human capital

Klein: ratings are useful for the worst and best teachers

For parents of students in the “average” city teacher’s class, learning the teacher’s rating may not tell them very much, Chancellor Joel Klein wrote in a letter to principals today.

In his email, Klein explained the city’s decision to release teachers’ effectiveness ratings and the teachers union’s move to block this from happening. He noted that the ratings, which measure teachers against estimations of how much their students’ test scores ought to rise, would be most useful in identifying very high and low performing teachers. He wrote:

One indication will never tell the whole story, and sometimes it is hard to discern definitive evidence from data alone — such as with a teacher who is “average” according to these numbers, for example. But where teachers have performed consistently toward the top or the bottom, year after year, these data surely tell us something very important. Namely, we need to retain and reward the great teachers, and we need to develop the low-performing teachers. And those who don’t improve quickly need to be replaced with better-performing teachers.

Klein’s full letter:

Dear Colleagues,

As you have likely heard or read, several media outlets recently issued Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to the City, requiring the Department to share the Teacher Data Reports we provide schools and teachers in grades 4 through 8 each year. These reports use a method called “value-added data” that seeks to predict student performance based on factors outside of a teacher’s control (high levels of poverty, for example), and then determines whether a given teacher’s students exceeded or fell short of these predicted examination scores (teachers may always access their reports at http://schools.nyc.gov/Teachers/TeacherDevelopment/TeacherDataToolkit/GetYourReports/default.htm). By controlling for factors beyond a teacher’s control, it is the fairest system-wide way we have to assess the real impact of teachers on student learning. And while the City’s particular value-add method is not etched in stone, this is why the State passed legislation this spring, endorsed by the teachers’ unions, committing to using value-added data for all teachers. It is also why value-added data is increasingly being used throughout the nation as part of a comprehensive system of teacher evaluation.

In the past we have provided the numeric value-added data to the press with no indication of the identity of individual teachers. I am writing to you today because media outlets, prompted by similar data being published by the Los Angeles Times, have requested the names of individual teachers, not just the statistics. As it is the City’s legal interpretation that we are legally obligated to provide the media this information, it is our intent to provide the data as requested.

In the time since we informed the UFT that we intended to comply with the FOIL request, the union has sued the City to prevent the release, and we have agreed to delay any release until at least November 24, when a court hearing will be held. So no data have yet been released. But I want to make sure that, as you read about these events in the newspapers, you understand the circumstances and you understand my view on the issue overall.

Our most important task is to ensure that every one of our students has a great teacher. It is critical, therefore, that when we have indications of a teacher’s proficiency, we use that indication to do what’s right for kids. One indication will never tell the whole story, and sometimes it is hard to discern definitive evidence from data alone —such as with a teacher who is “average” according to these numbers, for example. But where teachers have performed consistently toward the top or the bottom, year after year, these data surely tell us something very important. Namely, we need to retain and reward the great teachers, and we need to develop the low-performing teachers. And those who don’t improve quickly need to be replaced with better-performing teachers.

Secretary Arne Duncan last week said it best when he said, “I give New York credit for sharing this information with teachers so they can improve and get better.” More than anything, these data demonstrate that we need a better, more comprehensive system of evaluation than the one we have now. That’s why the State legislature and the unions supported an evaluation system that uses value-added data. Now it’s time that the DOE and UFT together build a new system that gives teachers an honest sense of how well they’re doing and how they can improve.

In the end, this is about real people. On one hand, for too long, parents have been left out of the equation, left to pray each year that the teacher greeting their children on the first day of school is truly great, but with no real knowledge of whether that is the case, and with no recourse if it’s not.

But this is also about teachers. They take on the hardest work there is, and they deserve our respect. If anyone sees these data as an opportunity to scapegoat public servants, that is a mistake. Doing what’s right for children means making hard decisions; it has nothing to do with personal attacks.

We’ve made huge strides for our kids over the last eight years. That’s because we’ve been willing to face hard facts. It’s also because we have made kids’ best interests our shared priority. My hope is that we approach this issue with both of those thoughts in mind, ensuring fair treatment for adults, but always keeping children first.

Sincerely,

Joel I. Klein

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.