Monday, March 9, 2015

Three Questions For Cuomo: Part 1 (About Teacher Evals)

So I was all ready to go this anti-testing forum out on Long Island and my dog got sick. Like real sick. A last minute trip to the veterinarian (and $400 later!) and I'm left with a few empty hours. So while education policy is on my mind, and while I have the time, I'm sharing the first of a two part piece about Cuomo's education proposals for this year's NYS budget.

I'm not going to tow the union or the activist line here. Instead, I'm going to try to lay out as many facts as possible, then ask three genuine, legitimate questions.

My next post will focus on asking three questions about his plan for tenure. But this post is about his [planned change to the teacher evaluation system throughout the state. Particularly, I'm interested in the changes he is proposing to test scores.

Dispelling with our first myth ...

Cuomo's plan to change tests from 40% - 50% is just a negotiating tactic. I don't believe he truly wants the tests to count for half. My belief is that he wants the tests to count for 40% -just as they do now- but for the state exams to count for all 40% of that score. Currently, some schools offer different tests to count for the local portion of the evaluation (what's called the Measures of Student Learning) but the vast majority of schools have selected the method where state tests are simply analyzed a different way. Be it better or worse, the fact is that state tests already count for 40% of many our evaluations. They just examine the 'numbers' in a different way. Although this may be a surprise to many friends reading, the sad truth is that, if you accept that his "50%" position is just a negotiation ploy (and that he really wants to settle at a 40% number), his proposal really isn't anything new at all. It's just

First Question

The algorithm used to calculate the amount of value a teacher
has added to a student over the course of the year.
 The formula applies to only 20% of NYC teachers. Scores for
 the other 80% are are based on raw test scores (no attempt 
at all to compensate for socio-economi factors).  
You can't swing a dead cat (amongst the people I whom respect in this city) without hearing the words "Junk" and "Science" when teacher ratings are mentioned. It has become the refrain for rejecting VAM.

"Junk Science" is the term folks use to describe how teacher test scores are calculated for their evaluation score. According to lore, student test scores are run through a mathematical algorithm. It is via this formula that student test scores are compared with students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds (and other similarities) and the amount of actual value a teacher has added (compared to the value that other teachers adding to similar students across the whole state)  is tallied up into a "growth score". That 'growth score' is then added to a teachers' final yearly performance review.

That, in a nutshell, is the promise of VAM.

One thing the activists (whom I adore) and the "reformers" (whom I do not) have in common is that both sides would like you to believe that VAM is the process by which every teacher's score in New York City is calculated (NYSED even made a nice video about it that some activists have shared amongst themselves).

Another thing the activists and the reformers have in common? What they're asserting isn't at all accurate. In fact, the assertion takes us even further from the truth than we need to be if we want to make informed decisions.

While it is true that value added growth scores are used for some teachers, this process is not used for the vast majority of teachers here in the city. The VAM formula applies only to teachers who teach math and ELA in grades 4 - 8. That is about 20% of teachers.

The other 80% -the overwhelming majority of city teachers- are in an far worse position than the teachers who are subject to this junk science.

Far worse.

For those teachers -high school teachers and other middle (and primary) school teachers- their state growth score is this carefully now .. the straight percentile of how their students performed on the exams. NO attempt is made to separate the students who live in super rich households and neighborhoods from the students who live in such abject poverty that school is one of their lesser worries.

Under this system, the real system, student test results from a colleague who teaches in, say, Hunter College High School, or Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech is almost rotely compared with student test scores of a colleague who teaches in Murray Bergtraum or Automotive High School.

To make matters worse, these teachers aren't even afforded the benefit of being rated as individuals.  This too is myth. Their state rating is the result of how every teacher, whose courses ended with the same exams, "performed".

This is the default method for schools throughout the city (except for the other 20%): Their "Individual" rating is actually the result of the average of everyone.

At least VAM attempts to account for students from poor backgrounds.  The actual system -the one where we, in point of fact, live under each and every day- makes no attempt at all.

This is not the case with all 694 school districts in New York State. Different districts have different processes of rating their teachers. But the process of my district -for New York City- is precisely this way. Is this fair to anyone? Answer: No. But the current process is even less fair to teachers who teach students with low test ready academic skills.

Now the people I've come in contact with from the activist world over the past several years are brilliant and are wonderful. I respect them and admire them. They are warriors against making tests matter and they are my heros for doing so.  But as I review the schools where they actually teach, it occurs to me that many of them wind up on the upper portions of what is a real spectrum -one in which their students will perform better on standardized exams than other students from other schools and other communities who are not as well off. At the end of the day, they'll look like they're good teachers because, generally, their students will perform better on these tests.

This doesn't make them less credible in their efforts. MORE's position, for instance, is that all tests take away from the love and nurturing that real education gives students, not that 'the way tests are currently tallied' isn't fair. But I don't think those folks quite understand the dimension of urgency for teachers who took on an assignment in a more challenging environment.

For those other teachers, this is an urgent issue.

You see, I am one of those and I understand this system more than most and I just would love to have a VAM or a 'Junk Science' to complain about. As junky as it is, it's still better than the current system under which I am rated!

And the local measures for most city teachers are even worse! For many schools across the city, the same formula -of state tests- is used for one of the subgroups of students we teach. At one school in Brooklyn, teachers selected the 'lowest third' as their subgroup because, as the teacher explained to me "our school is the lowest third. It makes things less complicated". I hear similar stories from teachers in other schools.

That's the truth about the current evaluation system.

So here are my three questions for Cuomo's APPR 'change':

1. Will VAM -at minimum- count for all and not just some? I know NYSED has the capacity to embrace the VAM model for all grades and all schools.  If Cuomo wishes to make 'one system' under which everyone is rated, will I too get the benefit of junk science? If it will count for everyone, instead of just a celebrated few? Because if it would, I would support it. If it pulls 1/2 of those 80% of teachers -the ones who don't benefit even from 'junk science'- out of the fire, then I will consider ti my duty as a union member to support it. That's a total of 40% of the teaching force! Of course I'll support it if it at least makes the junk science count for (or against) everyone. Now I've read the blogs and the articles and the pieces of literature from both sides. I make no aspirations about what I would be jumping into. But, buddy, walk a mile in my shoes and you'll see that the true majority of teachers here aren't represented by the call against 'Junk Science". Most teachers ought to be screaming "Some Science!" or "Any Science!" at the top of their lungs before the cry "Junk Science".

Second Question 

Now in his recent Newsday piece (here), the governor hinted that tests may not count for all teachers in New York the way they are now. "Interestingly", writes Cuomo, "whatever percent is assigned to standardized testing will only affect a small minority of teacher evaluations as only 20 percent of teachers are in subjects and grades that have state testing."

Interesting indeed. Currently 99% of assigned teachers are subjected to this system that depends on tests results. Is he looking to change that? If he is, I'd be stupid not to support it. So:

2. Exactly how will tests be used under the Cuomo proposal? Does he plan relieve the testing burden for teachers who do not teach to a test? I am part of that 20% mentioned in his piece. But it would be dishonest and selfish of me to insist that my colleagues who taught Phys-ed and Music, Special Education and Art, Kindergarten and First Grade, be held to tests on their PR just as I am. This system is unfair for all parties involved but it is egregious for teachers who do not even teach a course that ends in an exam. A new evaluation system that would let these colleagues off the hook would be bad for me.

But, man it would be great for my colleagues!!!! And if the governor is proposing that, then I would -for the sake of my colleagues and the students they teach- root for the proposal to be ratified like a drunken sailor during Fleet Week.

Root for it.

Why? Well, because Solidarity isn't insisting that they guy next to me be as screwed as I am. Solidarity means looking out for him.

Third Question

Think about this for a second: No one knows -exactly- what we're all arguing against! Albany isn't what I would call a transparent city. So it must be pointed out that, as Cuomo advocates for his 'changes' and as the rest of the state is advocating against them, no realistic, detailed legislation has yet to be submitted for public review!!! We simply don't' know what changes this guy is actually trying to make. We don't know what (in detail) we're all fighting over!! Why is that?

3. Why haven't we seen the details of the proposal? There is a lot of fluff. We've all seen a lot of political theatre, but no details! Lots of speeches and interviews. But no details. This recent Op-Ed, tailored to suburban parents, is special because it complains that the real details behind the issues are being fogged by the protest. But they're really being fogged by him. You see, he hasn't release any detailed legislative draft at all that can be accepted as serious and finding one within the 'three men in a room' dynamic is just not going to happen. We'll all find out what Cuomo was thinking -on April 1 (or whenever the budget is released).

I don't mind telling you, watching everyone I look up to and everyone I do not arguing, yet not knowing specifically what they're arguing over, is just a bit humorous. Details count. Details matter. Details have meaning. Details can lead us somewhere. So where in the world are the details?

Depending on how those three questions are answered, I just may risk every friendship I have in this profession and support these changes. I mean, if I in my heart know they'll be better than the disaster we currently have, then I'll support them!

Sadly, my gut says Cuomo has no intent of letting 80% of teachers off of the testing hook and my brain says that he has no ability to understand that value added measures actually don't apply to most teachers throughout the state. But hey, its' possible. I don't want to steal possible.

Swing back here next week when I talk about the real current tenure system he says he's trying to reform and talk about some alternatives that I think my union will probably support.

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