Testing The Teachers
By Michael MaherMarch 12, 2012
A furore over the public ranking of school teachers in New York has ignited a debate about the quality of education in the United States.
The incendiary list evaluating the performance of more than 12,000 teachers in New York's public schools was released to the public this month, a year and half after a challenge under the Freedom of Information Act was launched by media organizations. Trenchantly opposed by the teachers' union on the basis that there were flaws in the data, a judge finally ruled that imperfections were no reason to conceal the results.
“The ‘error margins’ are huge — as much as 54 out of 100 points,” declared the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president, Michael Mulgrew. “This means that teachers identified as top scorers could in fact be below average, and teachers identified as low scorers could in fact be near the top.” The ranking of fourth through eighth-grade teachers, each given a grade out of 100, was based on their students’ performance in math and ELA (English Language Arts) tests. The tabloid newspapers had a field day. "What Are You So Afraid Of?" a New York Post headline asked the UFT about its desire to keep the results out of the public’s gaze. And once the results were out, The New York Daily News published a list of “New York’s Best and Worst Teachers.”
One teacher, whose performance was above average in the rankings, remarked that “In my 24 years as a New York public school teacher I have never been so disheartened, so demoralized, so utterly disappointed and felt so completely hopeless.”
As it turns out, many who are in favour of a more rigorous evaluation system for teachers in public schools have opposed what inevitably has become an exercise in public shaming for those who have underperformed. Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates described it as “a big mistake”. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Gates argued that “Publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning.” Gates said that working through his foundation with schools to improve teaching standards had taught him that “developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming.”
Others, however, believe some good has come from the controversy. Dr Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University was an early proponent of measuring the quality of teachers by the value they add in the classroom, publishing a paper on the subject back in 1971. While Hanushek, too, is opposed to making such data publicly available, he tells The Global Mail there could be a positive effect. “Whenever these statistics are published there’s a huge explosion,” he says. “I think the main benefit of this is to push harder to get good evaluations of teachers.”
What’s at stake, according to Hanushek, is nothing less than the future of education in the United States: “In maths and science the US is below the developed country average. The one thing we’ve found in the study of US education is that the most important element in school is teacher quality.”
Historically, teachers’ unions have resisted their members undergoing more comprehensive assessments than presently exist, pitting themselves against governments that are increasingly adopting a tougher line in the debate. In his State of the City address this year, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, made it clear he wouldn’t be backing away from this confrontation: “For all the changes we've made in our schools, evaluating teachers is one area where nothing has changed,” said Bloomberg. “Teachers continue to be rated simply as ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’. It’s a pass/fail system — with a 98 per cent passing rate. Our students don't have the luxury of being graded pass/fail.”
The mayor outlined a proposal that would reward teachers who are rated highly effective for two years running by raising their annual salary by US$20,000. Conversely, the new assessment regime would make it easier to get rid of teachers who are performing badly. New York City's government also has been making it more difficult for teachers to get tenure. After the introduction of a more rigorous evaluation system two years ago, tenure numbers dropped by nearly half.
The United Federation of Teachers has been quick to reject Mayor Bloomberg’s merit pay plan. According to the union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, “Individual merit pay hasn’t worked and doesn’t work for schools and kids.” Furthermore, Mulgrew says there is no guarantee that the union and the city government will reach agreement on a new teacher evaluation system by the government’s deadline of January next year. The UFT is adamant that the best way to improve teacher performance is to reduce class sizes and estimates there are presently about 7,000 oversize classes in the city’s schools. Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the not-for-profit lobby group Class Size Matters, has described the situation as “unconscionable: Third World conditions in the richest city in the world.”
And so the battle over New York’s schools is set to continue, although Dr Hanushek says he thinks “there is some good chance that we are now moving in the right direction.” Hanushek points to states including Colorado, Indiana and Florida “where there are some fairly dramatic changes in the labour laws of the state that permit better teacher evaluations; I'm hopeful about those [changes] but there’s still a lot of resistance to changing the current system.”
For Hanushek, the central issue around which this debate should revolve is the future economic prosperity of the United States. “By my estimation there are very different economic futures for the United States dependent on whether we can improve our schools or not,” he warns. “If we don’t improve our schools I think we’re going to find that we're lagging behind many countries in the world.”