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<p>Photo by Michael Maher.</p>

Photo by Michael Maher.

Testing The Teachers

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.”

“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.”

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.”

<p>Photo by Michael Maher.</p>

Photo by Michael Maher.

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.”

The mayor outlined a proposal that would reward teachers who are rated highly effective for two years running by raising their salary by US$20,000.

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.”

<p>Photo by Michael Maher.</p>

Photo by Michael Maher.

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.”

Bill Gates argued that “publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning.”

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.”

6 comments on this story
by Marg

American schools and education are failing because they have idiots who think that blaming the teachers will make things better instead of looking at the real problems such socio-economic background of students, the high levels of poverty in the USA and the ever increasing gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'.

Are you going to provide balance to this sort of rubbish by reporting on how successful schools in Finland operate - where teachers are well paid and well trained and getting into teaching is harder than getting into medicine or law at University.

March 12, 2012 @ 11:59pm
by Daibokux

Thanks Michael. The numbers men, accountants and economists never seem to get it when it comes to education and schooling. Numbers give them such a sense of control and their reality, but leave out the essentials of the matter. They forget about quality and the culture surrounding the education.
Having taught trainee teachers in the USA I was stunned by their ignorance of facts, grammar and educational skills. Superficiality and education as entertainment seemed to be the norm.
Until they and Australia place genuine value on the teaching profession, select teachers carefully and reward them appropriately we will not have a good education system.
But when education is seen as just a competitor for funding against military spending the USA and we will remain ignorant countries.

March 13, 2012 @ 12:10am
by Des

The proposition that merit pay does anything positive to improve teacher performance has been comprehensively debunked, not least by important recent studies of the New York City school system itself. (There are reviews on

That Mayor Bloomberg should be persisting with this is a disgrace! The quoted comment by one of the teachers about being demoralised says it all, almost.

Reforms in the US over 30 years have consistently got it wrong, as excellently shown in Diane Ravitch's recent book and many other reports and papers. Even the responses in the US to international tests such as PISA 2009, to which various people in this report are responding, are symptomatic of a refusal to face up to facts. And that seems to be typical of US policy makers in almost every sphere of public policy! What on earth is the matter with those people.

If US education policy makers looked across the border to Ontario they would gain a substantial insight. But they won't any more than they would look to Canada for guidance on gun control or health reform.

March 13, 2012 @ 10:41am
Show previous 3 comments
by Tim

Four Corners aired an interesting report a few weeks ago about the importance of teacher quality.
The report looked at three schools in different areas and different socio-economic group.
The one thing in common these schools had was a commitment to improving teacher quality by employing staff members who "taught the teachers".
These staff monitored performance and provided feedback to staff. In two under-performing schools exam results at the schools improved astronomically and as did other non-scholastic indicators like pupil discipline.
In the one over-performing school the period the stats were also remarkable. Already boasting a remarkable success rate in its HSC students, results improved 15% in the year following the introduction of teacher coaching.
It indicates school infrastructure, new buildings and all other non-teacher expenses should play second fiddle to developing the quality of the teaching staff.

March 13, 2012 @ 11:23am
by Daibokux

Love your post, Marg.
Australia has been trying to follow a failed tactic by rewarding teachers who do well, irrespective of the factors such as ses mentioned in these posts.
Has no one told the federal policy makers that "Payment by Results", the idea child of Robert Lowe 1853 and tried in the UK and Australia was a monumental failure? There is a significant literature on the matter. How come the policy makers are so uneducated about education history?

March 13, 2012 @ 11:31pm
by Pat

I moved from being a school principal in Vicotoria to being a school principal in the USA in 2000. I retired five years ago and have returned to Australia. I led a school with initially appalling test scores and the major problem in my opinion was the low level of teacher skills. A State review of the school the year before I arrived had revealed two major causes for low student achievement - the low expectations of teachers and the paucity of their teaching strategies. During my five years there the district's main effort was in building up test taking skills for the kids, proscribing curriculum and pacing and trying to manage what went on classrooms from the district office. We had an over abundance of measurement. As the old saying goes "measuring the pig repeatedly doesn't make it any fatter".

March 14, 2012 @ 9:38am
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