First Person

Fact Or Opinion?

What counts as a “fact”? New York State Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern’s ruling on the release of the New York City Teacher Data Reports reflects a view very much at odds with the social science research community. In ruling that the Department of Education’s intent to release these reports, which purport to label elementary and middle school teachers as more or less effective based on their students’ performance on state tests of English Language Arts and mathematics, was neither arbitrary nor capricious, Kern held that there is no requirement that data be reliable for them to be disclosed. Rather, the standard she invoked was that the data simply need to be “factual,” quoting a Court of Appeals case that “factual data … simply means objective information, in contrast to opinions, ideas or advice.”

But it is entirely a matter of opinion as to whether the particular statistical analyses involved in the production of the Teacher Data Reports warrant the inference that teachers are more or less effective. All statistical models involve assumptions that lie outside of the data themselves. Whether these assumptions are appropriate is a matter of opinion. Among the key assumptions that are necessary to make inferences about teacher effectiveness from student performance on the state tests are the following:

  • The tests are valid measures of students’ mastery of English Language Arts and mathematics.
  • A student’s performance on the test, which is taken on a particular date, reflects how that student would perform on the test on other dates.
  • The student, classroom and school-level variables taken into account in the value-added model underlying the Teacher Data Reports are appropriate for inferring that a particular teacher caused the test-score gains experienced by that teacher’s students.
  • Test-score gains observed on tests administered in the middle of one year and the middle of the following year can be properly apportioned to the prior-year teacher and the current-year teacher.

The fact that reasonable people might disagree about these assumptions makes clear that they are a matter of opinion. For example, research by testing expert Dan Koretz, Jennifer Jennings and others shows that the tests at issue were subject to score inflation, because they covered an increasingly predictable and small subset of the curricular standards set by New York state, and failed to predict whether students were well-prepared for college and life after high school. Researchers such as economist Jesse Rothstein have questioned whether value-added models such as the ones used in the production of the Teacher Data Reports are able to simulate a “level playing field” in which teachers can be assumed to have equivalent classes of students.

Even the Department of Education’s own contractors have been of different minds about how to apportion gains when students are exposed to two different teachers between last year’s test and this year’s test. Initially, the gains were apportioned based on the number of months of exposure to last year’s teacher and this year’s teacher. But the most recent technical report for the production of the Teacher Data Reports attributes all of the gains between last year’s test and this year’s test to the current-year teacher.

Value-added measures such as the Teacher Data Reports are constructed through a social process involving expert judgments, and there may be a great deal of consensus around many of those judgments. But that doesn’t make the Teacher Data Reports “facts” that are somehow removed from the realm of opinion and assumption. The data don’t create the categories used to label teachers as above or below average; the labels are a matter of opinion.

There are many definitions of the term “fact,” and perhaps the definitions relied on in legal reasoning differ substantially from those used in social and educational research. But State Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Kern’s argument that the Teacher Data Reports are “facts” makes little sense. In my opinion.

This post also appears on Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report blog.

First Person

Why I take class time to teach perseverance (and let my fourth-graders write on their desks)

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
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Every morning, I hand my fourth-grade students dry-erase markers and ask them to do something unconventional: write directly on their desks.

Their task is to write a goal for the day. I have seen them write things like “Today I will be a better friend” or more abstract ideas like “My goal is to accept challenges.” When it’s time to leave, we celebrate those who met their goals and encourage those who haven’t to try again tomorrow.

Daily goal-setting is one of many strategies I use to teach perseverance, self-control, confidence and teamwork — “soft skills” often referred to as social-emotional learning. Most require just a couple of extra minutes at the start and end of our school days, but the payoff seems invaluable.

Research shows that students who internalize those skills may actually be better at learning hard skills like math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school. One study showed that students were more motivated when they were told their brains are muscles that can get stronger with practice, just like any other muscle. This year, I’ve already seen students use their daily goal-setting to focus on tasks they used to think they could not accomplish, like multiplication.

I’ve seen this strategy work with students of all ability levels. We are a diverse community, and the same goals don’t work for everyone, especially my students who fall under the special-education umbrella or whose primary language isn’t English. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded. Part of the learning process for students is crafting their own goals that will work for them.

Another part of this exercise is practicing compassion. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing my students take a genuine interest in each other. They’ve even written goals like, “I want to learn to speak English” (with help from another classmate) or “I will help Alan with his math today.” And they actually did it. Those two students sat together in class and worked on sight words and multiplication problems.

An important part of this work is defining these ideas, like empathy, grit and determination for students so I can be specific about what we’re aiming for. (I like ClassDojo’s Big Ideas videos, which explain those concepts through the eyes of a little monster named Mojo, and prompt my students to talk about how they’ve felt when they didn’t know an answer or were intimidated by a task.)

An unexpected benefit of these lessons has been personal. Lately, my class has been struggling with getting off-task — and, as all teachers know, every minute I spend asking a student to please stop talking or stop distracting others is a minute not spent on academic content or teaching the rest of the class. At one of those moments, I asked my students to empathize with me, one teacher trying to reach 22 of them, and with their fellow students, who wanted to learn but were being distracted.

We talked as a class about building a new set of expectations for our classroom. And by the end of the day, I had received two hand-delivered notes, secretly created and signed by each student in the class, saying that they were sorry for disturbing class.

The notes showed me that my students are learning compassion and also that they are beginning to value their academic time. I hope that it was a sign of soft skills leading to hard skills — students recognizing that how they act has an impact on learning the skills necessary to solve problems and succeed.

Stephanie Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Roy L. Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens.