Sinquefield Goes After the Boogieman
St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield has invested in yet another education initiative. This time he gave $750,000 to Teachgreat.org, the campaign committee set up to oversee an initiative petition drive for a ballot measure designed to end teacher tenure. Specifically, the Teachgreat initiative would limit teacher contracts to no more than three years and require “teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted, and paid primarily using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system.” The money will be used by Teachgreat to raise public awareness and collect somewhere between 140,000-160,000 signatures to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Once again, tenure is being used as the great scapegoat of all public educations ills. Tenure is the boogieman that lots of people love to hate. It is used synonymously with terms like “lifetime job security” and “protection for bad teachers.” People simultaneously blame the unions for securing it for teachers and thus demonize the unions.
But all tenure guarantees a k-12 public sector teaching employee is the right to due process in possible dismissals. This means that you cannot fire a teacher (or other public sector employee) for just any reason. You must have “just cause” and you must go through a process, as prescribed by law, to eliminate them. Why is this necessary? Because public sector management is subject to the same foibles as private sector management. Nepotism, cronyism, poor management style and personality conflicts exist in education just as they do in other businesses. Complicating the picture for teachers is the fact that they have many bosses: principals, superintendents, school board members and parents, all of whom could have many excuses for setting their sights on eliminating a particular teacher (the school needs a new coach and needs a teaching position to put him in, district board members who don’t like the way their child is being graded, parents of high achieving students who threaten to sue if their child’s grades aren’t high enough for him/her to gain acceptance to the college of their choice and who are friends with the principal etc. – all true cases.) Tenure only guarantees them due process to defend themselves.
You may ask then, why districts might be keeping bad teachers. There are a few reasons like lazy principals. Because you must show just cause, a principal must make a case, following the law, to terminate a teacher. This takes time and effort, something not every principal cares to take. There are more than a few lazy principals. Another factor is the terribly high turnover rate for new teachers. Almost 50% of teachers quit their jobs during the first five years. The ones that are willing to stay on and work it out typically receive high marks during evaluations. Most of these people are effective because the ones not suited to the job usually quit early in the game. However, if it turns out they are not really the best, just the ones with the most tenacity, it becomes much harder to make the case for firing a teacher who has received a “very effective” rating for the last five years.
This is the other side of teacher tenure and evaluations that the average parent is unaware of.
The Teachgreat initiative uses tenure as the excuse for poor education and for that it should be slapped on the wrist. But the initiative goes one further dismal step by replacing quality teacher evaluations with student test scores. This is sometimes referred to as the Value Added Model and it turns out it has less statistical accuracy than a random number generator.
Guy Brandenburg, a retired DCPS mathematics teacher, provided testimony before the DC City Council Committee on Education Roundtable looking at the value added model for teacher evaluation. The exact formulas in these models are shrouded in secrecy, but generally they subtract the test score of the student at the beginning of the school year from the student’s score at the end and make statistical adjustments to account for factors outside a teacher’s control, such as the income level of the student’s family. Brandenburg testified that “Value-Added measurements that are used to evaluate teachers are unreliable, invalid, and do not help teachers improve their methods of instruction. To the contrary: IVA measurements are driving a number of excellent, veteran teachers to resign or be fired from DCPS to go elsewhere.”
Brandeburg supplied three wonderful graphics to make it clear to even the most casual observer that VA scores are just plain useless. The first graph was created by a random number generator to show that there is no correlation between the x and y axis. The second chart shows the value added scores of DC teachers plotted against their classroom observation score. If there was a correlation we should see the two coming together on a line.
It looks pretty much like the random chart. Brandenburg went one step furhter and used data leaked by the New York Times of NYC teachers IVA scores (individual value added) for several years, looking for correlation in a larger sample. What do you think? See any correlation in the data?
John Ewing, former Executive Director of the American Mathematical Society wrote a detailed piece for the Washington Post explaining the problems with the VAM. He said, “Even people who point out the limitations of VAM appear to be willing to use “student achievement” in the form of value-added scores to make such judgments. People recognize that tests are an imperfect measure of educational success, but when sophisticated mathematics is applied, they believe the imperfections go away by some mathematical magic. But this is not magic. What really happens is that the mathematics is used to disguise the problems and intimidate people into ignoring them—a modern, mathematical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Well Rex Sinquefield and Teachgreat would like you to think there is a correlation. Remember that when someone asks for your signature on a petition to get rid of that “horrible teacher tenure that is keeping bad teachers in our schools.” Some version of the Value Added Model is what Teachgreat thinks we should replace our teacher evaluations with. We will be just as likely to get rid of good teachers as bad.
Do I think teachers should be evaluated? Absolutely. Do I think the bad ones should be protected? Of course not. Nor do other teachers who have to suffer with their students in other classes. There is no union conspiracy to keep bad teachers in place. They will just collect dues from the replacement. Are student performance scores a nice neat way to identify the bad ones and get rid of them? Nope.