Promises, ineptitude and overreach

Race to the Top was a loser, writes Rick Hess on the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion education competition. RTTT has become “a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.”

Instead of letting states come up with reform ideas, the administration created a list of 19 “priorities.” States could “ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.”

 Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

. . . States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.”

. . . winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin.

At the height of the Great Recession, dangling billions in federal dollars encouraged state education leaders to dream up new spending programs, Hess writes. Yet the value for grant winners amounted to “about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget.”

The Common Core might have been “a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states,” writes Hess. RTTT transformed it into “a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars.”

Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests.

Now, states are running from their Race to the Top promises, threatening the Common Core enterprise.

NEA tells Duncan to resign

Arne Duncan should resign, said National Education Association delegates at the teachers’ union’s annual convention.

A tipping point for some members was Duncan’s statement last month in support of a California judge’s ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers. In harsh wording, the judge said such laws harm particularly low-income students by saddling them with bad teachers who are almost impossible to fire.

Even before that, teachers’ unions have clashed with the administration over other issues ranging from its support of charter schools to its push to use student test scores as part of evaluating teachers.

“I always try to stay out of local union politics,” responded Duncan. “I think most teachers do too.”

Gates: Don’t use Core scores for 2 years

Common Core-aligned tests shouldn’t be used for  teacher evaluations and student promotions for two years, writes Vicki Phillips for the Gates Foundation. “The standards need time to work.”

Teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests, and offer their feedback.

. . . A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.

That makes sense. But it comes a few days after a Washington Post story on the foundation’s support for the development and promotion of Common Core Standards — and its extensive links with the Obama administration.

The foundation backed off on high-stakes testing after “calls for congressional investigations” into the foundation and its administration allies, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

How to un-bias classroom observations

Classroom observations — a key part of teacher evaluation systems — are biased against teachers with low-achieving students, concludes a new Brookings study of four school districts.

Teachers with students with higher incoming achievement levels receive classroom observation scores that are higher on average than those received by teachers whose incoming students are at lower achievement levels, and districts do not have processes in place to address this bias. Adjusting teacher observation scores based on student demographics is a straightforward fix to this problem. Such an adjustment for the makeup of the class is already factored into teachers’ value-added scores; it should be factored into classroom observation scores as well.

In addition, “observations conducted by outside observers are more valid than observations conducted by school administrators.”

Some teacher evaluation plans include a value-added measure for the school as a whole. This lowers the score of good teachers in bad schools and raises scores for bad teachers in good schools, Brookings concludes.

Only 22 percent of teachers in the study were evaluated on test score gains, notes the report. All teachers are evaluated based on classroom observation.

Good teaching, poor test scores

Evaluating teachers based partly on student test scores is unreliable, concludes a study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Researchers analyzed a subsample of 327 fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics and English-language-arts teachers across six school districts.

“Some teachers who were well-regarded based on student surveys, classroom observances by principals and other indicators of quality had students who scored poorly on tests,” reports the Washington Post. Some poorly regarded teachers had students who did well.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia require student achievement to be a “significant” or the “most significant” factor in teacher evaluations. Just 10 states do not require student test scores to be used in teacher evaluations.

Most states are using “value-added models” — or VAMs — which are statistical algorithms designed to figure out how much teachers contribute to their students’ learning, holding constant factors such as demographics.

Last month, the American Statistical Association warned against used VAMS, saying that “recent studies have found that teachers account for a maximum of about 14 percent of a student’s test score.”

“We need to slow down or ease off completely for the stakes for teachers, at least in the first few years, so we can get a sense of what do these things measure, what does it mean,” said Morgan S. Polikoff, a USC assistant professor of education and co-author of the study. “We’re moving these systems forward way ahead of the science in terms of the quality of the measures.”

‘Children of the Common Corn’

After watching a trailer for Scarlett Johansson’s new sci-fi-ish movie, science teacher Paul Bruno has been coming up with ideas for Hollywood movies on education at #EduFictionMoviePitches.

“The world’s scientists are debilitated by disease; laypeople race against time to cure them using only creativity.”

“By standing in the center of the classroom and filling a pail, a teacher inadvertently summons an ancient evil…”

“Children of the Common Corn”

Eric Horowitz jumped in:

“Futuristic sentient VAM computers go haywire and start trying to kill teachers with low ratings.”

Marc Porter Magee added:

“Minority Report 2. USDOE PreCogs predict bad teacher evals before they happen. PreFire teachers before grades slip.”

There’s more.

Terrible tenure

Palo Alto High principal Phil Winston was being investigated for sexual harassing students and teachers when he stepped down nine months ago, parents learned last week.  He’s now co-teaching special education students at a middle school.

According to a notice of “unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance,” Human Resources Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers ordered Winston to refrain from “profanity, sexual comments and innuendo, and derogatory terms;” avoid physical contact with students and employees; and undergo sexual harassment prevention training. He was also encouraged to seek counseling to help him understand “appropriate behavior boundaries.”

It was too difficult to fire him, reports the Palo Alto Weekly. “In California, the law makes it so expensive and onerous to terminate a credentialed teacher that most districts decide not to even try.”

Ninety-eight percent of California teachers attain tenure, known as “permanence,” after two years, writes Larry Sand in Terrible Tenure in City Journal. Are 98 percent so good they should have jobs for life?

Beatriz Vergara

Beatriz Vergara

A group of nine students is challenging the state’s permanence, seniority, and dismissal statutes. They argue they’ve been denied equal access to good teachers. Superior Court judge Rolf Treu will issue a ruling in Vergara v. California by July 10.

“If the students prevail, several union-backed statutes will be eliminated from the education code and declared unconstitutional,” writes Sand. “It would then be up to each school district to come up with its own policies on tenure and seniority.”

Nationwide, low-income and minority students are less likely to be taught by highly effective teachers, concludes a Center for American Progress report.

In the last 10 years, 91 permanent teachers out of about 300,000 (.003 percent) were fired in the state. Only 19 (.0007 percent) were dismissed for poor performance.

Only 2 percent of Indiana teachers “need improvement” and less than on-half of one percent are “ineffective,” according to a new teacher evaluation system that’s raising eyebrows.

Union leaders go cold on Common Core

Teachers’ union leaders have turned against Common Core standards, writes Tim Daly on the TNTP Blog.

National Education Association (NEA) president Dennis Van Roekel is demanding “course corrections” to keep NEA backing. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also is criticizing Common Core implementation.

Whatever unions leaders say, this is not about “botched” implementation or the standards themselves, argues Daly.

“The unions routinely complain that states are moving too fast in transitioning to the new standards, but the truth is that educators have already had years to prepare. In New York, for instance, the standards were adopted in 2010—four years ago. . . If four years is not sufficient, how long is? Eight years?

“Politics and job protection” are the real issues, Daly writes.

Unions hoped that the occasion of Common Core (and their support for it) might present an opportunity to roll back or dilute teachers’ accountability for results. (Never mind that, even when students begin to be measured against tougher, Common Core-aligned tests, there’s little evidence to suggest a drop in scores will put teachers at any real risk.)

As it has become clearer that no such accountability holiday is forthcoming—and that educators, in addition to schools, will be on the hook for advancing students toward the standards—the union withdrawal has been a foregone conclusion.

“Unions were already fighting accountability measures associated with Common Core at the state and district level,”  he writes. Now the strained alliance with the Obama administration is over. “The unions are now taking aim at the administration’s central education policies.”

Emanuel tries to turn Chicago schools

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fought fiercely for education reform in Chicago, writes Alexander Russo in Ed Next.  When he took office in 2011, Emanuel pledged “to do bold, concrete things—enact a longer school day and year, implement principal performance bonuses, expand International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and revamp teacher evaluations—and get them done as quickly and visibly as possible.” After three years, results are mixed.

Test scores have risen in the Windy City, but lag far behind the Illinois average.

Emanuel faced a $1 billion budget deficit and massive and unfunded pension liabilities. Enrollment was declining leaving schools half empty. The mayor rescinded teachers’ 4 percent salary increase to balance the budget.

The “newly energized” Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), led by Karen Lewis, went on strike for seven school days at the start of the 2012-13 school year. The new contract blocked merit pay and gave teachers 2 to 3 percent raises. 

Yet Emanuel was able to extend the school day and year and introduce a new teacher evaluation program.

Despite some progress, Chicago schools face budget problems, bitter fights over school closures and $19 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.

Emanuel and Lewis have not been able to work together on funding or pension issues.

Emanuel was pushing for a delay in addressing pension liabilities. “I’m going to turn this battleship around,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times, but “I’m not going to reverse 30 years of bad practices in just three years.”

Evaluation varies: Tale of 2 cities

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Teacher evaluations vary widely, points out This Week in Education. Observation counts 30 percent in Denver, and 60 percent in New York City. Student performance counts 30 percent in Denver, 20 percent in New York. From Scholastic Administrator.