February 25, 2009

On exaggerations in the service of bitterness

Today, Charles Barone indulged in some recriminations about the use of test data to evaluate teachers: "In fact, in many states there is tremendous pressure to pass legislation which assures a firewall-like separation between teachers and student performance. Such laws have already passed in California, New York, and Wisconsin; ..."

But let's examine that claim with regard to New York, about which others such as Kevin Carey and Jennifer Jennings wrote last April. The language:

3012b. Minimum Standards for Tenure Determinations for Teachers.

(a) A superintendent of schools or district superintendent of schools, prior to recommending tenure for a teacher, shall evaluate all relevant factors, including the teacher's effectiveness over the applicable probationary period, or over three years in the case of a regular substitute with a one-year probationary period, in contributing to the successful academic performance of his or her students. When evaluating a teacher for tenure, each school district and board of cooperative educational services shall utilize a process that complies with subdivision (b) of this section.

(b) The process for evaluation of a teacher for tenure shall be consistent with article 14 of the Civil Service Law and shall include a combination of the following minimum standards:

(1) evaluation of the extent to which the teacher successfully utilized analysis of available student performance data (for example: State test results, student work, school-developed assessments, teacher-developed assessments, etc.) and other relevant information (for example: documented health or nutrition concerns, or other student characteristics affecting learning) when providing instruction but the teacher shall not be granted or denied tenure based on student performance data;

(2) peer review by other teachers, as far as practicable; and

(3) an assessment of the teacher's performance by the teacher's building principal or other building administrator in charge of the school or program, which shall consider all the annual professional performance review criteria set forth in section 100.2(o)(2)(iii)(b)(1) of the Regulations of the Commissioner.

The part that was added last spring is in italics, but the rest remains, including clear performance references in bold. How are we supposed to read the combination of "the extent to which the teacher successfully utilized analysis of available student performance data... when providing instruction" together with the ban on granting or denying tenure "based on student performance data"? I'm not a lawyer, but obviously there has to be data for one to judge teachers on how well they use the data. My reading (which I think is plausible) is that one couldn't make a blanket decision based only on test scores, but you could grant or deny tenure based on how well a teacher used the data in adjusting instruction. This latter is pretty close to the best-world scenario of Response to Intervention (RTI) policy, which has a lot of research at least in core areas in elementary schools. In comments on Barone's entry, I wrote,

I think we may be reading the same legal language with very different lenses. To me, the tenure-qualifications language in NY state essentially conforms with RTI -- teachers have to show that they can use data. Those upset with the added language for this year -- which bars a brain-dead statistical formula -- must think it would be as appropriate and also easier to define effectiveness with test scores as what is currently allowed/required by law. Me? I don't think there's anything that's easy here to implement in a fair way, and there ain't yet no Holy Grail. I also suspect that there is no provision in NY law that prohibits the type of analysis of teacher education that Louisiana has been building for the last 5-7 years. Either I'm reading your definition of a firewall too broadly, or I'm misreading NY law.

Here is Barone's response, word-for-word (the bold-faced sentence is my emphasis):

It seems to depend on how you define "brain dead." The data can't be used, thoughtfully or otherwise, to inform tenure decisions. Whether there is a holy grail, or it hasn't been found, remains to be seen. But surely everyone agrees that poor and minority kids are getting the short end of the stick, and data available now can and should be used to help level the playing field for kids while we adults have our fun little debates. I notice you rarely use the word student or child, unless you are quoting me. I think we need to err on the side of the kids for a while even if it makes adults uncomfortable. If we wait for there to be a consensus among academics, today's kindergartners will be collecting Social Security before anything is done. If then.

The "bitterness" referred to in the title of this entry refers to this response. I'm disappointed by Barone's avoidance of the substantive topic by applying a rhetorical litmus test (how often I mention children in my blog), as well as the politician's logic here (something must be done; this is something; so we must do it). But let me get to the point: Barone is misreading the law. Data can be used to inform tenure decisions, and in fact, they must be, because the law requires that part of the tenure decision depends on teacher use of data. No data, no use of data -- no tenure. It may not be Barone's picture of how data informs a personnel decision, but Barone's claim is just plain wrong

Addendum: In comments, Barone argues that the New York state law is clear and bars use of test data for making tenure decisions. Here's the way to decide it:

1) Does New York law prohibit a district from denying tenure because a teacher refuses to implement Response to Intervention practices?

2) Is Response to Intervention something based on student performance data?

If the answers are "no" and "yes," respectively, I'm right. Any other combination, and Barone is right. Let's try another scenario:

Main office conference room, where the assistant principal is meeting with a new teacher. "Let's look at your student's last quizzes and talk about where they learned the material well, and where you might want to reteach."

The teacher holds up his hand. "Wait a minute. Am I going to be judged based on what I say in this meeting?"

The assistant principal nods her head. "In part, what I'm judging with your effectiveness is how you respond to student needs. C'mon. Let's just look at the quizzes."

"No way. State law forbids the use of student performance data in tenure decisions. I'm talking with my union rep!"

If Barone is right in the global sense, this conversation could really happen. But I don't think it could (or has). When Barone claimed that New York had put a "firewall" between teachers and performance data, I know he was thinking in the narrow sense of "if students perform poorly on standardized tests, then we should be able to deny tenure." But regardless of whether that is a good or bad policy, that's not the only way one can connect teachers and student performance. Expecting teachers to look at student performance and change instruction based on data is a second way, and New York does not bar it. Looking at teacher education and student performance is a third way, and New York does not bar it. Which of those three is good policy is an interesting and debatable question, but what is not debatable is that all three connect teachers to data.

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Tags: Charles Barone, New York state, teachers unions, tenure
Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 25, 2009 8:02 PM |