Teacher evaluation rules: Rhetoric, research and resistance
With its proposed new teacher evaluation rules, the Public Education Department is ignoring the real needs of students and the concerns of educators.
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of Agranat’s commentary. Read Part 2 here.
New Mexico’s kids are caught in the middle of a political firestorm raging between the most powerful people in Santa Fe and educators committed to the children they serve.
The governor, her advisors and the Public Education Department are married to a reform plan that evaluates teachers using student test scores. However, “There is no evidence that evaluation systems that incorporate student test scores produce gains in student achievement (Burris & Welner, Phi Delta Kappan, 2011).”
Major research institutions and top educational experts oppose these measures. Nationwide, districts using these evaluations are backpedalling, and hundreds of school officials stand openly against them.
Last week, the superintendent in Atlanta renounced this evaluation system, saying, “I will not waste taxpayer dollars to defend a system that we have been warned will not work.”
Attacks get ugly
As the resistance grows, the attacks from those invested in the plan get ugly. Sunday’s Albuquerque Journal interviewed Governor Martinez’s top political advisor, Jay McCleskey. By seeking teachers’ contact information, he said he “…had hoped to send teachers political information on the benefits of proposed teacher evaluation programs being pushed by the Martinez administration…. ‘They (unions) don’t want teachers to hear both sides because if (teachers) hear both sides, they will be giving the union bosses an ‘F’ for accuracy,’ McCleskey said.”
Today, the “F” goes to McCleskey. Peer-reviewed research from the most esteemed organizations overwhelmingly calls these evaluation systems unstable and invalid. Both union and non-union teachers see the insanity of using measures with a 30-50 percent margin of error in a performance evaluation.
All teachers, regardless of union affiliation, know that student test scores do not accurately represent the quality of an educator, nor the value he or she adds to a school.
McCleskey’s implication that the “union bosses” are somehow hiding the truth is ridiculous. These must be the same scary “union bosses” from the reform commercials who are the “real bullies” in eerie, darkened schools, where terrified children cower at their desks.
Contrary to this propaganda, union leaders are democratically elected by teachers who place the needs of students above all else. We determine the union’s stance on issues, and that stance begins with what is best for kids. When leaders fail to represent us, they get challenged at conventions and step down.
McCleskey seems unaware that educators are academics, and are perfectly capable of doing homework. Our lives revolve around quality research, careful reading, and critical thinking. It is an insult to our intelligence and our profession to say that teachers cannot develop our own informed opinions. Unlike McCleskey, the education of children is our business, and we know quite well what we are talking about.
Seeing through the disinformation
We see right through disinformation from those who wish to ignore what is best for kids. The new newsletter from the Public Education Department states, “the fundamental intent of a new educator evaluation system is to recognize our exceptional educators and to remedy the injustice of the current system that merely states teachers either ‘meet’ or ‘do not meet’ competency.”
Despite that rhetoric, our current system does recognize exceptional educators. A Level III license is not just handed out. It is earned through a dossier of portfolio work showing teacher impact on student learning, plus advanced degrees, or through National Board Certification.
In contrast, the proposed system that will ostensibly “recognize exceptional educators” provides no recognition whatsoever for National Board Certified Teachers, Golden Apple recipients, or any other esteemed credential.
The “meets” or “does not meet” competencies section is the last piece on evaluation form. Given the cumbersome strings attached, principals are loath to check “does not meet” unless they have to. They want more options. It would cost nothing to simply change the form, adding differentiated levels of excellence.
Instead, New Mexico will spend millions on new standardized tests and test prep materials, scorers for those tests, and high salaries for psychometricians who calculate teachers’ ratings.
The only injustice here is that the real needs of students and concerns of educators are being universally ignored by the Public Education Department.
The governor and her allies will not back down from these teacher evaluations, regardless of the well-documented problems with the Value-Added Models (VAM) that will be used. VAM is the type of formula used to calculate school A-F grades. We have seen the outrage from parents, teachers and principals over huge discrepancies between first-hand knowledge of a school’s quality and its letter grade from PED.
Forcing their own agenda
During June’s Legislative Education Study Committee hearing, legislators derided Public Education Department officials for ongoing refusal to explain the VAM formula. PED’s response was that there are only a handful of people in the state who could possibly understand it, so it would be pointless to explain it to legislators.
Surely, PED appointees do not have such distain for New Mexicans or for those we entrust with state business. Yet, PED is using rules to write this evaluation system into law after our legislators rejected the same reckless proposal two years running. Perhaps some people think having three branches of government is excessive.
Beyond inaccurate, VAM ratings are set on a curve. As with the A-F schools, ratings will place a predetermined number of teachers in each category. Even if every teacher on the scale is a first-rate educator, the nature of the curve requires that a certain number must fall in the lowest quadrant. They will be deemed “ineffective” regardless of their actual quality. Perhaps PED has chosen to rectify the perceived injustice of the checklist with the actual injustice of grading teachers on a curve.
Teachers know that grading kids on a curve is unfair. Instead, we grade for mastery. There are organizations that rigorously assess mastery in teaching, such as the Golden Apple Foundation and the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), which has been recognized as the gold standard in teacher evaluation for decades. The National Research Council shows that “Advanced certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is an effective way to identify highly skilled teachers.”
None of the National Boards or Golden Apple measures of teacher excellence involve student test scores.
The NBPTS has even issued guidelines to help states craft quality educator evaluation systems. PED has chosen to ignore the recommendations from the world’s most respected organization of teacher quality assessment. They prefer to force their own agenda.
More to come
Beyond politics, we must examine how this new system will affect our kids. With this evaluation system, New Mexico’s public school kids will now take standardized tests in every course, in every year. Teaching to the test will become the norm, and the stakes for good scores will be even higher than they are now.
In Part 2 of this commentary, I explore the issues that arise at the school level when these systems are enacted.
A PED hearing on the proposed teacher evaluation changes will be held on Wednesday in Santa Fe. In the newsletter, they “encourage everyone to attend and express (their) views.” I hope we all take them up on this offer.
Alyssa Agranat is a teacher with Albuquerque Public Schools.
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