Colleges balk at plan to grade teacher ed

The U.S. Education Department wants to grade ed schools and teacher training programs on performance, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. Do graduates find and keep jobs? Do they do well on evaluations? And — most controversial — do their students’ test scores show academic progress? Would-be teachers in low-scoring training programs would lose eligibility for federal student aid, known as TEACH grants.

Meg Honey teaches AP U.S. History class at Northgate High in Walnut Creek and also teaches instructors at Saint Mary's College. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

Meg Honey teaches AP U.S. History class at Northgate High in Walnut Creek and also teaches instructors at Saint Mary’s College. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

The proposal was announced in December and could be finalized by mid-year. Education schools hate it.

“Value-added” measures of student growth are unreliable, argues Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford education school.

Regulations would penalize programs that prepare teachers for inner-city schools, said Kathy Schultz, dean of the Mills College School of Education in Oakland. Mills teachers often work in Oakland.

“The State Board of Education, California State University and others in the state education establishment” claim the regulations would cost California $233 million to develop new tests and about half a billion dollars a year to enforce, writes Noguchi.

But critics have trouble coming up with alternative ways to ensure new teachers are well prepared, writes Noguchi. “Schools of education have resisted measuring and releasing data about themselves.”

 “The inability of California to name what an effective teacher is creates the conditions where we go round and round,” said Tony Smith, former superintendent in Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco and a regulation backer. “One of the key components of effectiveness is that a child makes a year’s growth in a year’s time.”

“Teaching is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs there is,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teaching Quality. “Yet for reasons that are hard to fathom, it appears to be one of the easiest majors both to get into and then to complete.”

Getting classroom observations right

For all the talk of “value-added” performance measures, most teachers can’t be evaluated by gains in their students’ test scores because they don’t teach tested subjects or no prior test scores are available, write Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos and Katharine M. Lindquist in Education Next. That makes it important to get classroom observations right.

“Teacher evaluations should include two to three annual classroom observations, with at least one of those observations being conducted by a trained observer from outside the teacher’s school,” they recommend.

In addition, classroom observations “should carry at least as much weight as test-score gains in determining a teacher’s overall evaluation score when both are available.”

ednext_XV_1_whitehurst_fig03-smallTeachers with lots of low-performing students complain they’re rated ineffective unfairly.

That’s true, say the researchers. “Districts should adjust teachers’ classroom-observation scores for the background characteristics of their students, a factor that can have a substantial and unfair influence on a teacher’s evaluation rating.”

Scores can be adjusted for “the percentages of students who are white, black, Hispanic, special education, eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, English language learners, and male,” they write.

Poor kids’ teachers score low, but why?

New teacher evaluation systems tend to give lower ratings to teachers with disadvantaged students. Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuk asks the critical question: Are the ratings biased? Or do high-need kids get fewer high-quality teachers?

Value-added measures (VAM) are supposed to judge teachers by whether they’ve done better than previous teachers at improving their students’ progress. But many question whether VAM is a reliable measure of teachers’ effectiveness.

Evaluation systems also include classroom observations. And those have problems too, writes Sawchuk. “Observations by principals can reflect bias, rather than actual teaching performance,” writes Sawchuk.

Yet we also know that disadvantaged students are less likely to have teachers capable of boosting their test scores and that black students are about four times more likely than white students to be located in schools with many uncertified teachers.

Teachers in low-poverty Washington, D.C. schools were far more likely to ace the teacher-evaluation system, IMPACT, observes Matthew Di Carlo, at the Shanker blog.

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The Pittsburgh teacher-evaluation program shows similar results, according to a federal analysis, writes Sawchuk. “Teachers of low-income and minority students tended to receive lower scores from principals conducting observations, and from surveys administered to students. Those teaching gifted students tended to get higher ratings.”

It’s hard to know whether all methods of evaluation are inaccurate or whether a “maldistribution of talent” explains the low scores for teachers of disadvantaged students, concludes Sawchuk.

It will be hard to persuade teachers to work in high-poverty, high-minority schools if they know they’ll risk being rated ineffective.

Weaker teachers leave under new tenure policy

Ineffective teachers were more likely to leave voluntarily after New York City principals got tougher on awarding tenure, according to a working paper by Stanford researchers. After a new policy was adopted in 2009-10, few teachers were denied tenure but many more had their probationary period extended instead of receiving tenure.

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“Extended” teachers who were less effective — by principals’ judgments and value-added measures — were the most likely to leave, reports Ed Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck. They were replaced by stronger teachers, on average.

The district started supplying more data on teachers to principals, asking them to weigh performance observations, reviews of teachers’ lesson plans, and in limited instances “value-added” data based on test scores. And it began requiring principals to justify their decisions about whether to grant or deny tenure—particularly if it didn’t match up with the data. Principals could also extend the tenure decision for another year if they weren’t ready to make a final call.

The new policy improved the overall quality of the teaching force, the study concluded.

Teachers in schools with high concentrations of black and low-performing students were more likely to be “extended,” the study found. “We have a chicken-and-the-egg problem here,” said United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley. “Were people less likely to have probation extended because their kids are more successful, or is it the other way around?”

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.

Best growth measure levels the field

It’s possible to choose a measure of student growth that levels the playing field by “comparing the performance of schools and teachers that are in similar circumstances,” write researchers in Education Next.

Study: Top teachers perform well after transfer

Top elementary teachers who transferred to low-performing schools under a bonus program boosted their students’ learning significantly,” reports Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk.  Middle school teachers who transferred did not produce gains, according to a Mathematica study of the federally financed Talent Transfer Initiative.

Most highly effective teachers turned down the transfers, notes Sawchuck.

 The top 20 percent of teachers in each district were identified using each district’s own “value added” measure.  They were offered a $20,000 bonus to switch, paid out over a two-year period. (Effective teachers already in those schools got $10,000).

Of 1,500 eligible teachers, only 81 decided to transfer to qualify for bonuses.

Tranferring teachers were more likely than colleagues to stay at their new schools during the two years when bonuses were paid. After that, they left at the same rate as other teachers.

Students in high-poverty, low-performing schools are much less likely to be taught by experienced and highly effective teachers, say advocates. But it’s not clear whether a teacher who’s effective with easy-to-teach students will be effective with high-risk students.

A different study last year also found teacher effectiveness is transferable, writes Sawchuk.

Parents back teachers, reforms

Parents believe teachers are doing a good job, but they also strongly support teacher-quality reforms, according to a new Joyce Foundation survey on parents’ attitudes on the quality of education.

While those surveyed said teachers  should be supported and paid more, they also wanted to use multiple measures, including student achievement growth, in teacher evaluation, compensation, and lay-off decisions. Parents also want “to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom and provide financial rewards to help teachers succeed.”

While only half of the parents say they’re familiar with Common Core standards, they overwhelmingly believe the new standards will improve education, the survey found.

Minority and low-income parents are more likely to see serious problems in their schools—from low expectations to bullying to out-of-date technology and textbooks—than those who are affluent or white,”  Ed Week notes.