projected results is the estimated "value" that the teacher or school added (or subtracted) during the year. LA Times.

But that was not the end of it, the newspaper actually published a list of names of some of the teachers, along with their value-added performance, they be very good or very bad results, and they eventually released the rankings of all teachers and their rankings in the LA district. That's about 6,000 teachers.

The "value added" score is actually nothing really new, and a few states have even adopted legislation which mandates that teacher evaluation be linked to student test data.
Legislation adopted in states like Colorado, Louisiana and Kentucky and legislation vetoed in Florida follow a template of requiring that teacher evaluation for pay increase, for retaining tenure and ultimately for dismissal must be based 50% or 51% on student “value-added” or “growth” test scores alone. That is, student test score data could make or break a salary increase decision, but could also make or break a teacher’s ability to retain tenure. Schoolfinance.101
This may please a lot of parents with unquenchable worries about their kids' teachers and schools and it will give them a simple tool to measure their kids' teachers' performance but the problem is that it is precisely too simple to be true.

As Kevin Drum pointed out, assessing teachers' performance isn't just hard, it's even harder than any of other professions. I don't want to get too technical here but there are reports (see here or here) that have seriously questioned the methods used in this VA modeling :
VA modeling is not an exact enough methodology to justify identifying individual teachers as “effective” or “ineffective” based solely on a particular VA score. UCLA.
Any teacher will tell you that tests can easily be questionable and it is really hard to make a test that will reflect all the skills necessary in acquiring a certain competence :
While the math and reading California Standards Tests (CSTs) capture some math and reading skills, these tests do not measure the full range of skills, attitudes, and behaviors students should learn over the course of a school year.UCLA.
And I'm not even talking about teachers that may not be so good but may have good VA results because they're teaching to the test.

While I won't deny there is a problem of accountability in the teaching profession- a problem especially acute in France where teachers cannot be fired - assessing most teachers' true performance is impossible. You may have a good idea of the very bad ones, and in my opinion, those should be fired, but the average or even the very good ones are much harder to assess That is because teachers work with complex beings who are very sensitive to anything happening in their lives, including but not exclusively what happens in the classroom with the teachers but also with the other students.

Now of course in this day and age, it seems rather fashionable to model teachers' evaluations after what supposedly happens in the private sector, expect that... it does not :
In truth, although payment for professional employees in the private sector is sometimes related to various aspects of their performance, the measurement of this performance almost never depends on narrow quantitative measures analogous to test scores in education. Rather, private-sector managers almost always evaluate their professional and lower-management employees based on qualitative reviews by supervisors; quantitative indicators are used sparingly and in tandem with other evidence. Management experts warn against significant use of quantitative measures for making salary or bonus decisions. EPI Report.

Kevin Drums states the obvious: "teachers work alone in a classroom, and they're usually observed only briefly and by one person. And their output — well-educated students — is almost impossible to measure.".

The thing is that students, and especially children and teenagers cannot be reduced to commodities or mere products that one can fashion one way or the other. They are complex beings..... very complex.

I can't help feeling sorry for those teachers whose names were made public by the L.A. Times but this should not come as a surprise in a country that has so little regard for teachers anyway. I once considered teaching in the U.S. but I am now so glad I changed my mind. Between the pressure of the parents, the politics of school boards and their sometimes biased decisions, the neon-lit classrooms with no windows in many schools.... and the overall despise of many Americans, it is a very hard profession to have. Of course, this is no surprise in a country which values jobs according to the money you make. It is really too bad since after all, teachers play an important role, even if not exactly measurable, in the well-being of the next generations and the future of the country.

1 comment:

themanbehindthecurtain said...

One of the teachers named on that list committed suicide because of it. Even without the teacher killing himself, its still irresponsible journalism. Teachers should be able to grade parents. See how that goes over.