Erasing the rubber room

In New York City, incompetent teachers spend years sitting in a “rubber room” –at full pay — while the school district tries to build a case for termination. Now the head of the teachers’ union has calling for faster firing of bad teachers.

The New York City teachers’ union proposed yesterday cutting to six months the time it takes to remove incompetent teachers, speeding up a process that can now drag on for years.

As part of a broad overhaul of the disciplinary process and evaluation system for teachers, the union president, Randi Weingarten, also called for ending so-called rubber rooms, where more than 200 teachers facing charges of malfeasance are sent to languish, some for years, while still receiving full pay. She proposed the appointment of a special master and a task force of pro bono lawyers to clear the backlog of cases.

Remarkable. Refreshing.

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Comments

  1. I’d be more impressed if I thought the union would allow them to define “incompetence” to include failure to effectively teach, rather than just criminal behavior, political incorrectness, and lack of credentials.

  2. It only took the Chicago School System half a semester to get my mother-in-law out of the “rubber room” (not called that in Chicago) after a stroke which left her partly paralyzed, unable to speak clearly, and unable to remember what day it was.

  3. markm, but it’s a start.

    Everybody needs to bookmark this so we can provide citations for Andy.

    Hi, Andy.

  4. Independant George says:

    markm – yes, but the best way of doing that would be to involve standardized testing (gasp!).

    I suppose I shouldn’t be so cynical – this is good news, after all. Still, what always bothers me about any discussion about work rules and public sector unions is the way they seem to treat their job protections as an right. Private sector corporate lackeys like me are generally comfortable with the fact that our continued employment is dependant on… you know… being productive enough to justify our salaries. But that’s off-topic, and this is a good omen.

    I wonder what the other unions think about it.

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    I look forward to the day when this sort of report is unremarkable….

  6. It takes 6 months to fire a teacher for criminal behavior? At my high school, the shop teacher hit a kid (and the kid deserved it), and he was fired within the month.
    Now, this was 15-20 years ago, but he was unionized too. They just didn’t stand for that sort of thing (though, again I want to emphasize that the kid deserved it).

  7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Standardized testing is not the best way to measure effective teaching.

    It’s one way, and it’s currently the most promoted way, but it’s not the best.

  8. Steve LaBonne says:

    And I’ll say that you’re right _only_ if the tests are not properly designed i.e. if they do not accurately measure core academic skills. But without tests that do succeed in doing that (and I am agnostic about the ones currently in use- I’m not familiar enough with them nor am I a psychometrician), neither you nor anyone else will really know whether your students have learned what they need to learn. I’m sorry, but that _cannot_ safely be left to purely subjective judgements. If I didn’t know that from common sense, I would know it from teaching college students who had good grades in ‘good” schools but were woefully unprepared for college work.

  9. Be as sorry as you want, Steve, but the premise that standardized tests measure *effective teaching* is tenuous at best.

    Far too many variables exist in terms of student prior knowledge, skills, work habits, attendance, and behavior to measure whether or not the teacher has performed effectively. Our school has several cases where students have blown off the state tests by bubbling at whim, and it’s a crumbling gypsum monument you’ve built if you posit that teacher’s career on a kid’s score.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    I’ll be blunt- you’re talking through your hat. If effective teaching means anything at all it means student mastery of academic skills and knowledge that can be objectively demonstrated. No doubt the teachers of all those unprepared college students I encountered had attitudes similar to yours, and were convinced-without any evidence- that they were doing a great job. Guess what? They were wrong.

    As mentioned in another discussion here recently, the best way to use test scores to evaluate teachers is to look, not at absolute scores, but at value added during the academic year. That obviates many of the objections that are often dragged out, such as teachers of less able students getting shafted. And your last comment is an obvious straw man- who is talking about staking a teacher’s career on scores from a handful of students?

  11. Standardized testing can measure learning quite well. Teaching is another matter.

    You can put a student in a class, but you can’t make him/her learn.

  12. Steve LaBonne says:

    If student learning doesn’t have a strong correlation with effective teaching then why do we pay teachers? What a copout.

  13. If students are randomly bubbling in standardized test in Christmas tree patterns, or whatever, then the test isn’t a measure of anything.

    And I thought teacher accountability did mean that if students perform poorly on tests, teachers get fired. At least, according to some folks around here.

    Steve, there are kids who want to learn, and kids who don’t really give a rat’s tail whether they learn or not (nor do their parents.) An effective teacher results in learning in the first group, but what happens in the second is just a wild card.

  14. Steve,

    High school teachers used to complain that their kids came to 9th grade unprepared, as did all other teachers down the line.
    We no longer have that excuse. College teachers should do the same and quit whining.

    You get ’em, you teach ’em. Pull up yer bootstraps, Steve.

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    Horsepucky, Suzie. We pay taxes in order to pay you a salary to actually teach your students. If you have a problem with that, go find an honest way to make a living. High school students should, upon graduation, have mastered high-school work- is that too difficult a concept for ed-school-trained minds to grasp?

  16. Andy Freeman says:

    > And I thought teacher accountability did mean that if students perform poorly on tests, teachers get fired.

    Laura seems to dislike that. Fair enough. So, let’s let her tell us how it should be done.

    How should we decide whether or not to fire teachers? How should we decide which teachers to pay more than others? (Should some teachers make more than others?)

    The proposed evaluation systems should be reasonably objective, reasonably transparent, defensible, broadly applicable, at the very least.

    One output from such a system may well be that teachers can’t succeed in certain circumstances, or can’t succeed outside of certain circumstances.

    There seems to be widespread agreement that such circumstances exist. Note that in the “can’t succeed in” circumstances”, or outside the “can’t succeed outside” circumstances, money spent on education is wasted. (No, we shouldn’t spend money on education failure, even if such failure is due to factors outside the control of educators.)

  17. Steve, don’t weasel out of this one. You’re positing that standardized test scores measure effective *teaching*, and myself and several others here have pointed out the fallacy of that reasoning. In an attempt to divert attention from that, you’re now throwing in a desperate hodgepodge of right-wing anti-public school cliches: taxpayer dollars, teacher salary, the requisite jab at ed schools, etc. It’s not working.

    Go back and read the other posts. I’ve got papers to grade.

  18. Steve LaBonne says:

    I have read them. And I say again that, if properly designed and used intelligently in a value-added scheme, standardized tests are not only highly useful but practically indispensible for teacher evaluation. Without some kind of external validation, even you yourself, with the best will in the world, _cannot_ really know whether you are serving your students well. And if you are actually improving your students’ academic skills during their time with you- which is what you’re being paid for- then what are you so afraid of?

    Yes, both standardized testing and teacher evaluation, LIKE ANYTHING ELSE, can be done badly. If the fact that something can be done badly is an argument against _trying_ to do it well, then we must all stay in bed and do nothing.

    The attitude that the taxpayers should continue to hand you your salary, but you don’t want any evaluation of the job you’re doing to come from outside the closed world of your school system, is totally irresponsible and unacceptable. For teachers to continue to take that line will do grave damage to public support for public education. Youd’d better hope you lose this battle, because a victory would indeed be Pyrrhic.

  19. Andy:

    “> And I thought teacher accountability did mean that if students perform poorly on tests, teachers get fired.

    “Laura seems to dislike that. Fair enough. So, let’s let her tell us how it should be done.”

    My statement was in response to this: “[W]ho is talking about staking a teacher’s career on scores from a handful of students?” – Steve

    Steve, apparently Andy is.

  20. Steve LaBonne says:

    Only Andy can say if he was talking about a one-time poor performance by a “handfull” of students. Frankly, I very much doubt that’s what he meant. Furthermore, I think you know that very well.

  21. Andy Freeman says:

    > My statement was in response to this: “[W]ho is talking about staking a teacher’s career on scores from a handful of students?” – Steve

    > Steve, apparently Andy is.

    Really? Where did I write anything that supports Laura’s “interpretation”?

    I’ll repeat my question. How should we use student performance to determine whether to fire teachers, pay them more, or notice that education spending is wasted?

    Note that I didn’t write that Laura’s answer must/should use a “small group of students”. (I am looking forward to reading how testing non-students comes into play, except as a baseline.)

    Or, does Laura think that we’re paying for education for some reason other than student performance? If so, what?

  22. ***Julie*** says:

    A little off conversation, but… I work with a Special Education teacher, and she is so beyond burn out it’s sad. She does anything and everything to get out of the classroom, infact the other day she said that she “forgot” about 2nd hour. This is a joke. I don’t have anyone to go to because the person she is hanging out with instead of doing her job is the Principal. So, do I go over his head? Well, maybe, but the next step, the Dean of Student Services, is her best friend. There is so much to be fixed, I don’t know what to do. Sad to say, but,I know ours is not the only school like this. Not only do we need to get bad teachers out of the mix, we need to clean house in admin., too.

  23. jeff_wright says:

    SuzieQ: I’m not taking sides yet because I, also have grave reservations about using test scores to make hire/fire decisions about teachers. I have sat in a classroom and watched kids totally blow a test off.

    However, you didn’t answer Steve:

    > We pay taxes in order to pay you a salary to actually teach your students. If you have a problem with that, go find an honest way to make a living. High school students should, upon graduation, have mastered high-school work- is that too difficult a concept for ed-school-trained minds to grasp?

    My question: Why do teacher salaries continue to go up while student performance—as measured on tests, but more importantly, in the real world, where any literate, thinking human being, e.g., employers, can instantly see what dreck is coming out of the schools—continues to spiral downward?

    Sorry to say, but your “papers to grade” response comes across as a real cop-out.

  24. a) We pay taxes to pay the salaries of an awful lot of public university employees, too.

    b) I don’t need a standardized test to judge what my students know. YOU may need a standardized test for that, and that’s reasonable since you are not familiar with my students, but I’d have to not be paying attention to not know.

  25. Steve LaBonne says:

    Rita, if you really can’t grasp the idea that some kind of evaluation from outside your classroom and school is necessary to make sure your students are learning what they should, than your arrogant, anti-intellectual attitude ought to disqualify you from teaching. For your information, college and university departments regularly undergo outside evaluations by scholars in their fields, for precisely that purpose. (And where applicable, they are certainly judged partly by their students’ performance on graduate school entrance exams.) And of course, in professions other than teaching, it is entirely normal for practioners to undergo various kinds of outside evaluation. For example, I, as a forensic DNA analyst (and technical manager as I am a one-person DNA section), I have to take two proficiency tests (sets of simulated forensic samples of known DNA tyoe) every year, and my section must undergo an external audit every other year to amke sure I’m complying with a long list of operating standards promulgated by the FBI. I’m damned sick and tired, and so are a lot of other parents and taxpayers, of the “I’m so special and nobody else can tell me how I’m doing” attitude among teachers that’s exemplified by your post. If anything can cause the destruction of the public school system as we know it, it’s the backlash against that attitude.

  26. Steve LaBonne says:

    Read Liping Ma’s book, and ask yourself if we can rely on some of the teachers she interviewed to assess how well their own students are learning math. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0805829091/qid=1074472423/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-4186651-2871306?v=glance&s=books

  27. Andy Freeman says:

    > b) I don’t need a standardized test to judge what my students know.

    Rita misses a couple of important points.

    (1) We want to know what Rita’s students know. Doesn’t it bother her that diplomas don’t tell us anything useful about the students who “earn” them?

    (2) We’re trying to figure out how much to spend on education and where. We’re looking for ways to evaluate teachers’ effect on student performance because that effect is the ONLY reason we’re paying teachers.

    Telling us that said effect can’t be measured is like telling us that there is no effect, and we’re not going to pay anything for that. Telling us that there’s no way to measure performance is telling us that there’s no reason to spend money on education.

  28. No, Stephen, you’re wrong. The post said that *teachers* need standardized tests to know how their students are doing. A good teacher needs no such thing. I may need a standardized test to know how my students are doing as compared with other students (as I don’t know students other than my own), or YOU may need a standardized test to judge how my students are doing, but *I* do not need a standardized test. That is why I am a professional. I know how to construct and evaluate the results of tests that cover my subject area. I do not know how to evaluate engineers, forensic scientists, vetrinarians, computer scientists (OK, I know when my computer crashes, but they make more money than I do, so who am I to say?), or middle managers. I do know how to evaluate high school English students. Why is it when I assert that I know how to do my job, you call it arrogance, but when you assert that you know how to do your job, it means you are a professional?

    And, how can you say that nobody from the outside judges my work? What’s this whole freakin’ blog about but the whole world judging what we do within the schools, judging without the courtesy to even step into a classroom *as an adult* and see what it is we’re doing? You come into my classroom. You see what I do every day. You watch what my students learn and do not learn. Look at their tests; read their papers. THEN you get to judge. If I fall short at that point, fine. I have been fairly tested. Students are not dead bodies, they are not computers, and they are not newspaper columns. These are children. I get them through their parents’ divorces, best friends killed in car accidents, parents sent to prison, suicide attempts, addictions, and other untold horrors, and oh, by the way, I teach them grammar, literature, and composition. I don’t care if somebody comes in to judge me. Come right on in. But you come into my classroom and judge me on the basis of *my* work, because I deserve that very basic courtesy. You deliberately misunderstand the issue. Teachers want a test that judges *us* on what *we* do, and what we control. We control some of what happens on a standardized test. We control what the student had the *opportunity* to learn. We do not control test anxiety, apathy, being absent for most of the year (I’m responsible for students on my roster who I haven’t seen since September), the student drawing a blank, the student being sick, the student taking the test stoned or not taking it all. Overall, the tests can indicate trends, but they are not reliable measures of individual students or teachers because they do not control for these variables. They can work as *a* measure, but not *the* measure.

    And, by the way, my students do just fine on those standardized tests — well above the national average — and they go on to some of the best universities in the country. In theory, I should love those tests because they make me look great.

  29. Anonymous says:

    > I may need a standardized test to know how my students are doing as compared with other students (as I don’t know students other than my own), or YOU may need a standardized test to judge how my students are doing, but *I* do not need a standardized test.

    Oh, Rita. Read the above and then figure how you would grade a student who wrote it on logic. In the same sentence, you admit you may need a standarized test and then proclaim that you don’t. Of course, the classroom teacher knows how his/her students are doing against his/her personal benchmarks. Whence come As, Bs, etc. But how in the world can you ever know how YOUR students are doing in comparison to MY students if you don’t have access to an across-the-board metric? BS in the breakroom?

    One of the most valuable outcomes accruing from standardized testing might be that many teachers will realize that despite their best intentions, and contrary to their own beliefs, they’re just not getting the message across. You should sub sometime and see the vast differences in expectation and performance in different classrooms—same grades and subjects—in the same schools and districts. Then you would realize that teaching is personalized to such an extent that individual teachers work in a vacuum and don’t know how their work stacks up against their peers. There is no meaningful oversight of individual teacher performance; it may be standardized testing will help address such an inexcusable state of affairs.

  30. jeff wright says:

    Sorry. Forgot to put a name to the above post.

  31. Steve LaBonne says:

    You are wrong, wrong, wrong. Even the best teacher needs to be guided by some sort of scholarly consensus of what students at particular levels need to master, and by some sort of assessment instruments to measure whether this has actually occurred. In countries with more successful educational systems these roles are filled by national curricula and associated exams. And as I already mentioned, I’ve taught at a fairly prestigious college (Union, in upstate NY) and I have firsthand experience of the weak preparation of many students who received high grades from “good” teachers in “good” schools. It often comes as a shock to such students when they realize how ill-prepared they are for serious academic work.

    Obviously there will be some students who are unreachable. But it should be easy to demonstrate that your contact with _most_ students adds substantial value to their academic skills- and that most certainly _is_ under your control. If you are as good a teacher as you say you are, you have nothing to fear from such an assessment. If you don’t want to take responsibility for that, you could be replaced by a babysitter for a lot less money. Again, this attitude that you can’t be held in any way responsible for student achievement is unacceptable, (what parent paying tuition to a private school would swallow being told that?) and that sort of attitude would be unheard of in any genuine profession. So much for teachers as “professionals”.

  32. I do not say that I shouldn’t be held responsible for student achievement; I say that I should be judged on my work in a meaningful way. I’m trying to give a nuanced argument that explains what I believe an effective assessment might be. Standardized tests could be part of an evaluation, if done well, but they can’t be the whole evaluation.

    I do not fear assessment. I am pointing out how the type of assessment you promote fails to meet your goals. So half my students fail it. What does that tell you? It could mean I have a large number of “unreachable” students and am brilliant to achieve the results I got. It could mean I have a lot of well prepared students that I failed miserably. In neither case does it tell me, the teacher, how to best reach that other half. For example, I know all about the achievement gap between black and white students. All the standardized tests confirm what I see in my classroom (note *confirm* something I already know — I’ve learned nothing new from the test). The tests tell me nothing at all about what is causing that gap or how to go about remediating that gap — the types of things that I need to know. The tests are only going to tell you what you already know — that teachers need to be improved. How do you do that? Most people seem to think unions need to go. Whatever the solution, the tests don’t give it to you. What the tests *do* accomplish is to bring political pressure to solve the problem. This could be a good thing if the right resources are thrown at the problem and it is solved; it’s not a good thing if we just gut and redo the system in the endless swinging pendulum we’ve seen for the past 200 years. So far, what I’m seeing is the latter, but I’m hoping I’m wrong. I’d like to see the problem solved — I’d like to be a part of solving that problem. I do not like the assumption that I like the status quo. Of course I want better teachers; of course I want much, much better student achievement. I’d be insane not to. I read journals, try new ideas, and generally work toward that goal every day. It isn’t *my* attitude that is the problem. What in the world do you think I’m doing by reading this blog? I’m learning about issues, applying what I read to what I know, engaging in conversation in order to find new ideas. Would it be too much to ask that when I tell you, based on my experience as a classroom teacher, what the issues are, that you talk to me about the issues instead of insulting me?

  33. Steve LaBonne says:

    One of the things we need is better-designed tests that give more useful feedback to teachers- on that I’m with you 100%.

  34. Andy Freeman says:

    > I do not fear assessment. I am pointing out how the type of assessment you promote fails to meet your goals. So half my students fail it. What does that tell you? It could mean I have a large number of “unreachable” students and am brilliant to achieve the results I got. It could mean I have a lot of well prepared students that I failed miserably. In neither case does it tell me, the teacher, how to best reach that other half.

    There are at least three different, albeit somewhat related, things that are being confused here.

    (1) Tests that measure student performance.
    (2) Tests that reveal student problems.
    (3) Tests that measure teacher effect on student performance.

    Some tests may well provide information in multiple categories, but almost all tests will be better for one category than for another. Criticizing certain tests for what they don’t do doesn’t imply that there aren’t tests that do.

    Note also that the fact that a specific standardized test does not serve a specific purpose does not imply that it’s impossible for a standardized test to accomplish a specific purpose.

    Note that “standardized” actually means “somewhat objective and widely applicable”. In other words, the only useful tests are, by necessity, standardized. The results from student or teacher-specific tests are useless.

  35. Steve LaBonne says:

    “So half my students fail it. What does that tell you? It could mean I have a large number of “unreachable” students and am brilliant to achieve the results I got. It could mean I have a lot of well prepared students that I failed miserably. In neither case does it tell me, the teacher, how to best reach that other half.”

    This requires a bit more comment. What you’re gliding over too easily here is the important fact that this test result _has told us there is a problem_ -something that might well have gone unnoticed otherwise. Knowing that a problem exists is pretty much an essential first step toward fixing it, no? Your complaint is rather like saying that a fire alarm is useless because it doesn’t tell you how to put out the fire.

    You might also want to read Rafe Esquith’s book if you haven’t done so already- he is not impressed (to put it mildly) with teachers who blame kids, parents, society, and everybody but themselves when students fail to learn. And he has of course backed it up with some pretty impressive results with supposedly unteachable kids in the kind of inner-city school nobody wants to teach in.

  36. I’m saying pointing out a problem that I already know about isn’t really that useful to me. The fire alarm is useless if I’ve already seen the fire.

  37. Wait, it suddenly occurs to me that you think that when I point out that there are issues with students, parents, etc. that affect my job that I’m BLAMING the students, parents, issues. That’s not true. As you say, recognizing that there are problems is the first part of the solution. Recognizing what is going on outside the school that is affecting what is going on in the school is an important part of the process. In some cases there isn’t much I can do about those outside influences; they are what they are. In other cases, I can do quite a bit. And I would never *ever* say inner-city students are unteachable. I know from personal experience that they are very, very teachable.

  38. Andy Freeman says:

    > The fire alarm is useless if I’ve already seen the fire.

    Rita isn’t the only person who should know about the fire.

  39. jeff wright says:

    Rita, I don’t think anyone intends to insult you; I certainly don’t. What I and I think other posters want to get across is that ARGGGHHH! frustration at what’s happened to our public schools. I suppose it’s inevitable that you, one of the few teachers who’s actually concerned enough and brave enough to participate in the debate will end up as somewhat of a whipping boy. Sorry, but it does occur to me that such may be the fate of someone who attempts to defend the indefensible, namely the status quo in our schools.

    I would ask you to take a step back and look at threads such as this. It may be that you are so close to the problem that you’ve become inured to what many of us find a horrifying reality. I personally believe our schools have become so corrupt and insular (and I hate to say it, but you sometimes reflect the insularity of which I speak) that radical surgery is needed.

    I really don’t want to improve the existing schools. I don’t even care about tests if we don’t totally revamp the school culture. I want to tear the whole edifice down and start over. Urban renewal, as it were. I want freedom of choice without financial penalty (yes, vouchers) when it comes to where a kid can go to school, I want teacher and administrator accountability, I want competition. The good teachers such as yourself will survive and in fact probably thrive if we can somehow do this. The bad, well, they can go out and work at the drive-through window as far as I’m concerned.

    And since I’m paying for it, why can’t I get decent schools? You tell me I don’t understand. Well, I’m not a nuclear physicist, either, but the guys I pay through taxes make bombs that work. I can’t build a car, but I sure can buy one that runs great. Why can’t I buy schools that work great?

  40. How to evaluate teachers? Easy. Pre-test/post-test. At the begining of the year, students take a test to measure their ability. At the end of the year, students take a test to measure their ability. Test2 – Test1 = what they learned.
    Of course, this is open to abuse (students take a dive for the first test), but no more so than the current system.
    Fact is, though, some kids don’t care for school work. I’ve mentioned before I kid I went to school with who was in the 7th grade for 5 years. You can’t tell me that social promotion would have done him any good.

  41. Interesting thread. A few comments:

    Andy Freeman wrote:
    Note that “standardized” actually means “somewhat objective and widely applicable”. In other words, the only useful tests are, by necessity, standardized. The results from student or teacher-specific tests are useless.

    Not true. “Standardized” just means that they are the same. Period. This has no implication for objectivity or applicability to different classes in different cities in different states.

    Andy Freeman wrote:
    > The fire alarm is useless if I’ve already seen the fire.
    Rita isn’t the only person who should know about the fire.

    The analogy doesn’t hold up that well. The fire alarm is meant to give a warning to the people that need to know about the fire so that they can take appropriate action. This includes the people in danger (remove yourself from the danger), and the people who would deal with it (firefighters). It’s usefulness is tied into having a proper response to the warning. In the case of schooling, the appropriate response is debatable. Fire the teachers? Remove the students? More funding for the school? Social programs for the kids? For the parents?

    Jeff Wright wrote:
    And since I’m paying for it, why can’t I get decent schools? You tell me I don’t understand. Well, I’m not a nuclear physicist, either, but the guys I pay through taxes make bombs that work. I can’t build a car, but I sure can buy one that runs great. Why can’t I buy schools that work great?

    Because students’ educations are not a commodity. If a manufacturer makes a car that is lousy, it either doesn’t sell or it goes cheap. A wasted car is an acceptable loss. The company then targets another demographic in search of profit. If a school produces a student without an adequate education, what do you do with the student? You can easily decide whether a certain good meets your needs/desires, but different people judge goods differently. You may want that sporty new roadster, while your neighbour wants the reliable station wagon, while your buddy at work doesn’t even want a car. In this case, these are goods that are evaulated subjectively to meet different needs for different individuals. They are driven by market forces, with a number of private companies competing for your money. The standard for schools, arguably, is to meet minimum requirements for everyone. What competing company will step in to offer you something better when the schools’ products fail? Private schools, for reasons of space and tuition, are an option for a select few. That schools achieve a societal benefit is the reason for government funding. Whether a school/education system is exactly what *you* want matters less than whether it meets the minimum requirements for everyone.

    Steve LaBonne wrote:
    If student learning doesn’t have a strong correlation with effective teaching then why do we pay teachers? What a copout.

    Student learning does correlate, intuitively, with effective teaching. It is not, also intuitively, the only variable. There is no perfect control to compare one situation with another. The sample sizes involved are so small, and the conditions of each so varied, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the degree of correlation. Does this mean that an assessment of students’ learning is useless in evaluating teachers? Of course not. The danger lies in the use of such results — the nuances involved in making a correlation (students’ test results to teachers’ performance) are lost, and teachers will be held wholly responsible for something over which they have a limited degree of control. This goes back to whether there are any useful solutions to the problem. I believe that it is widely perceived that there are problems with the public education system. We already believe it. So what now?

    Laura wrote:
    Steve, there are kids who want to learn, and kids who don’t really give a rat’s tail whether they learn or not (nor do their parents.) An effective teacher results in learning in the first group, but what happens in the second is just a wild card.

    For a “standardized” test to be useful, the extent of this “wild card” is crucial in determining the results’ usefulness.

    Steve LaBonne wrote:
    If you have a problem with that, go find an honest way to make a living. High school students should, upon graduation, have mastered high-school work- is that too difficult a concept for ed-school-trained minds to grasp?

    Only if you have the option of *not* graduating them. Without fear of a lawsuit or a reprimand from the board.

    Steve LaBonne wrote:
    Yes, both standardized testing and teacher evaluation, LIKE ANYTHING ELSE, can be done badly. If the fact that something can be done badly is an argument against _trying_ to do it well, then we must all stay in bed and do nothing.

    It is a legitimate argument against trying if we can have a reasonable expectation that the results will be misused. Is there any consensus about what needs to be done to improve education? A widely accepted trend that comes easily to mind was the use of whole word recognition in teaching reading. Phonics fell out of favor, and now it’s back in. There is a reasonable fear that people in a position of power will make the wrong decision as a result of misinterpreted results.

    Jeff Wright wrote:
    My question: Why do teacher salaries continue to go up while student performance—as measured on tests, but more importantly, in the real world, where any literate, thinking human being, e.g., employers, can instantly see what dreck is coming out of the schools—continues to spiral downward?

    Cost of living. Inflation.

    Steve LaBonne wrote:
    Rita, if you really can’t grasp the idea that some kind of evaluation from outside your classroom and school is necessary to make sure your students are learning what they should, than your arrogant, anti-intellectual attitude ought to disqualify you from teaching. For your information, college and university departments regularly undergo outside evaluations by scholars in their fields, for precisely that purpose. (And where applicable, they are certainly judged partly by their students’ performance on graduate school entrance exams.) And of course, in professions other than teaching, it is entirely normal for practioners to undergo various kinds of outside evaluation. For example, I, as a forensic DNA analyst (and technical manager as I am a one-person DNA section), I have to take two proficiency tests (sets of simulated forensic samples of known DNA tyoe) every year, and my section must undergo an external audit every other year to amke sure I’m complying with a long list of operating standards promulgated by the FBI. I’m damned sick and tired, and so are a lot of other parents and taxpayers, of the “I’m so special and nobody else can tell me how I’m doing” attitude among teachers that’s exemplified by your post. If anything can cause the destruction of the public school system as we know it, it’s the backlash against that attitude.

    The comparison to testing forensic DNA analysts and auditing your department would be more fair if you changed a few parameters: Your success would be based, not on reports for simulated standardized samples, but on the regular day-to-day reports that you generate (let’s assume that the report is the final “product” that we’re interested in) even though you have no control over how the specimens are handled whenever you are not physically in the lab, never mind what contamination could have occurred before they got to your lab. Would you be happy with someone else drawing conclusions from these reports? I wouldn’t be, unless I had some assurance that the conditions outside my control were considered in the final analysis. If you were aware of someone in your department were performing in a substandard manner and just didn’t care about doing a good job (and you couldn’t just get rid of them), would you want any part of your evaluation to be based on that person’s performance? Again, only if the person evaluating you had a good understanding of the situation in which you were working.

    Steve LaBonne wrote:
    > I may need a standardized test to know how my students are doing as compared with other students (as I don’t know students other than my own), or YOU may need a standardized test to judge how my students are doing, but *I* do not need a standardized test.

    Oh, Rita. Read the above and then figure how you would grade a student who wrote it on logic. In the same sentence, you admit you may need a standarized test and then proclaim that you don’t. Of course, the classroom teacher knows how his/her students are doing against his/her personal benchmarks. Whence come As, Bs, etc. But how in the world can you ever know how YOUR students are doing in comparison to MY students if you don’t have access to an across-the-board metric? BS in the breakroom?

    You’ve missed the implied premise: she’s implying that she doesn’t need to know how her students are doing *compared to other students*. I happen to disagree with that, but it is a reflection of the different populations seen in different classes and the small sample sizes that make such comparisons difficult to validate.

  42. Steve LaBonne says:

    “You’ve missed the implied premise: she’s implying that she doesn’t need to know how her students are doing *compared to other students*. I happen to disagree with that…” Then we agree on the substantive matter under discussion.

  43. Why does it matter how my students do compared to other students? Isn’t it just a matter of whether or not they meet standards? They either do or they don’t. If they don’t, you fire me. If they do, I keep my job. Isn’t that your argument?

  44. Steve LaBonne says:

    If standards are applied to all students, then there is no clear distinction between knowing whether your students meet the standards and knowing how they did (in terms of how many meet the standards) compared to other students. And yes, your job evaluation should depend in part on the _progress_ your students make toward meeting those standards during the time they are with you. As with good personnel evaluations in other lines of work, this shouldn’t be done mechanically, or by someone not bright enough to take account of complicating factors such as the kind of students you’re given to teach. But once more, if you aren’t adding value academically to most of your students most of the time (and to be clear, I am quite sure that you are- and equally sure that there is a not insignificant number of teachers who aren’t), then what exactly _are_ you being paid for? And how can we know, without some kind of yardstick extending beyond just your classroom being applied (to you and all other teachers)? I don’t see why these should be shocking or threatening ideas. They seem like basic common sense to me. And yes, stupid principals and superintendents will no doubt sometimes be a problem, but most of the rest of us have had trouble with stupid bosses as well- it’s an unavoidable part of life. (And also, no, you shouldn’t be fired after one lackluster year any more than any other kind of employee should be fired after one lackluster year- but you should be informed of the problem and offered help, just as I would do for a struggling subordinate. I think we can pretty well trust the unions to take care of that.)

  45. Anonymous says:

    Good post, Howard, but I’m going to quibble with you on a couple of points:

    “Because students’ educations are not a commodity.”

    So I guess that we can’t apply standards to any services that don’t include a tangible good. Which means that if the guy I pay to clean up my yard doesn’t show up or does a crappy job, I still have to pay him what he wants. To suggest that we can’t expect an acceptable result for our money—whether it be service or commodity—is ludicrous. And WRT your comment regarding minimum requirements, I should point out that this is what the entire debate’s all about. Unless you think high school seniors reading or doing math at a seventh-grade level somehow meets “minimum requirements,” I suggest you begin thinking about how to get a little more value for the money we’re spending.

    “You’ve missed the implied premise: she’s implying that she doesn’t need to know how her students are doing *compared to other students*.”

    I don’t think anyone missed the implied premise. And I suspect that most would disagree with it.

  46. Exactly, Stephen. YOU (and lots of other people) need to know how my students are doing as compared to other students, just as I said. I never disagreed with that.

  47. Steve LaBonne says:

    And so do you. I told you, I’ve had to deal with the (not pretty) results when teachers _thought_ they had adequately taught their students, and were wrong. The attitude that “I know it all and nodoby can tell me anything” is not conducive to good work in any profession.

  48. Never thought that when I clicked the link from overlawyered.com I would find such an interesting discussion.

    Someone wrote ([email protected]:47):
    >>”Because students’ educations are not a commodity.”

    >>So I guess that we can’t apply standards to any services that don’t include a tangible good. Which means that if the guy I pay to clean up my yard doesn’t show up or does a crappy job, I still have to pay him what he wants. To suggest that we can’t expect an acceptable result for our money—whether it be service or commodity—is ludicrous. And WRT your comment regarding minimum requirements, I should point out that this is what the entire debate’s all about. Unless you think high school seniors reading or doing math at a seventh-grade level somehow meets “minimum requirements,” I suggest you begin thinking about how to get a little more value for the money we’re spending.

    If the guy doing your yardwork does a crappy job, you can always pick someone else to do it. Different people have a different idea of what a satisfactory job (for the amount of money being paid) would be. Someone might think it’s worth paying $25 for a mow, someone else might think it isn’t a good deal unless trimming is included. The example I used (cars, a tangible good) was only one type of commodity. I should have placed more emphasis on the problem in comparing an education with other goods or services where we have choices, our choices are driven by our own needs/wants/values, and the minimum standard matters only on an individual level. Absolutely, I want to get more value for my money. I just don’t think the same analysis can be used for education as for commodities.

    I agree that this debate *should* be about minimum requirements. Even if we could have highly accurate “standardized” testing that takes into account all the variables — analyzing the aggregate to come up with a minimum standard would fall short of what most of us want. If the country’s education system is falling short as a whole, doing as well as another class or school means nothing. If the country’s education system is doing very well (i.e. meeting minimum requirements), performing below average (or below two standard deviations) does not signify a failure to meet the minimum requirements. But what are the “minimum requirements”? Darned if I know. In my mind, setting a standard minimum requirement, that is, knowing what we are looking *for*, is a necessary exercise before we can even talk about looking (i.e. testing). Talking about finding a way to compare different students, classes, teachers, and schools would be useful in setting up a ranking system. Maybe that would be useful in assessing merit and determining rewards. I don’t think it will give us an answer to “minimum requirements” unless we’re willing to accept a strictly statistical answer that is wholly dependent on the state of education in the country *today*, good or bad.

    >>”You’ve missed the implied premise: she’s implying that she doesn’t need to know how her students are doing *compared to other students*.”

    >>I don’t think anyone missed the implied premise. And I suspect that most would disagree with it.

    I’m a bit of a quibbler myself, so I was just trying to point out that there was no real error in “logic” in the original statement. Agreed, I don’t think many people missed the original point. I do think that knowing how your students are doing compared to others is useful. It can (might?) give us a better understanding of the different factors that influence a child’s ability to learn. And then some direction on what to fix.

    The bottom line for most of us is this: we want our children to come out of school knowing what they need to know. Period. What do they need to know? What skills should they have? Having more than the minimum would be great. Of course, there exceptional situations that we want to avoid. We don’t want them to be shot, abused, [insert parent’s fear here], etc. So, we want them to learn what they need and be safe while they’re doing it. Will “standardized” testing help make sure that happens? Yes, IF it is good and IF it is used appropriately. Will evaluating teachers’ performances be useful? Yes, IF they are held accountable ONLY for the factors over which they can control, and IF they are judged by a fair standard. I’m assuming that a lot of people would agree with these broad statements, but I also see that there many divergent opinions about how the conditions should be met.

  49. jeff wright says:

    Howard, that was me that made the unnamed post to which you responded. Sorry about that.

    You’ve discussed minimum standards and the difficulty in defining them. I agree. However, It occurs to me that, to borrow a famous SCOTUS decision about pornography, “I may not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.” I view education in a similar fashion. I think most people have a fairly good idea of what they expect to see in a high school or college graduate. I also think most people are disappointed in what they’ve seen in the past several years.

    Maybe testing—which will, of course define “minimum standards”—will work. I don’t know, but I think we should try it. The way we’re doing it now is clearly not working. And, in line with that, we absolutely need greater teacher accountability. If we don’t have the ability to get rid of poor performers, we will never get out of the box we’re now in. Kids will fail the tests, standards will be revised downward and nothing will have changed.

    Stop by any time.

  50. Dear SteveLabonte,
    I agree with you completely.

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