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A union leader calls for better teacher evaluations and less “glacial” due process

By Katy Murphy
Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 at 6:29 pm in teachers.

randi weingartenI finally had the chance to read Bob Herbert’s Op-Ed in the New York Times about American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten: specifically, about her proposal to create more rigorous teacher evaluations and ways to help teachers improve, as well as a more efficient disciplinary process for teachers accused of misconduct.

In a speech today (which you can watch for yourself in the video below), the AFT president said that while it was important to protect teachers from false allegations, “too often due process can become glacial process.” 

Two people in the Oakland teachers union e-mail group (Note: Most Oakland teachers belong to the NEA, not the AFT) have already called for Weingarten’s recall for promoting such policy changes. But her prepared remarks hardly struck me as extreme. What she says about evaluations doesn’t seem far off from what some of you have described in our discussions:

Our system of evaluating teachers has never been adequate. For too long and too often, teacher evaluation—in both design and implementation—has failed to achieve what must be our goal: continuously improving and informing teaching so as to better educate all students.

Right now, this is how teachers are commonly evaluated: An administrator sits in the back of the classroom for a few minutes, a few times in the first few years of teaching. The teacher then receives a “rating” at the end of the school year.

That’s like a football team watching game tape once the season is over.

Let’s think about that game tape for a minute. Coaches and players view it throughout the season and in preparation for every game. Why? To deconstruct and understand what’s working and what isn’t—so that necessary changes can be made. The goal is constant improvement and, of course, winning.

We need to put the same time and effort into developing and evaluating teachers. And we need to ensure that the women and men who teach our children are participants in every stage of the process. That’s what we mean when we say do these things “with us, not to us. …

We propose rigorous reviews by trained expert and peer evaluators and principals, based on professional teaching standards, best practices and student achievement. The goal is to lift whole schools and systems: to help promising teachers improve, to enable good teachers to become great, and to identify those teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom at all….

What do you think about her ideas, such as basic professional teaching standards for each state and using student performance (test scores) as one measure of teacher effectiveness?

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  • Harold

    i have (2) incompetent administrators at my site. How are they going to evaluate anyone?

    The AFT is a small group, NEA will never go for this.

    I would love it if the OEA would spend some of its resources on targeting “burnt out” Teachers, to help them, help themselves. If that kind of intervention doesn’t work, then those Teachers need to move on.

  • http://j1t.blogspot.com/ Charlie

    It’s true that lots of classrooms could use more transparency and accountability; that’s a big reason I blog. And members of my union quietly mumble that the union DOES cover for some folks it shouldn’t, presumably acting on the reflex to protect all teachers at all costs. God bless ‘em, but we are going to have to learn to accept more transparency. In fact, we should be embracing it, since there’ll presumably come more transparency about the screwed up bureaucracies we work in too.

    But if you think the standards for *students* are as counterproductive as I believe they are, then you’ll agree that extending the same model for teachers will probably have the opposite result from what people are looking for.

    Not to mention, tying salaries to the tests…

  • Ms. J.

    I was frustrated by Herbert’s piece because it focused on the need for rigorous evaluation to root out these notorious awful teachers we keep hearing about but did not go on to mention what constructive work would come of the evaluation process.
    To say we are linking student test scores to teacher evaluations is scary (because so many factors beyond teaching go into how children perform on tests) but as one part of a teacher’s evaluation it does not seem invalid. But what comes of the evaluation? How is the teacher then helped to improve or to build on his/her strengths?
    Weingarten’s remarks give more time to this (I find it frustrating that Herbert’s piece did not because that is so typical of the press given to ‘education reform’ in the media–basically it seems to mean ‘how do we get rid of bad teachers’ not how do we develop the professionals in the classrooms), but honestly–if there were money or will to do this it would have been done long ago, wouldn’t it?
    We are in a budget crisis. Are we really going to spare the money to have administrators/mentor teachers take the time for meaningful observations, feedback, and follow up?

  • CarolineSF

    Any media voice who endorses tying teacher pay to their students’ test scores has to also endorse tying journalists’ pay to their newspaper’s circulation. It’s only fair and consistent.

    Bob Herbert’s piece is just more teacher-bashing by an overconfident journalist who knows just enough about education to think he knows it all. It’s just not true that the challenges facing public schools center around “problem teachers.”

    And in fact, the co-workers of those teachers who ARE problematic are likely to be more concerned about it than anyone else. A teacher friend of mine has been confiding in me about her distress with a teacher at her school who shouldn’t be in the classroom — a second-year teacher who changed careers from the medical field, not a veteran burnout case. The other teachers at the school share the distress and are trying to find ways to help the difficult teacher improve, but they were relieved when she made remarks indicating that she plans to quit at the end of the year.

    I posted on Facebook an apt, if disheartening, quote from Oakland’s Perimeter Primate blogger Sharon Higgins:

    “The voices aired most often by the media these days are those of the teacher-haters and clueless idealists who believe the fundamental reason for low academic achievement in our cities is because every urban public school teacher is incompetent and lazy. This is the sour attitude behind the dominant education reform movement and it is just plain wrong.”

    A teacher friend responded to my Facebook post (reposted with permission):

    Yep – I stink.

    I am a day laborer who gets paid less most other professions in the world that require constant re-education and re-certification and ultimately graduate school.

    I spend hundreds a year of my own personal money on materials. Me and every other teacher.

    I am responsible for the social, intellectual and emotional health of 42 people per day.

    I do not take a lunch break. I tutor and catch up kids instead.

    I leave my home at 7:00 AM and often return at the 10-12 hours later.

    I am LUCKY if I am not there on the weekend.

    I am a city-wide emergency worker, which means when the big one hits I am not protecting my family; I’m protecting yours.

    I love my job and I love my students and I deeply resent how teachers are trashed.

    But guess what? No one can steal the pure joy that takes place in Room 19! No one!

    ##

  • Nextset

    Bad Teachers are not a significant problem.

    “Bad Students” is the most pressing problem in public education.

    When the quality and performance of the student is regulated we can talk about doing something more with the teachers.

    You cannot teach with any kind of regularity, stability and quality when the students are unprepared, unwilling, unable or not interested in the subject at hand. Some teachers make this work better than others, true. But we need a system that limits who may attend/enroll in each grade level, each campus, each class perhaps to ensure that the teacher has a set of students that have a reasonable expectation of being able to attend and perform in the class. Then we can grade the teacher by test scores and the like.

    How about not letting any student into a high school class who does not read and write at 8th grade level (current diploma test standard)? If they are 16 and read below that, they should be elsewhere in remedial classes or another suitable program, not in high school.

    Currently the (public school) students can be as disorderly as they want to be and our (public school) teachers are still expected to teach them as if they are normal, and blamed when they don’t score normal. If a student has never functioned at grade level why is it (public school) Teacher’s problem when they don’t do so in her class also?

    It is not the teacher’s problem or business if the student is homeless, sleepless, stressed out, low IQ, or any other impairment. If they cannot do the work, why are they in an academic classroom? Unprepared students are not helped by dropping them into anacademic program they hate and can’t handle.

    And the teachers, their unions and their supporters will not allow them to be blamed for why Johnnie, Otis or Jose can’t read. If they can’t read they should be in a school for non-readers so everybody understands each other, not in an academic school blaming the teachers for bad pixie dust.

    Odd that we don’t see any hue and cry about poor quality private school teachers. Thinks it’s because they have quality control on their students?

  • J.R.

    Mr.Herbert is probably very similiar in his thinking to just about any “education reform advocate”, his opinions are based on second and third-hand accounts. He and others need to sit-in on some classes and see for himself what these kids are learning. Yes, there are some teachers who should not be teaching(and they should be gone) just like the bad doctors and bad lawyers as well. The hammer needs to come down so that the majority of hardworking dedicated teachers can recieve the well deserved respect and gratitude of the American people. Why have grades slipped you ask? There are a multitude of reasons the most sigificant of which are(the importance of learning is not valued in the home or circumstaces don’t permit parental involvement in school)work,language barriers, or just not interested.I see so many Indian kids at PI schools who maintain academic excellence, that I just think it boils down to one word “ATTITUDE”.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Forget incentive pay.

    I would like to hear what is so controversial about Ms. W. that would lead a rational person to have her recalled? I’m sure most good teachers want their mediocre or poor colleagues to get adequate help and support, but they also don’t want to carry the dead wood around if support has failed.

    All this talk that suggests it’s the employers fault if the employee sucks is ridiculous. We’ve all worked with poor performers and at some point the individual has to take some responsibility. Sure, fairness and due process are important to any system, but that’s what Ms. W. was saying. There is nothing controversial here.

    Protecting the least effective is not productive for teachers as a profession, let alone students.

  • J.R.

    Public schools must teach “every” child, magnet,charter and private schools can teach who they want. They don’t bother with disruptive kids,and they don’t have to. China and India do not teach all children as the US does. I really believe that we must try some type of improved two track educational system(educational and vocational) in order to compete in the world marketplace.

  • CarolineSF

    I follow New York City education issues somewhat, mostly via the Gotham Schools blog — this is because NYC is being held up as something of a model.

    There are issues that would not be on the radar outside NYC — especially this far away — on which Randi Weingarten’s positions have angered many teachers and school advocates.

    I actually do think it’s largely on the employer, or administrator, when a problem employee “just can’t be fired.” I’ve heard this about teachers (and other staff too, such as school secretaries) in some quarters, while at the same time I see effective managers — and I mean school principals — who manage to ensure that problem staff move on.

  • Cranky Teacher

    I can’t say I know all of her positions, but the quote you place here is an example of positive framing that all unions should heed. Basically, she is saying a) what I’ve been harping about on here for two years: The evaluation system is broken beyond belief, and thus you can’t talk about improving teaching until you deal with that; and b) she is putting it back on the district and administrators to deal with improving teaching, not the union itself.

    There is no intepretation of a union’s purpose I have ever see that gives it the assignment of policy the work quality of its own members.

    Unforunately, framing aside, there is no way I can see that the current admin/faculty ratios in chaotic institutions can be made to work for meaningful evaluations — yet this I NEVER see this discussed publicly. How can one administrator formally and meaningfully evaluate 30-50 employees a year? I suppose they can — and do — use word of mouth to single out the lowest performers to focus on, yet this is somewhat unethical in terms of basing scrutiny on gossip.

    p.s. While I agree with the comments on here that say poor teaching is not the primary problem with education, as a parent I can say that hitting a truly bad teacher is shocking and disturbing enough to overshadow the experience of a series of mediocre-to-great professionals. Verbally abusive and emotionally unbalanced teachers, in particular, need to be treated with a certain ruthlessness.

  • David B. Cohen

    I think it could be that Weingarten is perceived as caving to political pressure that makes her comments rile some people up. Some. The idea of tying teacher evaluation to test scores is deeply, deeply flawed. As a high school English teacher, I work with students 50 minutes a day, students who then spend their rest of their school day reading in other classes. In some of those classes students receive better texts and better reading instruction. Then some of them have special ed teachers involved, tutors, and their own pleasure reading to consider. There is no way to separate the effects of my teaching, which constitutes a small minority of the overall influence on students’ reading skills.

    In the very near future, a report will be published by Accomplished California Teachers, a new teacher leadership network that I’m part of. I am one of the co-authors of the report. Our policy brief, researched and written entirely by California teachers, will outline current limitations of most teacher evaluations, call attention to promising alternative models, and make recommendations for California education policy.

  • walton barnaby

    merit pay is the way.

    nextset-oakland high schools would lose 75% of their kids if it was required that students be proficient in 8th grade standards to attend high school. bad teachers and bad principals ARE the problem, not the students, you goof ball. don’t blame the victims.

  • Teacher

    Walton Barnaby:

    So let me get this right. When I taught in a high school where 90 percent of the students came to me proficient (students with loads of parental support and enriched time out of school) and the API was an 8, I was a pretty good teacher. The very day I changed schools (API of 1) to work with students from impoverished families/students who were underprepared and behind in their skills/students just learning the language, I became a very, very, very bad teacher. Very interesting.

  • John Tenny

    Observations must not be a process of observer/administrator recording their judgment/opinion and more to one of objective data collection of teaching practices and student behavior (academic and social). Objective data is a protection from observer bias, inexperience, and lack of knowledge. Since the data on classroom behaviors can be verified by neutral observers teachers are not at the mercy of the administrator whims. The data on time on task, level of questions, student engagement, teacher response to misbehavior, etc, etc, can provide objective feedback for teacher reflection and professional discussion.

    After 30 years in teaching I wrote a program for collecting observation data (not a checklist) to make the process easier. See http://www.ecove.net for the details or email me at john@ecove.net

  • John Tenny

    A second thought: Plainly stated, with a data-based observation I can go into a classroom and tell if the non-learning time is caused by outside interruptions (PA announcement, outside disturbances, etc), disruptive individual students (include who they are), or poor teaching/management practices (dead transitions, slow startup, etc). I can tell how the teacher treats misbehaviors (ignore, punish, reward) by individual and/or group (including gender, ethnicity, location in room, etc). I can tell the level of questions asked and the level of questions answered (which differs widely) and who (individual and/or group) is responding. I can tell the number of positive and negative statements made by students and teachers, and who they were directed toward; the rate of praise, what is being praised, and who is being praised. And on and on…. No one can do this with a damn checklist.

    In a nutshell, the real teaching practices and the real student behaviors — the basis for real decisions can be tracked easily. Teacher unions, in their focus on professional development, can contribute to the conversation on teacher quality with REAL data on implementation of effective teaching practices and on the REAL behavior of students in the classroom.

  • Nextset

    Walton Barnaby: You are living in a fantasy world.

    No teacher union will permit a pay cut disguised as “merit pay” tied to how many black and brown students you (don’t) get or can get rid of. And that’s what these schemes are.

    Pasadena Unified had a hilarious episode where a teacher named Scott Phelps wrote a memo to fellow teachers showing how an influx of black & brown students which he could track from the elementary school stats guarantee the decline of the reading/writing test scores of the high school in the near future when the white population would be reduced. The district had a hissy fit over truth being told and suspended him for political incorrectness. Of course the uproar focused the teachers on the stats and the “Merit pay” scheme was exposed for the scam it is. Phelps was reinstated of course before he could sue.

    Watch what happens to political correctness when teacher pay is on the line.

    As far as losing 75% of the students at OUSD if we ever required high school students to be able to read and write at 8th grade level to begin high school – is that a problem? Not if you want to have a real school instead of ghetto Romper Room. The stupid kids – and that’s what they are – need to be out of the academic programs and on another (Voc Ed & Remedial Ed and Tech Ed) campus where their needs would actually be met. The reason so many of them wind up destitute is that the schools refuse to teach them what they need which sure isn’t algebra.

    Brave New World!

    OK – Stupid is harsh. They are only stupid in comparison. Properly coached and trained they can be very good at suitable occupations. They cannot get that coaching and training when they sit beside the other 25% that are college or Jr College bound. Your lessons and materials go to one group or the other. We trash the left side of the bell curve pretending they are the same and the smaller right side (It’s smaller because OUSD has more dulls by number than the brights). OUSD refuses to work the left side, perferring to pretend that since all are equal the dulls must take college prep or be flogged as being bad people.

    They are not bad. They are people who have needs not being met. When those needs are unfilled they have bad results in the Cold Hard World that could have been trained out of them. For one thing, employablilty.

  • Gordon Danning

    Teacher:

    Again, I am not an advocate of merit pay, because I think the extra money it requires can best be used in other ways, but if students are pretested and post-tested, the problem you allude to should disappear. In fact, teachers in low-API schools should end up with more merit pay, because there is more room for improvement when students are behind. In contrast, if I have a roomful of kids who come in at the 98th percentile, I cant move them up much.

  • Gordon Danning

    Here’s a question for Katy: Nextset makes reference to students reading at the 8th grade level. We all have heard similar terminology. But, what does it mean? Does it mean that the the average 8th grader should be able to read a given text? If so, then by definition, 1/2 of 8th graders cannot read the text. Does it mean that every 8th grader above 1 standard deviation below the mean should be able to read it? 2 standard deviations? I tried to find out the answer to this question years ago, but was completely unsuccessful.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Gordon Danning asks an excellent question: what does reading at the eighth grade level mean? Lots of people use the phrase, but they don’t have any exact meaning for it. The State of California has produced a list of suggested readings for California schools from K-8 grades, so one could assume that an able 8th grade reader would be able to read any of the books on that list http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/ll/documents/k8list1996.doc, but even that list uses grade ranges (6-8) and not specific grade levels.
    Talking about grade specific reading levels may make some sense in lower grades. An elementary school teacher probably has little difficulty telling the difference between and 1st and 3rd grade reader, but it becomes very difficult at middle school. Reading experts cannot even agree on how to assess the difficulty of a given text. They use different formulas based on the length of sentences, length of words, and complexity of vocabulary to assign the reading levels. No formula can accurately measure the complexity of the ideas being expressed, so no formula is completely accurate.
    Some people use 8th grade reading level to mean that on a certain test a student scored exactly at the same score that the median student in a control group scored. If you call all the students who score less than that “below grade level” you don’t have a very useful category, since some would be one point below and others 20 or 30 points below. You could say that those whose scores were closer to the median score for 8th graders than they were to median score for 7th or 9th graders were “at grade level,” which would help some, but would only be true of their performance on a given day on one reading test.
    Matters become even worse when people start to say that all students who fail to score Proficient on the California Standards Language Arts Test are “below grade level.” It is true that they are below where the state would like them to be, but that goal was set by calculating what two-thirds of the students in the state could NOT do, and saying that is what we want all students to be able to do. It seems unfair to say that 8th grade level is what only the highest third of 8th graders were able to do.
    Furthermore, the CST Language Arts Test is not just a reading test. It includes many questions on Language Arts terminology, writing strategies, and grammar. I have seen students with very high reading scores (on reading tests, such as the Scholastic Reading Inventory) do poorly on the CST, and I have seen the reverse.

  • Katy Murphy

    It’s a seemingly simple question, and one to which I should have a ready answer. I’ve consulted a couple of researchers (who might have been out today) to get one.

    Here’s what I do know: At data-related conferences for education reporters, researchers have advised us not to use the term “grade-level” interchangeably with “proficiency” on state tests, as the two are not aligned (at least in California).

  • Nextset

    It would be useful for discussion to have a definition of 8th grade reading level we can agree on. I seem to remember when I reviewed high school transcripts for a college scholarship program there were test scores posted on the transcripts that set the candidate’s reading level at X grade. Was it a SRA test or some such reference? I asked about it at the time I was told it’s a national reference level.

    The racial differences between the candidates on both the math and verbal and the ratio of one to the other was striking. Profiles emerged.

    Does anyone know of transcript entries denoting the students math and verbal level? How reliable are they?

  • Bruce

    I’m only a sporadic visitor to this blog, but every time I see Steve Weinberg post it has always been well worth reading. Thank you, Steve, for your insights based on your years of teaching and the civil way in which you state and support your points.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Thank you, Bruce.

  • Union Supporter-But

    My question on merit pay is this: Suppose I am a fifth grade teacher – and for this discussion I am working in a school in which 90% of the students are of color and qualify for free or reduced price lunch and fewer than 10% live in two parent families. I have 10 students who are working at FAR BELOW Basic in Language Arts, Mathematics and Writing. I have 10 students who are working at BELOW Basic in Language Arts, Mathematics and Writing. I have 10 students who are working at BASIC in Language Arts, Mathematics and Writing. And I have 2 students are proficient.

    I do I measure up if at the end of the year I still have 10 students at the BASIC level and 20 students at proficient with 2 students advanced?

    Compare that to the teacher in a hills school who started with 22 students advanced in Language Arts, Mathematics and Reading and 10 students who are working at Proficient levels in Language Arts, Mathematics and Writing. Then I as a teacher end the year with 2 Advanced students and 20 Proficient students?

    It would seem to me that the first teacher was FAR more effective than the second teacher yet the first teacher still has one third of the students at the BASIC level.

  • Steven Weinberg

    US-B points out one problem with merit pay in #24, how do you compare classes which start out with widely different scores. A second problem relates to the fact that the tests we now use were never developed to fairly measure year-to-year progress. Fourth and seventh grade California Standards tests have always had a higher distribution of scores than the grade levels before and after them, so using the tests to measure teacher effect (the basis for merit pay schemes) would give an unfair advantage to fourth and seventh grade teachers, while penalizing third, fifth, sixth, and eighth grade teachers.
    Merit pay plans that have not been based primarily on test scores have tended to result in almost all teachers qualifying for the merit pay. Given the poor performance of any merit pay system to date, it seems wasteful to expend so much energy pushing this idea.
    In answer to Nextset’s question in #21, in my experience about 1/3 of standardized test scores (which would include reading tests) are off by a significant amount (one standard deviation). If you have two scores for a student that are reasonably close from separate tests measuring the same skills, you have a much better chance of being accurate.