Monday, January 31, 2011

On data driven accontability

Data is powerful because it has the ability to provide the objective evidence we use to support claims valued by society.    Want to know if we are making progress?  Simply monitor the right data.  For example- Our schools are failing- just look at the most recent PISA results from reading and mathematics.   Want to know if students in Montgomery County Public Schools are "college ready?"   There is data for that too.  These selective still frames of evidence help us to build an argument- or in essence tell a story about successes and failures- from which we can hopefully make more thoughtful and socially optimal decisions.   It is thus helpful to think of data as a form of evidence that helps formulate an argument. 

No Child Left Behind has recently made famous this use of evidentiary argument.  If schools fail to meet certain performance thresholds across various demographic groups in reading and math, schools are labeled as "failing."  For this reason, many have hailed NCLB as the beginning of the accountability movement.    The result, of course, is that we now have thousands of failing schools across the United States.

However valuable data can be- and however useful it is in helping to guide decision making, the use of data also has serious though often ignored limitations.   We obsess not over solutions to serious problems, but over the most recent release of data points of dubious value.   As if that one data point could make or break a school system, school, principal, or teacher.  If the data can be moved, the reasoning goes, there must be progress.  Decision makers therefore attack data points, and not the underlying condition or problem which a data point suggest might exist.   Of course, we cannot simply conclude that policy decisions which target specific data points are all wrong all the time;  in fact, very often these decisions are accompanied by positive externalities.  However, it is also true that this type of decision making can prove particularly superficial, if not entirely problematic, when attempting to answer our most pressing issues.

As I was reading All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, I was struck by the type of catastrophic mistakes that can result when we try to fix data rather than problems.   By now, we are well aware of the housing crisis that led to the "great recession" of our generation.   In part, I believe this was caused by an obsession with data points.  As the book reveals, in 1980 the home ownership rate in the United States reached a temporary peak of 65.6% and by 1990, this number had fallen to 63.9%.    The country, according to the data, was failing.  A few years later, then President Clinton embarked on a concentrated effort to reverse this trend- announcing the specific goal of increasing home ownership by 8 million families.   The goal was noble- raise the percentage of people who own their homes.   How could we go wrong?

When we attack data points rather than underlying problems- we ask ourselves an inherently different set of questions than when we attack problems.  For instance, when we attack data like home ownership rates, we ask how it might be possible to move one more family, or one million more families, toward home ownership. We concentrate on the result- understanding that by increasing home ownership we realize success.  However, if our recent past is any indicator, this was indeed the wrong question.   To move the data point we did not have to increase the ability of people to afford homes, we could simply relax the  lending standards necessary to qualify for a loan.   Indeed, home ownership at the end of 2009 stood at 67.4%; the past twenty years verify the trend.  But how many people would dare declare we are now better off now than we were twenty years ago?   And how many people who own homes today wish they did not because they are not house rich, but pitifully house poor?

Home ownership is not an end- but one piece of evidence that could support a claim about standards of living.   To truly attack this problem, we must do something other than move an economic needle.   We must address a wide range of economic indicators of well being.  Not a simple chore- nor one that could be accomplished in the short political life cycle of an individual politician.

The same type of data driven decision making is made in education today.  Let me start by offering a common example of how principals might use data to evaluate a teacher.  As we know, a successful teacher will most often have a well behaved classroom. In education we call this skill behavior management. It thus makes sense to use office referrals as an indicator of behavior management.  The premise is simple, a teacher who refers many students to the office over the course of a year has a behavior management issue in his or her classroom.   Likewise, a teacher who refers very few students to the Principal's office has no such issues.   Hopefully by now, you see where this is leading.   A teacher who wishes to appear "successful" simply must forgo sending students to the office; in so doing the teacher eliminates the appearance of behavior management issues.  The principal need not spend valuable minutes or hours reviewing behavioral management techniques with the teacher.   And the teacher need not attend any professional development classes.   The problem- or I should say the appearance of a problem- has disappeared.

This type of decision making, decision making which targets data and the perceptions the data creates- is not limited to classroom teachers or principals.  In fact, I believe it is fully integrated into the culture of school systems nationwide.  To return briefly to the example of No Child Left Behind, we might imagine the following scenario: a middle school fails to meet the testing threshold for NCLB (known as Adequate Yearly Progress) in 8th grade reading.  The school therefore faces a probationary period before being added to the list of  "failing schools."  If the the school moves enough 8th grade students in the right demographic groups across the threshold, the school can once again be considered a darling.   So the school spends time, money, and resources targeting all students that are most likely on the precipice of passing the statewide 8th grade reading test.   The school, in order to avoid being taken over, smartly chooses to ignore students who are above grade level in reading, and furthermore decides to ignore students substantially below grade level (reasoning that no matter what interventions take place- those students are likely to fail).  The school then pumps resources into a group of 20 students in 8th grade reading that will likely make the difference between a "successful" school year and a "failing" one.   The school passes, and the principal and school announce their success.  All the while, there has been no change in the underlying problems that the school community may face.   Nonetheless, system superintendents continue to target data points that create favorable perceptions of their performance, and principals race furiously to make those superintendents happy.

The question is whether the data driven accountability movement will likely lead to the decisions that improve our educational system.   Unfortunately, most of those who make the decisions that affect students are not around long enough to see their impact. As far as careers go, it is much more effective to appear successful immediately.  With only three to  five years before the next big promotion, decision makers must act quickly (just enough time to move data).

Furthermore, adding more data points as evidence of success will do little to address the underlying problems faced by educators today.   Rather, the use of additional data only serves to occupy even more people with the time consuming task of figuring out how to move all the needles in the correct direction.   That is not to say that data cannot be useful as feedback or promising as a tool when considered holistically.  But the current trend that sends teachers and principals after nuggets of pseudo success will only result in more educational stagnation. 

These solutions fix data, but not education.  And we cannot afford to be underwater on our future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education and the (state of the) union

Who are we?   What do we stand for?   And how do we position ourselves to be the strongest possible professional workforce?   I wish I could fight for what I believe fulltime.  Instead, I am only left to watch and wonder: what could the teaching workforce be if unions led reform instead of responded to it?   What if teachers were the reformers instead of the protectionists?   That's an educational revolution worthy of pursuit.   The following excerpt is from John Merrow's blog, Taking Note.   In it he captures the heart of Obama's message on education.   If we could only hear it and act on it.
“Stop with the trade union stuff,” the President was saying. “Start putting the interests of students first.”

Unions don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, given the outpouring of anti-union and anti-teacher rhetoric and actions in New Jersey, Alabama, Wyoming and just about any state you can name.

Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two unions, seems to get it, but she has to persuade her mostly urban locals to move. The far larger National Education Association hasn’t shown any signs that I have seen that it recognizes that the ground has shifted, dramatically and probably permanently.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Waiting for Superman- logic for the pigeons

As my union says: if super duper left of left leaning Hollywood doesn't nominate "Waiting for Superman" for an Oscar, it must not be very well done.

Good one.

But apparently not only was it a grossly misleading film, it was apparently not a very well done one either...
The Academy Award for Documentary Feature is among the most prestigious awards for documentary films. Here are the nominees:

Documentary (Feature)

"Exit through the Gift Shop"
"Inside Job"
"Waste Land"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Say no to seniority

From the Boston Globe:
IN ORDER to attract the best and brightest to education, we need to make it worth their while. This means paying some teachers more than others based on their effectiveness in the classroom instead of their seniority and education level (“Teacher salary system decried,’’ Page A1, Jan. 18). The Boston Teachers Union can help kids and make the profession it represents more enticing by dropping its opposition to this reform.
And here, at

Cognitive dissonance is the holding of two diametrically opposed ideas at the same time and believing both of them equally. I think of this phrase often when confronted by the demands of teachers unions. On the one hand, the unions believe that teachers are incredibly important to the development of children — that they are dedicated educators who can change the lives of any child through their efforts.* On the other, unions resist methods to judge the efficacy of educators because, they claim, factors for success in school have little to do with what goes on in the classroom and everything to do with factors out of their members’ control: poverty, parental involvement, and other factors are more important, they claim.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Change far away from Maryland

Interesting developments in LA- brought to us by the Washington Post.

LOS ANGELES -- A judge on Friday approved a sweeping overhaul of how teachers are laid off in what education reformers hail as a landmark decision to keep more effective instructors in the classroom, but unions denounce as a step toward dismantling tenure policies.

And the classic union response:

"What it is really saying is that experience in teaching has no value," she said. "We feel that this remedy, if allowed to go through, will actually exacerbate the problem."
As if someone who goes from really really really bad, to just really really bad should be teaching because they got better over time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Someone else who doesn't get it

The Chicago Tribune editorial board recently published this commentary on the state of the education reform movement.   A movement which union leadership describes as an attack on the teaching profession. This is a poltical move by unions, and their sympathizers,that I have never quite understood. After all, this is not the fight for teacher livilhood that took place in 1900.   This is quite a different fight, in different financial times.    I think the Tribune says explains it best:

Some union leaders look at that and accuse us of teacher-bashing. This has reached a pretty silly level. In a recent newsletter, the president of American Federation of Teachers Local 604 awarded us his "2010 Doofus Award."

"The Tribune editorial staff has, for the past year, trashed public school teachers," wrote local President Dick Manley. "Whether the issue is tenure, seniority, pensions, salary, evaluation or respect, as far as they are concerned, we come up short. They believe that we are at the bottom of the food chain. … Color me defensive, if you will, but perhaps this is an example being judged best by the enemies we make."

Mr. Manley, since you raised it: Why are you so defensive? Why are some union leaders so defensive about teachers being measured on what their students learn?
We're so busy being defensive in fact, that we have no time to move forward.   And that is the real shame.   You don't need money additional money to move forward.   You just need the will.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to fire a teacher- Washington state style

Here is a wonderful post from in the great state of Washington about the tedious and often problematic process of removing ineffective teachers from schools.  To be honest, this is not too far from what it's like to get rid of an ineffective teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. Perhaps the only difference is that we add a whole year of peer evaluation and support, which makes principals even more leery of engaging the process.  From Tom in Washington:

I was standing in the faculty room one morning, waiting for the coffee to brew. Two colleagues were talking about principals they’d worked with, and one of them said to me, “Tom, you would be a great principal. I would love to work in your school.”

She should have waited until I had some of that coffee. I would have been a lot less blunt. “Really? because the first thing I’d do would be to fire you.”

Choosing to believe that I was speaking facetiously, she laughed nervously and hurried off.

(Fun fact: the word facetiously has every vowel, in order, including Y!)

Actually, I wasn’t kidding. If I really was a principal and she really was on my faculty, I really would fire her. She was a bad teacher. Ineffective. Weak.

But it would have been difficult.

Read the whole bit and you'll see why it is we're going the value-added testing route.   And unless alternatives arise, it's why we'll continue down that mountain.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Student's First- a take on evaluation

Michelle Rhee's new advocacy group, Student's First,  just came out with a rather extensive list of priorities.  I don't always like the tone- but I unfortunately find that much of what her organization says contains too much truth in it.   These are criticisms that unions should not take lightly.   Viewing this simplistically as a war on teachers might galvanize some, but will hurt the political clout of unions in the long-run.   There are valid criticisms here.  And to simply ignore them does a disservice to the majority of teachers unions pruport to represent.   I believe the following: that teacher unions will be better politically situated if they do not simply do what is best for teachers, but when they do what is best for teachers and students.   The public is perfectly willing to pay teachers more for what they do.   But they have reached a boiling point- they want to pay effective teachers more, not ineffective ones.   And until we acknowledge and address our faults- we willl  leave not only the public wanting- but the profession.   We will also in effect turnover political muscle and decision making to reformers- those who often have little educational experience.   This is not the fault of those reformers, as some would like to argue, but rather this is due to our own failure to address valid criticisms in a forthright and proactive manner.

The following  provocative ideas come from the Student First website.   Ideas that as I said, contain too much truth.  I can only imagine the union response to these "attacks."

Union leaders are legally obligated to represent the interests of all of their members, including ineffective members. Although union leaders express an interest in quality, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their organization to enhance unity and protect low performers. As a result, union leadership, or the vocal minority of teachers, disproportionately influences the evaluation process to skew toward interests that conflict with those of high-performing or promising teachers. The majority of rank-and-file teachers deeply value strong colleagues and a culture of excellence. The ethic of high standards becomes lost in the process when the union dedicates time, effort, and money fighting for the lowest performers. Simply put, labor leadership has a conflict of interest when it comes to evaluation of their members. Recognizing this conflict, steps should be taken to balance the mission of school districts against the collective interest of district employees. A school should not be impaired in its ability to serve families by an evaluation system negotiated to protect the jobs of poor performers.

In school districts across the country, superintendents have no choice but to accept the teacher evaluation system codified in local teacher union contracts. This practice has become the norm over the past 20 years, resulting in weak evaluation systems in district after district. Meanwhile, even the most forward-thinking superintendents rarely have the political backing to negotiate better systems, since school board elections can be easily influenced by highly motivated union organizers. In this way, unions often hold a controlling interest in both sides of the negotiating table. This conflict of interest creates a barrier to developing and implementing meaningful evaluations that are based on what practices will most benefit the students. By including teachers in the evaluation process and simultaneously taking it off the bargaining table, districts will have new opportunities to build on teachers' strengths, drive professionalism, and demand great results for their students.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is MCEA any different?

The Montgomery County teacher's union, MCEA, recently reprinted this post by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.   But as I read it over, I couldn't help but think that my union, MCEA, was no different than the political machine that created the problems Strauss blogs about:

[If we cared about children] we would never tolerate a poverty rate among children of 21 percent.

That’s one in five kids who live in poverty, or nearly 15 million children in the United States who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, currently pegged at $22,050 a year for a family of four.

And that, of course, doesn’t include the kids who live in families of four who make $22,051 a year. Or $22,052. In fact, research shows that families need an income of about twice the poverty level to cover basic costs, so at that rate, 42 percent of American children live at or close enough to the poverty level so that basics aren’t being covered.

Which groups in the U.S. are least likely to be in poverty?   The old.   Those on social security.   It is the same group of people who are politically active.   Those unable to vote?   Most likely to be in poverty.

Now let's talk about the haves and have nots in our union.    A 1st year teacher makes half as much as a teacher who has taught for twenty years.     A 1st year teacher is involuntarily transferred before a more senior teacher.   A 1st year teacher must be fired before a more senior teacher.   If our children are the second class citizens of society, then our new teachers are the second class citizens of the union.

I went to an MCEA Representative Assembly meeting in December.  My first.   The median age in that room must have been 50 years old.   Retired teachers have more of a say in our union than new teachers.  This is not hyperbole.   I could count on one hand the number of teachers under 30 at the meeting.  This despite the fact that 60% of our teachers have less than 10 years of experience.   Of course, this is just democracy in action.

We can say we're a democracy, but that doesn't mean we represent the interests of our constituents.  It is much more likely that we represent the interests of those who are politically active.   And that's why we continue to have arcane seniority rules.   And it's why we'll continue to have reform dictated to us from above.

Pleasant testing, kids.

A plan for removing teachers

Everyone is predicting bad things for next year's budget.    Here is a good one from the Gazette:

After noting that "no one here is an advocate on behalf of reducing staff in schools," Edmonds asked Weast whether the school system had a plan in place for determining which teachers should be let go first, if some have to be cut.

Weast replied that there was, but that the decision might have to be made in the latter stages of fiscal 2011, which ends June 30, because of uncertainty over state funding.
Of course there is  a plan.  First play bureaucratic hot potato.  Then play last hired, first fired.  Great idea!

Given that is our system, does it make sense to complain about a new system that will force us to recognize differences in teaching ability?    If you fail to recognize and fix your own problems, don't complain when someone else tries to fix it for you. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Sky is Falling- Until we do Something about it.

Here is the classic "we're all under attack" post from Anthony Cody on the Answer Sheet.   He laments the testing craze and the reformers who serve as its advocates.   He moves on to explain that teachers are too busy teaching to fight back:
 In our classrooms we depend on the authority of the school as we exert our own authority to maintain order. Accustomed to our place in the hierarchy, we serve "under" the supervision of our principals, as our students work under our supervision.  This deference to authority is perhaps one reason teachers have been so slow to understand the systematic attacks we face as a profession. But make no mistake, our profession, our retirement funds, our schools, even the classrooms in which we teach -- all are under a systemic and coordinated attack.

This is the wrong fight.   The fight should be a parallel one putting forth alternative evaluation systems that answer the oh so very valid criticisms on the state of our education system.   Yes there are other issues, as Valerie Strauss eloquently argues, that impact what goes on in schools.   Not the least of which is poverty.   However, until we tackle the fact we spend too much time removing extremely ineffective teachers, and not enough time removing mostly ineffective teachers, we will be forced to swallow the reforms of outsiders willing to address the failures we are not.  

I do agree on one thing- most teachers are not politically motivated enough "to get involved."   But I'm not sure they'd all line up behind Cody and company if forced to choose- if only those teachers weren't so busy!!!!

Here is a partial vision, however incomplete, as I see it.   I left the following comment at several days ago.   No matter what however, we must move forward with our own reform rather than spend time claiming the new reforms don't do enough.

In my system in Maryland we have what I would call a "partial" peer evaluative system. Admins still complete the evaluation, but master teachers serve 3 year stints outside the classroom providing feedback to both novice (1st year teachers) and tenured teachers rated unsatisfactory. I'd say they these master teachers make it into classrooms as little as once a month and as much as once every 8 school days depending on need of the teacher. The master teacher makes a recommendation but is completely independent from the admin. They are on the development side. The ultimate decision is made by a PAR (peer assisted and review) panel of teachers and principals. Good, but part of the problem is that tenured teachers rarely if ever make it into the system. Principals find documentation needed to place in the PAR system a pain. Teachers in PAR cannot make lateral transfers to other schools. And so it is under-utlized. I'd make some changes:

One, I'd make the teachers above a kind of evaluation team to be in charge of all evaluations- including firing. I like the 3 year rule- so that they'd have to return to the classroom. Admins would no longer handle evals- they would simply be in charge of the building- handling discipline and money and scheduling decisions. If they had issues with teachers they'd report to the teacher evaluators. In large schools, this would mean less administrators.

Inside the building, I'd like there to be a career path to become a different kind of master teacher- one focused not on administrative duties, but on instruction. I'd like this master teacher to be in the classroom maybe 60% of the time, but also have observation and staff development duties. THey would observe, support, and give feedback. Developing teachers would watch this teacher teach... in large schools, there would be several master teachers in a building. Like administrators they could report ineffective teachers to the evaluation team. The goal for every teacher would be to become a master teacher.

The first part, a roaming evaluation team would be expensive. THe 2nd part, placing master teachers in school building would just require a reshuffling of duties. Fewer admins, fewer team leaders or resource teachers. I was in a middle school once that must have spent 100 teacher hours planning for a 3 day outdoor edcuation event. A great event, but at a tremendous cost. Instruction takes a back seat.

Anyway- my big picture idea- is that we need people who are focused ONLY on instruction. If you're pulled away from admin duties those admin duties tend to take priority. Admins HAVE to order supplies, or plan meetings, or make sure there is sub coverage. Instruction often takes a back seat. I'm willing to embrace any system that makes quality instruction the priority- that makes it a culture.