Bloomberg Makes Teacher Rankings Public, Nails Names to Church Door

by Christopher Paslay

The Bloomberg administration has made public the performance rankings of its city schoolteachers, despite limitations of the data and flaws in the evaluation system.   

It’s official: The New York City Education Department has won the legal right to make public the performance rankings of its teachers.  An article in Friday’s New York Times summed-up the situation:   

“After a long legal battle and amid much anguish by teachers and other educators, the New York City Education Department released individual performance rankings of 18,000 public school teachers on Friday, while admonishing the news media not to use the scores to label or pillory teachers.

The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year. The city released the reports after the United Federation of Teachers exhausted all legal remedies to block their public disclosure.”

The fact that the New York City Education Department felt the need to warn the media not to use the scores to ridicule teachers is interesting because it provides a window into what is truly on their minds: The public shaming of city schoolteachers. 

Bill Gates, who has donated tens of millions of dollars to public education, agrees.  In a New York Times opinion piece headlined “Shame Is Not the Solution,” he wrote:

“Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating”—a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores—and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap—by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public—are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.”

Dennis M. Walcott, Chancellor of New York public schools, said his goal isn’t to shame teachers.  “I don’t want our teachers disparaged in any way, and I don’t want our teachers denigrated based on this information,” he said.  But if this is true, why make the information public?  Isn’t it enough that teachers, principals, and other school administrators in the city have access to the data to improve instruction?

Interestingly, on top of the controversial “shame” factor associated with the public rankings, there are other problems with this cost-cutting teacher evaluation system.  Here are several:

  • Only teachers of reading and math get rated, as do those who teach grades 4 – 8. 
  • The rating system—which is based on a score of 1 to 100—has an incredibly large margin for error, according to city education officials and statisticians.  On average, a teacher’s math rating could be off by as much as 35 percentage points, and in reading by 53 points. 
  • Some teachers are being judged on as few as 10 students.
  • One teacher received a ranking for a semester when she was on maternity leave.
  • Some teachers who taught English were ranked for teaching math.  
  • City officials said 3 percent of teachers have discovered that their reports were based on classes they never taught.
  • The rankings follow a predetermined bell-curve that dictates 50 percent of teachers must be ranked “average,” 20 percent must be ranked “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent must be ranked “high” and “low”.       

But still, the data can be used to improve instruction, right? 

Probably not.  First, the data is nearly two years old and no longer relevant.  Students have moved on to new classes and teachers have new cohorts of students.  Second, a portion of the data has been discredited by suspected cheating.  Third, only 77 percent of the 18,000 teachers ranked are still employed by the Education Department, and a number of those people have taken new jobs outside the classroom.              

So how do others in the education community feel about the newly developed public rankings?  University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris, who works at the school where the rankings were created, said that making the data public “strikes me as at best unwise, at worst, absurd.” 

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan loves the idea.  “Silence is not an option,” he said.    

Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch, although acknowledging the need for strong teacher evaluation systems, wrote that the rankings exist primarily to pin society’s problems on teachers, the universal scapegoat.    

“Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.”

It’s still unclear how a flawed rating system that will ultimately shame many schoolteachers and hurt morale is going to effectively improve instruction.  Although the New York City Education Department insists otherwise, it seems apparent the new high profile evaluations exist primarily to satisfy the public’s urge to place schoolteachers in the stocks and nail their so-called “sins” to the church door.

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Bloomberg and Christie Ignore Major Findings on Performance Pay

by Christopher Paslay

Despite growing evidence that performance pay has no effect on student achievement, politicians continue to push for its use.   

In July of 2011, the RAND Corporation issued the following news release about their study on performance pay in NYC public schools:

“A New York City program designed to improve student performance through school-based financial incentives for teachers did not improve student achievement, most likely because it did not change teacher behavior and the conditions needed to motivate staff were not achieved, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

From 2007 to 2010, nearly 200 high-needs New York City public schools participated in the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program. The study, commissioned by the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers and funded by the New York City Fund for Public Schools and National Center on Performance Initiatives, is the most comprehensive study on the city’s performance pay program.”

How has New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reacted to the news?  He wants to double-down on performance pay.  In his State of the City speech last Thursday, 1/12, Bloomberg stated he would push to overhaul the city’s teacher evaluation system, and give top teachers $20,000 bonuses.     

Why has Bloomberg ignored the conclusions drawn by the RAND study?  Because politicians such as Bloomberg realize that the public is more interested in the heightened regulation of teachers than in the actual education of students.      

In 2010, two additional studies on performance pay were released with the following conclusion: performance pay had no effect on student achievement. The first study, by Mathematica Policy Research, took place in Chicago and was published in May of 2010. Of the study, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk writes:

“Preliminary results from schools taking part in a Chicago program containing performance-based compensation for teachers show no evidence that the program has boosted student achievement on math and reading tests, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools, an analysis released last week concludes.”

A second study, which involved almost 300 middle school math teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and was released in September of 2010, revealed much of the same results. Of this study, Education Week reporter Sawchuk writes:

“The most rigorous study of performance-based teacher compensation ever conducted in the United States shows that a nationally watched bonus-pay system had no overall impact on student achievement—results released today that are certain to set off a firestorm of debate.”

Interestingly, a “firestorm of debate” didn’t materialize. In the weeks following the report’s release, supporters of merit pay, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all but ignored the study, dismissing the findings as premature and too narrow. In fact, like Bloomberg, some education reformers held even tighter to the idea of using merit pay to boost student achievement. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one week after the findings were made public, announced that he was going to indeed tie teacher pay to student achievement.

Despite enthusiasm from politicians such as Christie, many of America’s school teachers insist they are not motivated by merit pay. According to a 2010 report conducted by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled Primary Sources: America’s Teacher’s on America’s Schools, supportive leadership is listed by educators as the most important factor impacting upon teacher retention. Time given for teachers to collaborate is ranked second, followed by access to high-quality curriculum and a clean and safe building environment. Ranked ninth—dead last—was merit pay.

Likewise, not many teachers felt monetary rewards for teacher performance would have a strong impact on student achievement. Of the 40,000 teachers surveyed in the study, 30 percent said that merit pay would have no impact at all, while 41 percent said it would only have a moderate impact.

Still, supporters of performance pay insist it’s a viable way to increase learning. Dom Giordano, the Philadelphia-based broadcaster and radio personality, wrote in a 2010 commentary for the Philadelphia Daily News that, “all signs point to the conclusion that teachers should join the real world and get paid based on performance.” Giordano’s less-than-polite remarks are not only typical of the public’s anti-teacher sentiment but also an example of how grossly misinformed the average person is on the workings of education (yes, I am well aware that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Mr. Giordano was a school teacher).

Merit pay may indeed deserve further exploration, but to insinuate that teachers live in some fairytale world is preposterous. If teaching is so easy, if educators are taking free money, then why do so many quit every year? Why is teacher retention costing America seven billion dollars annually?

The fact remains that teaching isn’t easy, that despite low test scores, nearly all teachers face enough daily challenges to earn their keep.  In addition, quality teaching is based on a complex set of variables, teacher motivation being the least of them.  Let’s hope that politicians in the Philadelphia area make an effort to acknowledge this reality, and don’t waste money and resources on policies that have little effect on student achievement.