If ensuring the quality of teaching in public schools were a perfect science, you’d think that officials would have figured it out by now: since the enactment of the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind law, teachers have been measured, graded and ranked by all kinds of metrics, from demographic trends to standardized test scores. And yet we can’t seem to find that elusive numeric solution to the crisis in public education — possibly because complex social problems can’t be reduced to averages and bell curves.
But the fuzzy math hasn’t stopped New York City from publishing data reports for some 18,000 public school teachers: ratings based on convoluted performance measurements for reading and math classes in the fourth through eighth grades.
While officials pit the public’s supposed “right to know” against teachers’ privacy rights (a similar political controversy exploded in 2010 over teacher data for Los Angeles schools), the data hasn’t done much to enhance public understanding of what’s going on in the classroom. Many educators and parents are confused or angered by data that are, according to news reports, riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Though the “value added” ratings are supposed to account for some social disparities, the teachers union and other critics decry the methodology as critically flawed. The figures are further muddled by seemingly arbitrary variance in ratings among schools, as well as massive margins of error (dozens of points in math and reading scores).
Methodological gaps aside, the major problem with the data is an ethical one: the idea of “naming and shaming” teachers as a way to spur school improvement. Karen Fine, a teacher at Manhattan Public School 134, commented on New York Times’ Schoolbook website:
I hope one day the people leading the cruel scapegoating of teachers, find their conscience. They are ruining public education with reforms that are based on junk math and pseudo-science, and students will pay the price along with their teachers as the curriculum is further narrowed to teach to these tests.
The digital pillory should come as no surprise to those familiar with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s top-down, corporate-minded“reform” agenda, which has championed shuttering “failing” institutions and promoting charter schools. Although news organizations’ Freedom of Information requests played a direct role in the legal battle leading up to the data release, the city has at various points appeared to goad on the pressure to publicize the reports. The ratings system also plays into controversial statewide school reform initiatives, which in turn tie into Washington’s aggressive efforts to link education funding and school performance data.
Educator and activist Jim Horn told In These Times that the numbers game feeds into a free-market ideology that is eroding the public mission of schools.
The focus on the test score gains is just a way to change and control the behavior and culture of urban America, while making poverty even more invisible than it has been. And this cultural and behavioral neutering will be critical to the acceptance in the coming decades of increased austerity for those who can least afford it, even as they aspire to take on the characteristics of their oppressors.
And when data is used to structure teachers’ pay schemes, effectively monetizing their job ratings, Horn added:
Even the most caring, effective, and empathetic teachers to some degree will be aware of how students will influence their job security or pay under this scheme. This signals a tremendous threat to the teacher-student relationship based on care and trust.
While the media and bureaucrats bury themselves in data, the real voices of teachers are buried by the political firestorm.
On his blog, Jose Vilson challenged the concept of using scores to punish teachers who don’t conform to standards:
Why would you judge me on a fairer measure than a snapshot, knowing full well that only a third of my students have been taken into account for the scores? Why would you get at me so hard after I just started teaching and don’t believe in drilling my students with how to fill in bubbles? Why would you accost me with this after knowing I teach students who have learning disabilities, have special accommodations for learning, speak limited English, and have a myriad of issues I don’t excuse, but can’t control? If you really want your best and passionate teachers in the classrooms where we need them most, why humiliate the only teachers who would jump headfirst into this situations?
While certain people are in the business of education, I’m actually educating. Huge difference.
Criticizing the media’s exploiting the performance data, social studies and English teacher Stephen Lazar posted some factors of teaching quality that aren’t officially scored:
You can have the scores, just please remember they are almost meaningless. They tell you about 5% of what I do. Here’s what they don’t tell you:
- They don’t tell you that last year I taught 100% of our juniors who are special education students and/or English Language Learners, even though I only taught 50% of our juniors. They also don’t tell you I requested these most challenging students….
- They don’t tell you that I spent six weeks in the middle of the year teaching my students how to do college-level research. I estimate this costs my students an average of 5 – 10 points on the Regents.
- They don’t tell you that when you ask my students who are now in college why they are succeeding when most of their urban public school peers are dropping out, they name that research project as one of their top three reasons nearly every time.
- They don’t tell you which of my students had a home and a healthy meal the night before the test.
The liberal think tank Center for American Progress, often a supporter of mainstream reform trends, has warned in a report that publicizing individual teachers’ data might “slow, distort, or cripple efforts to implement and refine new performance-evaluation systems.” The group instead advocates engaging teachers in a holistic, proactive school-wide assessment process that still respects their professional privacy. (Even Bill Gates agrees, albeit from a corporate-managerial perspective.)
For communities that are, for better or worse, deeply tied to their local school systems, the teacher “data dump” is informative, but only because it exposes what’s missing in the public discourse on education: the humanistic factors that can’t be divined through one-dimensional ratings.
There’s no precise metric for understanding how students are impacted when they have to commute to class in the morning from a homeless shelter. There’s no systematic assessment of whether parents have an equitable role in helping shape their childrens’ school experience and intellectual development, especially in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. And officials have little incentive to hear to what rank-and-file teachers think about how schools are run, whether they’re paid fairly, or whether their ideas are valued in policy discussions. The fixation on data shows officialdom’s limited attention span: while grown-ups obsess over spreadsheets, the children in the classroom remain neglected.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.