Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Adding Value to the Value-Added Debate

Seeing as I am not paid to blog as part of my daily job, it's basically impossible for me to be even close to first out of the box on the issues of the day. Add to that being a parent of two small children (my most important job – right up there with being a husband) and that only adds to my sometimes frustration of not being able to weigh in on some of these issues quickly.

That said, here is my attempt to distill some key points and share my opinions -- add value, if you will -- to the debate that is raging as a result of the Los Angeles Times's decision to publish the value-added scores of individual teachers in the L.A. Unified School District.

First of all, let me address the issue at hand. I believe that the LA Times's decision to publish the value-added scores was irresponsible. Given what we know about the unreliability and variability in such scores and the likelihood that consumers of said scores will use them at face value without fully understanding all of the caveats, this was a dish that should have been sent back to the kitchen.

Although the LA Times is not a government or public entity, it does operate in the public sphere. And it has a responsibility as such an actor. Its decision to label LA teachers as 'effective' and 'ineffective' based on suspect value-added data alone is akin to an auditor secretly investigating a firm or agency without an engagement letter and publishing findings that may or may not hold water.

Frankly, I don't care what positive benefits this decision by the LA Times might have engendered.
Yes, the district and the teachers union have agreed to begin negotiations on a new evaluation system. Top district officials have said they want at least 30% of a teacher's review to be based on value-added and have wisely said that the majority of the evaluations should depend on classroom observations. Such a development exonerates the LA Times, as some have argued. In my mind, any such benefits are purloined and come at the expense of sticking it -- rightly in some cases, certainly wrongly in others -- to individual teachers who mostly are trying their best.

Oh, I know, I know. It's not about the teachers anymore. Their day has come and gone. "It's about the kids" now, right? But you know what? The decisions we make about how we license, compensate, evaluate and dismiss teachers affects them as individual people, as husbands and wives, as mothers and fathers. It effects who may or may not choose to enter the profession in the coming years. If we mistakenly catch a bunch of teachers in a wrong-headed, value-added dragnet based upon a missionary zeal and 'head in the sand' conviction that numbers don't lie, we will be doing a disservice both to teachers and to the kids. And, if we start slicing and dicing teachers left and right, who exactly will replace them?

(1) Value-added test scores should not be used as the primary means of informing high-stakes decisions, such as tenure and dismissal.
One primary piece of evidence was released just this week from the well-respected, nonpartisan
Economic Policy Institute. The EPI report, co-authored by numerous academic experts, said:

  • Student test scores are not reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness, even with the addition of value-added modeling (VAM).
  • Though VAM methods have allowed for more sophisticated comparisons of teachers than were possible in the past, they are still inaccurate, so test scores should not dominate the information used by school officials in making high-stakes decisions about the evaluation, discipline and compensation of teachers.
  • Neither parents nor anyone else should believe that the Los Angeles Times analysis actually identifies which teachers are effective or ineffective in teaching children because the methods are incapable of doing so fairly and accurately.
  • Analyses of VAM results show that they are often unstable across time, classes and tests; thus, test scores, even with the addition of VAM, are not accurate indicators of teacher effectiveness. Student test scores, even with VAM, cannot fully account for the wide range of factors that influence student learning, particularly the backgrounds of students, school supports and the effects of summer learning loss. As a result, teachers who teach students with the greatest educational needs appear to be less effective than they are.
Other experts, such as Mathematica Policy Research, Rick Hess, and Dan Goldhaber have offered important cautions as well.

The findings of the IES-funded Mathematica report were “largely driven by findings from the literature and new analyses that more than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under the control of the teacher. Thus, multiple years of performance data are required to reliably detect a teacher’s true long-run performance signal from the student-level noise…. Type I and II error rates [‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives’] for teacher-level analyses will be about 26 percent if three years of data are used for estimation.
In a typical performance measurement system, more than 1 in 4 teachers who are truly average in performance will be erroneously identified for special treatment, and more than 1 in 4 teachers who differ from average performance by 3 months of student learning in math or 4 more in reading will be overlooked. In addition, Type I and II error rates will likely decrease by only about one half (from 26 to 12 percent) using 10 years of data.”

Hess has “three serious problems with what the LAT did. First … I'm increasingly nervous at how casually reading and math value-added calculations are being treated as de facto determinants of "good" teaching…. Second, beyond these kinds of technical considerations, there are structural problems. For instance, in those cases where students receive substantial pull-out instruction or work with a designated reading instructor, LAT-style value-added calculations are going to conflate the impact of the teacher and this other instruction…. Third, there's a profound failure to recognize the difference between responsible management and public transparency.”

Goldhaber, in a Seattle Times op-ed, says that he “support[s] the idea of using value-added methods as one means of judging teacher performance, but strongly oppose[s] making the performance estimates of individual teachers public in this way. First, there are reasons to be concerned that individual value-added estimates may be misleading indicators of true teacher performance. Second, performance estimates that look different from one another on paper may not truly be distinct in a statistically significant sense. Finally, and perhaps most important, I cannot think of a profession in either the public or private sector where individual employee performance estimates are made public in a newspaper.”

Multiple measures to inform teacher evaluation seems like the right approach, including the use of multiple years of value-added student data (one thing the LA Times DID get right). That said, the available research would seem to suggest that states (particularly in Race to the Top) that have proposed basing 50% or more of an individual educators evaluation on a value-added score may have gone too far down the path. LA Unified officials have said (LA Times, 8/30/2010) they want at least 30% of a teacher's review to be based on value-added and that the majority of the evaluations should depend on observations. That might be a more appropriate stance.

(2) Embracing the status quo is unacceptable.
As reports such at The New Teacher Project's
Widget Effect have chronicled, current approaches to teacher evaluation are broken. They don’t work for anyone involved. Critics of VAM cannot simply draw a line in the sand and state that, "This will not stand!" If not this, then what? Certainly not the current system! Fortunately, efforts led by organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers and the Hope Street Group are developing or have offered thoughtful solutions to this issue. [Disclosure: I participated in Hope Street's effort and my New Teacher Center colleague Eric Hirsch serve on AFT’s evaluation committee.] Sadly, LA Unified and the LA Teachers Union both are culpable –along with the LA Times – in bringing this upon the city's teachers by refusing to act to analyze or utilize available value-added data. An adherence to the status quo created a void that the LA Times sought to fill in order to sell more newspapers in a wrong-headed attempt to inform the public.

(3) The ‘lesser of two evils’ axiom should not be invoked.
Even if you agree that all the factors we currently use to select and sort teachers is worse than a value added only alternative,
as argued by Education Sector's Chad Aldeman, our current arsenal does not meaningfully inform high-stakes decisions (apart from entry tests with largely low passing scores and the aforementioned impossible-to-fail evaluations). That's, of course, both a condemnation of the current system's inability and/or unwillingness to differentiate between teachers, but it's also a recognition that we haven't struck the right balance or developed the value-added systems to inform high-stakes decisions in this regard in all but a few promising places.

(4) Don't lose sight of the utility of value-added data to inform formative assessment of teaching practice.
If one of the takeaways from research is that value-added data shouldn't be used to drive high-stakes decisions, it is helpful to think about the use of this data to inform teacher development. Analysis of student work, including relevant test scores, is an important professional development opportunity that all teachers, especially new ones, should have regular opportunities to engage in. Systems such as the NTC’s
Formative Assessment System provide such a tool in states and districts with whom it works on teacher induction. Sadly, this is not the norm in American schools, but is built into high-quality professional development approaches, as Sara Mead wisely discusses in her recent Ed Week blog post. As I noted under #2, LA Unified missed an opportunity to embrace such data to inform its educators in such a way. In the LA Times value added series, several teachers bemoaned the fact that they had never had the opportunity to see such data until it was published in the newspaper.

(5) Valid and reliable classroom observation conducted by trained evaluators is critical.
Other elements of an evaluation system are even more important than value-added methodology if for no other reason that the majority of teachers do not teach tested subjects. Unless we, God forbid, develop multiple-choice assessments of more and more subjects and grade levels, we're going to need valid and reliable ways of assessing the practice of educators who cannot be assessed by value-added student achievement scores. Despite some of the criticisms lobbed at the District of Columbia's new
IMPACT evaluation system, this is an element at the heart of DC’s approach to teacher evaluation. Further, the Gates Foundation’s on-going teacher effectiveness study holds great promise.

(6) We've got to get beyond this focus on the 'best' and 'worst' teachers.
How about we focus on strengthening the effectiveness of the 80-90% of teachers in the middle? We know how to do that through
comprehensive new teacher induction and high-quality professional development, but we're just lacking the collective will to pull it off and invest in what makes a difference. These are similar roadblocks to what has prevented the use of student outcomes from being considered in teacher evaluations. It raises discomfort, requires a change in prevailing (often mediocre) practices, demands greater accountability, and necessitates viewing teaching not as a private activity but as a collective endeavor. But I keep making this point over and over again about the importance of a teacher development focus within the teacher effectiveness conversation because I see too few reform advocates taking it seriously. Take off the blinders, folks. It is not primarily about firing teachers.

(7) Teacher effectiveness is contextual.
Teaching and learning conditions impact an individual educator’s ability to succeed. It is entirely possible that an individual teacher's value-added score is significantly determined by the teaching and learning conditions (supportive leadership, opportunities to collaborate, classroom resources) present at their school site than about their individual knowledge, skills and practices. In Seinfeldian terms, teachers are not 'masters of their domain' necessarily. The EPI report makes this point. So do my New Teacher Center colleagues through statewide teaching and learning conditions surveys. So does Duke University economist Helen Ladd (also a co-signed on the EPI report) and the University of Toronto’s Kenneth Leithwood.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Who Knew That Race to the Top Would Cause Joblessness?

In cycling races such as the Tour de France, riders tragically have lost their lives particularly in mountainous stages in the Alps or Pyrenees. Fortunately, no one was killed in the making of Race to the Top applications. But one state school chief, New Jersey's Brett Schundler, has lost his job as a result of it.

Read the Newark Star-Ledger's story for more:
Gov. Chris Christie fired state education commissioner Bret Schundler this morning after Schundler refused to resign in the wake of the controversy over the state's loss of up to $400 million in federal school funding.

The state lost a competitive grant contest for education funding by 3 points. While the state lost points across a number of areas for substantive issues, a blunder on one 5-point question has caused an uproar in Trenton. The state lost 4.8 points by seemingly misreading the question, which asked for information from 2008 and 2009 budgets. The state provided information from 2011.

Our Schools are all Religious Institutions, only the religion has changed

When we think about education, we typically imagine that its purpose is to teach students how to think. This is a very nice idea that has very little basis in fact. School was never meant as a means of teaching thinking. Schools have their origins in religious education. It is well to remember that Harvard and Yale started off as divinity schools and that until recent times nearly all universities required religious training as part of the curriculum.

If we think about religious education for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that pretty much regardless of the religion, religion is about telling people what to believe and is not about questioning those beliefs. All religions know the truth and all religions attempt to dictate that truth to their followers. Most religions also run schools. No one criticizes them for this.

In our public schools we have adopted the basic tenets of religious schooling.

  1. there is a truth that cannot be questioned
  2. there is no real choice in what a student learns about
  3. you can be punished for failure to attend school
  4. you will learn by being told
  5. there are official sacred books that everyone must know

What are the sacred books of our schools? Shakespeare, Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby, are some of them.

What truths cannot be questioned? Algebra teaches you to think. You must know science to have a job in the 21st century. All of U.S. history as depicted in textbooks.

Over the years I have been quoted as saying all of schooling needs to be re-thought. What we teach now was determined in the 19th century and was meant to turn the few people who actually attended school at that time into intellectuals. When I say “get rid of all of it” the response is usually: you are right about subject X but subject Y is sacred.

Sure, let’s get rid of balancing chemical equations but we can never get rid of history.

Sure, let’s get rid of algebra but literature is very important.

We can’t get rid of science because it is important for knowledge workers.

This is what religion sounds like.

Curiously school is still teaching religion. But now the religion is about the sacred texts in which one finds the quadratic formula, or SP3 binding (you can look it up if you like), or what Julius Caesar said to Brutus.

None of this teaches children to think any more than the catechism teaches children to think. School ought to be a place where open minds can explore. This doesn't happen because schools are simply the places where modern day religious instruction can be found. (It is a very odd religion -- one in which Shakespeare, Archimedes, Fermat, Descartes, Millville, and George Washington are gods.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What I Did on My Summer "Vacation"

It's been a busy one. Here's a (small, incomplete) peek inside the life of a tenure-track mama prof.

(1) Traveled on work trips to Seattle, San Diego, Boulder, Laguna Beach, Washington DC (twice), and Chicago -- and most of that was just in the month of June.

(2) Spent two weeks at Northwestern University, 10+ hours per day, learning the technical in's and out's of cluster randomized trials at a veritable "geek camp." Had a blast. Imported generous family members to babysit during the day and parented my 7-month-old daughter every evening, awaking 3-5 times every night to nurse.

(3) Wrote and submitted three paper proposals to the American Educational Research Association.

(4) Completed final edits on two articles forthcoming this fall.

(5) Watched as my 3-year-old son wore a suit and went down the aisle as ring-bearer in his nanny's wedding. Cried my eyes out.

(6) Wrote a proposal for nearly $700,000 in foundation support. Decision still pending (it's a nail-biter!).

(7) Reviewed 9 journal articles and 6 grant proposals.

(8) Celebrated my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary by coordinating and cooking a family dinner for 12.

(9) Prepared a brand-new 2-semester course on mixed-methods research.

(10) Smiled with joy as my daughter learned to love solid food, crawl, cruise, and begin to call me "mama."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Foodie Finds

In an effort to spice up this blog a bit, we'll tap into the Optimists' foodie inclinations by periodically featuring some choice restaurants and food-related businesses.

For our inaugural offering, here are some places we've enjoyed in recent travels:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Race To The Top Phase Two Winners

UPDATED 11:28 a.m. CDT

The complete list of 10 winning applicants:

District of Columbia
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island

Here is the official U.S. Department of Education press release and the list of Phase Two scores:

Phase Two Winners:
1. MA - 471.0
2. NY - 464.8
3. HI - 462.4
4. FL - 452.4
5. RI - 451.2
6. DC - 450.0
7. MD - 450.0
8. GA - 446.4
9. NC - 441.6
10. OH - 440.8
11. NJ - 437.8
12. AZ - 435.4
13. LA - 434.0
14. SC - 431.0
15. IL - 426.6
16. CA - 423.6
17. CO - 420.2
18. PA - 417.6
19. KY - 412.4

This was an especially competitive round. And, as you can see above, there was NOT a natural cut-off point in the scores between successful applicants and unsuccessful ones. That's got to make the loss sting all the more for states such as New Jersey, Arizona, Louisiana and South Carolina especially. Just three points separate a funded state (Ohio) and a non-funded state (New Jersey)!

I am most surprised by the inclusion of Hawaii among the winners, but I was impressed by the strength and comprehensiveness of the teaching/leadership portion of its application. It will be interesting to see a full analysis of its very high score -- third highest, trailing only Massachusetts and New York.

The biggest shock to me is the absence of Illinois in the winners' circle. I felt that it had put together one of the more compelling applications and had been ranked 5th overall in Phase One. South Carolina is another strong contender that missed out; it had the 6th highest ranked application in Phase One.

Race To The Top: Start Spreading The News

Dorie Turner of the Associated Press is reporting via Twitter that New York is one of the winners of Race to the Top, Phase Two. If that is the case -- and heavily favored Florida also is shown the money -- then we are likely looking at fewer than 10 winners today. That is, unless states are funded at less than the maximums that they requested. Under such a "spreading the wealth" scenario, then there could be more winners.

I'm not going to make predictions -- I think the cut off is likely to be determined by a few points here and there. But I still like the chances of Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island, and South Carolina best.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A fun day in education land...

Today was a wonderful day for this observer of the education scene. First, I noticed an article in an Italian newspaper reporting something I did last week:

What happened is that a teacher in Italy wrote to me to say he had won the teacher of the year award in Italy and was immediately fired. He had written to me before about what he was doing in his school. Since I needed someone to help build our Alternative Learning Place, I offered him a job. The above article says all that. The Italian school system is, of course, as stupid as ours.

The second event was the usual stuff from our system. I heard from my daughter who has decided to try out public school kindergarten in Brooklyn for Milo this fall. The ALP is meant for first grade in 2011, so she decided to try out the system while we build Milo's future school. She lives two blocks from a school and it has a talented and gifted program so she had Milo tested. Milo tested at 99% which was no surprise. Equally no surprise, the New York City School System in its infinite wisdom, decided to offer Milo a place in a school in a rough neighborhood, not in the one he lives near. One of the reasons that New York has such terrible schools is, of course, that they seemingly encourage the best and brightest to leave. Milo won't be there long. As someone who was in the New York City schools all through his childhood, I can tell you that they were always very good at making smart kids miserable there. Not much has changed.

The third thing was an incredible article in the Washington Post written by Dana Milbank:

It is amazing because it is right on about the stupidity of the Obama administration in education and tits nonsensical testing obsession. The Washington Post is owned by Kaplan testing or the other way around, (I forget which), so the truth about testing is usually hard to find there.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

P.S. 247 and the absurdity of the idea that college is a necessity

For a speech I am giving I was looking for a picture of the man who was principal of my elementary school many years ago. So, I went to the P.S. 247 (Brooklyn) web site and discovered that it is now a "New York City College Partnership Elementary School." When I finished laughing, I started to wonder when this "everyone must spend their entire childhood worrying about getting into college" nonsense would end.

Then I saw a very nice article called "7 Reasons not to send your kid to college" by James Altucher:


which I recommend to anyone who wants to think carefully about this issue. Of course it is followed, in the mode of the day, by the usual vitriolic comments about how he is an idiot and how college must have taught him to be able to write his column. This again had me in fits of laughter as I recalled how I had to teach writing to Ivy League graduates who were my PhD advisees because they had never learned to write in college.

In any case, I agree with the writer. College has become, in people's minds, something it was never intended to be: a job training ground, and it fails miserably at that, since professors don't give a damn about job training.

P.S. 247 was not a great bastion of learning nor a fun place in the 1950's, and I can only imagine how awful it is now.