Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Teachers (and Students) Need

A recent hard-hitting LA Times piece on teacher performance in Los Angeles schools has dropped like a bombshell.  Reporters analyzed data from 7 years of student testing, from which they were able to determine specific students and teachers.  They developed what they call a "value-added" model, creating a hypothetical projection from past scores that they then matched to future scores, so that they could compare the two - what students would be predicted to score versus what they actually did.  They then used this as an assessment of individual teacher performance.  In order to compensate for individual student outliers, the results were averaged, pointing toward what they regarded as clear trends over time.

Then they published the results, identifying teachers by name.  While I do have some skepticism regarding the sweeping claims they make, the analysis does seem very interesting and I'd like to see further investigation.  However, some findings in the story raised some questions for me.  For instance, they made this claim:
Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
This doesn't make much sense.  We know for a fact that schools in more affluent districts dramatically outperform those from poor ones.  Yet while teachers in poor schools do tend to be less experienced, on average you would expect similar rates of good teaching across districts.  The Times story supports this.  However, the fact remains that poor schools perform worse.  The only possible explanation for this is socioeconomic differences, which has be found time and again to have dramatic effects on student readiness and what I like to call Student Capital - a given student's measure of human and social capital resources that facilitate academic agency.

This site, which maps individual school test score data across multiple states, shows clearly that the number one factor driving overall school performance is socioeconomic demographics.  I'm not sure how the article can say that teachers had 3x the influence on a student as the school.  My guess is that this is a misreading of the data.  A poor student may on his own do better at an affluent school, although I'm pretty sure I've read this benefit is actually pretty marginal.  But in order to properly test such a claim, you would have to take every student at a poor school and swap them out for every student at an affluent school.  Although from what the research tells us, the results just wouldn't be that different.  Not only are the teachers going to be of generally similar quality on average - as the findings in this story back up, but the students are still going to possess the same levels of Student Capital as they did before.

To the extent that teacher quality is emphasized to the diminishment of socioeconomic considerations, we just aren't going to make the kind of progress towards real reform that is necessary to truly making sure that every child is academically successful.

Yet the findings in the story are still important.  And teachers, and teacher unions need to take a deep breath and maintain the conversation.  Jonathan Zasloff, at the Reality Based Community, points out how some of the lessons of a story like this can get lost.  He contrasts the response of an LA teacher to the findings:
Caruso said the numbers were important and, like several other teachers interviewed, wondered why she hadn’t been shown such data before by anyone in the district.
“For better or worse,” she said, “testing and teacher effectiveness are going to be linked.… If my student test scores show I’m an ineffective teacher, I’d like to know what contributes to it. What do I need to do to bring my average up?”
with A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, responding to the story:
     The Los Angeles teachers union president said Sunday he was organizing a “massive boycott” of The Times after the newspaper began publishing a series of articles that uses student test scores to estimate the effectiveness of district teachers.
    “You’re leading people in a dangerous direction, making it seem like you can judge the quality of a teacher by … a test,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which has more than 40,000 members.
    Duffy said he would urge other labor groups to ask their members to cancel their subscriptions.
Zasloff finds Duffy's response as emblematic of teacher union intrangigence:
If progressives want to reinstitute faith in government, then we must demand the best possible results from public institutions.  And we also need to confront directly dinosaurs like Duffy who simply refuse to accept any accountability for his profession. 
I think Zasloff makes a good point. But he also has to acknowledge that teachers are under heavy attack right now, and that in such an environment people tend to get suspicious, reactionary and acrimonious. Much of the liberal establishment seems to have turned on us as well, and are pushing reckless policies without listening. But I agree with you, as a teacher the number one priority I have – and I know this may sound shocking – is that my kids are actually learning. If a standardized test can help facilitate this, then I’m all for it.

Of course, one of the big issues is, as he points out, being able to drill down and separate out the causal factors. Largest among them, yet routinely ignored, is the incredible difference in teaching environment that two schools in the same district might hold. What this means for teachers is that not only is performance going to be much different owing to demographics, but any progress made will have been much more hard won at one school versus another. This one single problem is something that neither NCLB or Race to the Top have dealt with in any serious way.

So while I completely agree with the teacher, and have a similar reaction to AJ Duffy’s response, I also know that he is on the front lines, trying to do the heavy lifting that is protecting teacher’s genuine and reasonable interests in an increasingly hostile policy environment. I think the type of testing in the story sounds promising, and it ought to be looked at more closely.

What everyone needs to remember is that what the modern public school system is trying to do is nothing short of revolutionary. It is essentially asking generational poverty to be broken on the backs of teachers. And I love this. This is why I became a teacher. But if we are really serious about doing this, we need to take a moment and look at what we are trying to force the system to do. Some teachers at poor schools will be achieving amazing things. The teacher next door may not be. But she may actually be just as competent as the teacher a few schools over who doesn’t have to deal with nearly as many issues. The reality is that you just can’t expect to put relatively equal resources into schools with wildly different demographics and expect every teacher to be amazing enough to compensate. It isn’t fair. You can’t build a transformational system around the idea that every teacher in a poor school has to be amazing.

And I guess that’s kind of the rub of how teachers are being treated today. We signed up to do this job because we wanted to help, and a certain amount of sacrifice goes with that. But it feels like society in general has seen so many Jaime Escalante movies that they think seem to think if we all aren’t working 14 hour days and coming in Saturdays we aren’t good enough. Maybe we shouldn’t have to, right? Maybe society ought to invest a little more money in its poor schools so that the job requirement isn’t super man, but maybe average man.

Imagine if we approached other public sectors this way? What if wars were won, streets were policed, fires were put out, mail delivered, etc. by spending as little as possible (indeed not enough to effect real reform), then complaining when the job wasn’t getting done that the workers just weren’t doing their jobs?

If teachers are going to be expected to get on board with looking at increased accountability, they need to feel like there's an equal policy response that addresses their legitimate concerns about the equity of the task they are being asked to perform.  Teachers wouldn't be in the profession, already making they sacrifices they do, if they didn't want every child to succeed.  And if you give them the respect they deserve, by acknowledging the complexities of their work and providing them the resources and tools to be effective, they will back you 100%.

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