First Person

Some thoughts on teacher effectiveness

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I finished Steven Brill’s popular (infamous?) book about the school reform drama, “Class Struggle,” about a month ago.  No, I don’t plan on offering my take on the narrative.  Enough bytes have already been expended on that.  But even though I finished it and have read several other books since, one small, virtually inconsequential paragraph continues to resonate with me.

Brill describes a major frustration Eva Moskowitz, the brilliant creator of the Success Charter Network in NYC, experienced as a student at Stuyvesant High School:

Stuyvesant is New York’s star high school, from which an outsize portion of students, like Moskowiz, cruise into the Ivy League.  But to Moskowitz, many, if not most, of the teachers were anything but stars.  She thought half of the teachers were incompetent and vividly remembers math and science classes where “the students, who were all gifted, literally carried the class.  The teachers were cruising on the students’ talent,” she says.  “I remember one of the kids taught the rest of us physics, while the teacher sat there drunk . . . It was easy to be a teacher there.”

This stuck with me because, as a Stuyvesant alum myself (who did not go onto the Ivy Leagues), I totally agree.  I don’t think any of my teachers were drunk in class, but my high school memories are also littered with teacher experiences that demonstrate either severe incompetence or gross neglect.  Either way, I can’t think of any way to justify why these individuals were allowed to be instructing in any classroom.

The not-so-sterling example of “Mr. P.”

Let’s take Mr. P, for example.  I was “lucky” to be assigned to Mr. P’s geometry class both semesters my freshman year. The class format was supposed to consist of sitting down in our seats, solving the warm-up problems already on the board individually, working them out as a class, and then the day’s instruction. Seems straight forward enough. But I say “supposed to” because class rarely proceeded that way.

Typically, the board was blank and Mr. P was in his seat when we walked in. Mr. P would proceed to write a few problems on the board as he chatted with students, after class had started, a process that usually took 15-20 minutes of a 50 minute class. The rest of the class would be engaged in anything but geometry during this time, usually conversing in small groups or catching up on homework from other classes (since homework was virtually non-existent in Mr. P’s class). He would then sit in his chair and continue with student conversations. Maybe we would get to the problems, usually we wouldn’t.  Rarely were we ever actually taught anything geometric. And so went my entire year of high school geometry.

One would think that our lack of learning would be made evident when our test scores on class assessments and the Regents exam (NY’s standardized test) where revealed, but this was Stuyvesant.  Practically every student cared immensely about those Regents scores since these were used for college admissions, so we all independently studied for that exam and most of us aced it.  And I can’t say for sure, but I doubt our classroom assessments were ever reviewed outside of Mr. P’s class.  So, in terms of pure student performance, Mr. P was a star.

The flip-side of weighing test scores too heavily in evaluation

Now this is not to say that every – or even most, as Eva states – teachers at Stuyvesant were bad; the majority of my teachers were actual stars.  But, this blast from my past does offer insight in regard to two aspects of teacher effectiveness that I believe are essential.  The first concerns the accuracy of weighting standardized tests too heavily in effectiveness scores, but not for the reason usually presented by those who oppose that measure.

Beyond the common argument that an effective teacher may get a poor rating due to low student performance on a standardized test for any of the myriad of reasons people cite, we also need to consider the case of a lousy teacher being rated effective when clearly he is not.  If we judged Mr. P’s effectiveness as a teacher either solely or too heavily on his student’s performance, then he would likely be considered highly effective when it is obvious he was not.  Falling into the trap of relying too heavily on student performance to measure teacher effectiveness distorts that effectiveness rating and can quickly lead to an ineffective evaluation system with no buy-in.

That’s why I am glad that a robust evaluation system which takes multiple measures of effectiveness into account is being developed by Colorado. Evaluating teacher performance using multiple measures – along with student performance – will allow for a richer and more accurate assessment of teacher effectiveness.

The key is getting these multiple measures and the structure of the system right.  That means a system that is fair, transparent, timely and, importantly, consistent to allow for comparisons within and across districts. And from the looks of the draft rules, I believe that we are moving firmly in that direction.

Adding sharper teeth to effectiveness-based employment decisions

The second essential component is a little more controversial. Employment decisions should be closely coupled to a teacher’s effectiveness.  In my mind that means more than the potential loss of tenure.  It should have more teeth and also include the gamut of personnel decisions: hiring, assignment, continued employment, transfer and termination.  And with a robust and balanced evaluation system in place, these employment decisions can and should be made in a rapid and timely fashion.

Colorado is not going down that route now, but here’s hoping that one day we will.  Because every school year that an ineffective teacher is allowed to remain in the classroom means another group of kids is cheated out of learning opportunities.

Other than some sour memories, having Mr. P for geometry did not negatively affect me.  But that doesn’t mean we should accept allowing ineffective teachers to continue reaching kids in any classroom.

We as a state and society have to build the collective will to ensure that teacher effectiveness is paramount in public education. That means recognizing and rewarding highly effective teachers, as well as removing chronically ineffective teachers from the classroom.  Doing otherwise is unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.