Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Grading the teachers

Our school district had a district-wide faculty meeting a couple of days ago to discuss the new requirements coming down from the state education department regarding teacher evaluations and the so-called APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) standards.  At the moment, teacher evaluation is handled at the local level, and it's seemed to work well enough; all of the principals I've worked with here in New York State have been fair evaluators, and I haven't seen any particular need to alter the system.

But NYSED, which works on the "If It Ain't Broke, Mess Around With It Until It Becomes A Bureaucratic Nightmare" principle, has decreed that teachers are now not only supposed to be evaluated in written form, we're supposed to be given a numerical grade, similar to those we give our students.  "Turnabout's fair play," I can hear people saying (many of them will probably be my students); but wait a moment.  The grades my students earn are based upon hundreds of smaller assessments, which provide feedback continuously throughout the school year.  The grading system proposed by the state generates a single number, at the end, which will be some sort of mysterious composite of "locally-determined assessment rubrics" and such criteria as student achievement and student growth.  The details of how this will be done are unclear even to the policymakers in Albany; at the moment, all we have is vague, hand-waving sorts of talk about "metrics for assessing progress," and that local evaluations, of the kind we've always used, can only account for 60% of a teacher's score.

Of course, this opens up a whole host of sticky questions, none of which anyone seems to have answers to.  For example, what exactly do we mean by "student growth?"  Well, the state has said it has to be some kind of this-June-to-next-June comparison of student achievement.  So, if a student in my biology class scores an 85, and goes on to take chemistry and scores a 75, has he regressed?  Is his lack of "growth" in the sciences my fault (for not preparing him adequately) or the chemistry teacher's (for not teaching him so that he could keep his scores up to their previous level)?

Okay, what if you looked at composite scores for a particular teacher?  It's not any easier.  Do you give me good marks (because in my AP Biology class, I have 100% of my students with averages above 80) or bad marks (because in my elective class, currently 1/4 of the students are failing)?  How could you compare student scores from a teacher who teaches all AP and honors classes with one who teaches all remedial or special education classes?  I hope no one would fall for the ridiculous notion that the former's higher student scores are because (s)he is a better teacher than the latter is.

And in any case, suppose you did figure out a way to collapse a teacher's entire performance during a year into a single number, what would that number actually mean?  Suppose I got an 82 one year and a 79 the next.  What does that three-point drop signify?  Am I 3% worse this year than last year?  Suppose I got an 85 and so did a third-grade special education teacher.  What would the fact that we got the same score indicate about our teaching ability?  How can you use the same set of criteria to generate a score for two people whose jobs require completely different skill sets, and expect that that number has any actual meaning?

Then there's the added twist that schools will be required to make teachers' scores public.  That's right -- it will be out there for all to see:  GORDON GOT A 68 AS A TEACHER THIS YEAR.  We have a host of privacy laws covering students' grades -- I know a teacher who was reprimanded for publicly congratulating a student for getting 100 on an exam, because the kid was "put on the spot" and complained to his parents about it.  But our grades will be a matter of public record.  That should generate some entertaining lawsuits, don't you think?  The lawyers must be rubbing their hands together and cackling with glee over all this.

The most maddening thing about this is that because of President Obama's Race To The Top Initiative, we are being required to rush into this immediately.  We applied for RTTT because it promised money -- and New York State won, and our district got... $40,000.  A little more than the salary of a single first-year teacher.  And now we're being told to revamp our evaluation standards OR ELSE.  David Steiner, the Commissioner of Education, has passed along the message to superintendents that he has formed a 63-member study group to come up with a policy, and if they can't make their minds up by July 1, he's going to make up a policy of his own -- because we have to have the new evaluation procedures in place by next September.

So, once again, we are waiting for the micromanaging b-b stackers down in Albany to tell us the latest and greatest.  Honestly, I doubt it's going to have much impact on the day-to-day life of teachers; we'll keep doing what we're doing, trying to educate children as well as we can given the constraints of time, money, and energy we continually work under.  I do feel for the principals and superintendents, however, who are caught in the middle of this mess, and now have to figure out how to comply with a policy that no one (including the people in charge) seems to have the vaguest idea about.

The whole thing has me torn between laughing and screaming.  Part of me is just sitting back, grinning evilly, waiting to see what kind of chaos will occur when they try to make this work.  The other half of me, however, mourns for yet another blow to the educational system.  With the current troubles -- declining money, union bashing by politicians, teachers being vilified by the press -- it will be a wonder anyone in this generation of college students will choose education as a career.

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