Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Monday, September 6, 2010

Count on this: no easy solutions in the effort to evaluate teachers.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

This quote is usually attributed to Albert Einstein (although I couldn’t find any proof of his writing or saying it). It’s an interesting and valid thought. And it’s often mentioned in the nationwide conversation about teacher performance and test scores.

Last Wednesday’s New York Times contained the story, “When Does Holding Teachers Accountable Go Too Far?” I found it to be a good review of some of the challenges faced by educators who, with budget-driven urgency, are trying anew to determine the best way to evaluate teachers (and, it follows, to better connect performance with compensation). The story’s main focus was the concept of measuring “value-added data” for teachers. This is a statistical technique where student test scores are analyzed, measuring improvement from when a teacher started teaching the student to when he/she completed the year. According to the theory, the change in test scores is a measure of the “value” added by the teacher: more increase = more value added and, it follows, better teaching.

The Los Angeles Times recently analyzed seven years of elementary school test scores and created a ranking of 6,000 teachers. “The newspaper named a few teachers — both stars and laggards — and announced that it would release the approximate rankings for all teachers, along with their names.”

The Los Angeles Times articles got teachers riled up, the union called for a boycott of the paper, but...the union also said, more calmly, that they’re willing to discuss making such scores at least a part of teachers’ evaluations. That’s encouraging.

The critics of value-added data point to some real limitations. According to the NY Times, “scores can bounce around from year to year for any one teacher...so a single year of scores — which some states may use for evaluation — can be misleading. In addition, students are not randomly assigned to teachers; indeed, principals may deliberately assign slow learners to certain teachers, unfairly lowering their scores. As for the tests themselves, most do not even try to measure the social skills that are crucial to early learning.” And, thinking about Ridgewood, what about teachers who are already very successful or whose students begin at fairly high-achieving levels? If your students already score very high, and there’s not much higher for them to go, is it fair to judge that teacher as not “adding value?” This is exactly what happened to Ridgewood in last year’s state QSAC evaluation – the District received a lower score in student achievement because our test scores didn’t improve enough. But it was physically impossible for our scores to improve that much – they would have had to have been higher than 100% perfect.

Some educators feel that value-added data can probably help identify the best and the worst teachers, but probably won’t help much in truly evaluating teachers in the middle. Other educators have suggested using the value-added data on the school level, without tying the scores to individual teachers' names. I agree with the NY Times’ writer’s feeling that an important first step would be for us all to agree that no system will ever be perfect. No system can do it all. And, personally, I will never feel good about placing too much emphasis on standardized tests, especially when the tests we have are so imperfect.

The New Jersey Department of Education recently announced a special committee that will be working on teacher evaluation. The big deal, according to them, is that the committee contains teachers, administrators, school board members, legislators, "experts," etc. An apparently inclusive group that will calmly and rationally research and develop some solutions. When I heard they wanted school board members, I immediately tried to volunteer. Turns out, their idea of school board representation was that a staffer from the New Jersey School Board Association will participate. Darn.

Clearly, parents and communities want their schools to be accountable. I believe teachers want to be accountable. It’s in our human nature to rank things, to create order, to understand the value (relative or intrinsic) in everything we do. Test scores are such a seemingly easy solution – what could be more cut and dried than numbers? “The scores don’t lie,” sounds so simple. But aren’t there more things that “count?” Can’t we find a way to wrap our human brains around the concept of things that can’t be counted?

Something to think about as we begin the new school year – a school year in which a new contract will be negotiated with our Ridgewood teachers.

Have a great first day of school tomorrow!

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