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Measure for Mis-Measure with New York City Teacher Assessments

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When Michael Bloomberg was elected Mayor of New York City in 2001, the unemployment rate was about 5%. Today it is 9%. That certainly qualifies as poor performance in office. Value decline rather than "value-added." Let's fire him.

When Andrew Cuomo was first elected to state wide office as Attorney General in 2006, the unemployment rate was 4.5%. Today it is 8%. That certainly qualifies as poor performance in office. Value decline rather than "value-added." Let's fire him also.

Maybe you think I am being unfair. After all, how can we hold the Mayor and Governor accountable and assess their performance in office based on a decline in a statistical measure such as unemployment when they are hardly responsible for the national and global economic situation during the last decade? Yet that is exactly what the Mayor and Governor want to do with classroom teachers.

I am not sure if William Shakespeare was anticipating the current wave of computer driven data analysis when he wrote Measure for Measure in 1603. In this play, Shakespeare tackles the complex meaning of mercy, justice, and truth and the way they are impacted by both pride and humility. It certainly seems like he was describing Cuomo and Bloomberg, or maybe some other arrogant and autocratic officials, and their attack on teachers when he wrote: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall."

Four things stand out for me in much of the news coverage of the recent public release of ratings for 18,000 New York City elementary and middle school teachers. 1. The unreliability of the ratings. 2. The complexity of the rubric. 3. The arbitrariness of the scoring. 4. The quick exit from the classroom by many of the highest ranked teachers.

1. If you are going to make a big fuss about a new ratings system, it should at least be based on reliable data. However, according to the New York Times, the ratings have a "high margin of error" and are based on tests administered two years ago that the State Department of Education considered in need of major revision.

In a recent article, for his "On Education" column, Michael Winerip described one of the highest achieving schools in Brooklyn where four of the best fifth-grade teachers each received an unsatisfactory rating because students performed poorly on standardized assessments. Actually their students did not perform poorly at all, just below computerized expectations. This school does extensive test prep in the fourth grade to prepare students for acceptance into selective middle schools. In the fifth grade, instruction is much more project oriented. As a result, 97 percent of the fourth graders reached proficiency on the tests, but in the fifth grade, where real teaching took place, only 89 percent reached proficiency. Winerip estimated that the difference between the 89% and 97% proficiency ratings is the result of only three children in a class "scoring a 2 out of 4 instead of a 3 out of 4."

2. If something is too hard for an ordinary person to understand and there is no way to explain it to them, that may be because it does not make sense. Because the Bloomberg administration acknowledges it is unfair to directly compare teachers who work in different schools and communities and with different student populations, the Department of Education has created an elaborate formula that is supposed to take into account student race, economic class, ethnicity, parental income, language ability, and special needs, but does not ask whether they ate breakfast the morning of the test, had a fight with a sibling or parent, spent the night in the hospital emergency room, or just had a bad hair day. Maybe there are just too many factors to take into account to evaluate teachers on a single test score.

3. A big problem with rating teachers according to the average is that people who fall below average my still be very good teachers and there may be reasonable explanations for their "below average" performance by their students on standardized tests. Seventy-three teachers were rated below average although their students performed at or above the 84th percentile citywide on the standardized tests because they teach in schools where other teachers did even better. In the meantime, some teachers in poorly performing schools received above average ratings because their students performed less poorly than the school average.

4. If you ever say the movie Freedom Writers, a young woman pours her heart into teaching, changes the lives of her students, and then quits to work at a college. A similar scenario plays out in the book Small Victories, only the all-star teacher lasts a little longer. She was Jessica Siegel, a single, childless woman in her thirties, who did amazing things as an English teacher at Seward Park High School in Manhattan, who left the public school system to become an assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College. The reality is that all-stars often turn out to be shooting stars. They burn brightly and then flame out because no one can sustain the intensity and pace that they set. The Times highlighted three of the highest-ranking teachers on the city's list. Walter Galiano became an assistant principal two years ago. Natalie Guandique left the special education classroom to return to graduate school. Alison Epstein transferred to a gifted and talented class in another school. Three classroom all-stars, three shooting stars, each one of them has already moved on.

When I was a high school teacher, I had a reputation for successfully reaching angry, unhappy, or disruptive students. They would often be placed in my class by guidance counselors or the assistant principal to protect other teachers and spare other students from their outbursts. While this benefited my colleagues and all of the students, and I did not mind, if I agreed to this now I would probably be lowering my rating. If Bloomberg gets his way and merit pay bonuses are issued to teachers based on student performance, I would lose the bonus because of sound educational practice. In the future the incentive will be for teachers and administrators to jack-up their scores, and their salaries, by passing along their problem students to unsuspecting or naïve colleagues. Everyone's education will suffer.

At the end of Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio reveals his identity, Angelo the autocratic administrator confesses his misdeeds, the Duke proposes to Isabella, Claudio, Isabella's brother, is pardoned, and everyone is forced to be honest. Maybe New Yorkers can skip the play and find a way to force Cuomo and Bloomberg to be honest about the politicalization of education in New York City and State and its negative impact on schools, teachers, and children.

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