First Person

Reasonable Doubt

I’ve been relatively quiet in the ongoing debate about how best to evaluate teachers in New York City and across New York State. I’m not close to the negotiations and can claim no expertise on the political machinations outside of public view. At its heart, this seems to me a dispute over jurisdiction: Who has the legitimate authority to regulate the work of an occupation that seeks the status of a profession—but one that is in a labor-management relationship?

The laws of New York recognize the labor-management fault line, but they do little to guide a collective-bargaining process toward agreements in the many districts in which teacher-evaluation systems are contested. Each side brings a powerful public value to bear on the disagreement.

For the employers, it’s all about efficiency. It’s in the public interest, they argue, to recruit, retain and reward the best teachers, in order to maximize the collective achievement of students. A teacher-evaluation system that fails to identify those teachers who are effective, and those who are ineffective, can neither weed out consistent low-performers nor target those who might best benefit from intensive help. Rewarding high-performing teachers can, in the short run, help keep them in their classrooms, they claim, and, in the long run, can help expand the pool of talented individuals who enter the occupation.

For teachers, the key concern is fairness. Fairness is primarily a procedural issue: Teachers, and the unions that represent them, seek an evaluation process that is neither arbitrary nor capricious, relying on stable and valid criteria that they believe accurately characterize the quality of their work. In this view, an evaluation process is unfair to the extent that it can be manipulated by a building administrator or school district to yield a particular rating for a teacher’s performance. It is also unfair if random factors beyond a teacher’s control unduly influence the evaluation of his or her performance.

The values of efficiency and fairness collide head-on in New York’s Education Law §3012-c, passed as part of the state’s efforts to bolster its chances in the 2010 Race to the Top competition. The law requires annual professional performance reviews (APPRs) that sort teachers into four categories—“highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” and “ineffective”—based on multiple measures of effectiveness, including student growth on state and locally selected assessments and a teacher’s performance according to a teacher practice rubric.

The fundamental problem is that it’s hard to assess the efficiency or fairness of an evaluation system that doesn’t exist yet. There are too many unknowns to be able to judge, which is one of the arguments for piloting an evaluation system before bringing it to scale. The properties of the state tests that are to be used to assess teachers’ contributions to student learning are a moving target; the tests have been changing in recent years in response to concerns about their difficulty, predictability and coverage of state curricular standards. And in a couple of years, those standards and assessments will change, as New York and many other states phase in the Common Core standards and new assessments designed to measure mastery of them. The models to estimate a teacher’s position relative to other teachers in contributing to students’ test performance are imprecise at the level of the individual teacher, and different models yield different results for a given teacher. There’s been little to no discussion of how to incorporate this uncertainty into the single numerical score a teacher will receive.

The evaluation of teachers’ practices via classroom observations using New York State Education Department (NYSED)-approved rubrics, such as Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching or Robert Pianta’s Classroom Assessment Scoring System, is another unknown. There’s evidence that with proper training, observers can reliably rate teachers’ classroom practices, but the nature of the training is critical, and there is no evidence to date of New York City’s ability to prepare more than 1,500 principals, or the principals’ “designees,” to carry out multiple observations of many teachers, teaching many different school subjects, each year.

Amazingly, there is even uncertainty about whether the evaluations can or should be based solely on a teacher’s performance in a single year. The statute creating the new evaluation system in New York describes it as an “annual professional performance review.” But is this a professional performance review that occurs annually, or a review of annual professional performance—that is, a teacher’s performance in the most recent year? The guidance provided by the NYSED suggests that it has no idea. “For 2011-12, only one year of teacher or principal student growth percentile scores will factor into each educator’s evaluation,” the guidance states. “When more years of data are available, NYSED will consider whether each evaluation year should include more than one year of educator student growth results. Empirical and policy considerations will determine the decision.”

Well, that certainly clarifies matters. In other words, a “bad” year where a teacher is ranked relatively low compared to other teachers might reverberate, affecting his or her ranking in subsequent years. But a good observational rating in a given year seemingly will have no spillover effect into subsequent years. If, as has been true in Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT teacher-evaluation system, teachers generally score higher on observational ratings than on their value-added or growth-score rankings relative to other teachers, the carryover for value-added performance—but not observations of teachers’ professional practices—appears unfair. And in D.C., this evaluation system has resulted in the termination of hundreds of teachers based on one or two years of performance.

Teacher-evaluation systems have multiple purposes, which might include certifying teachers as competent or selecting some for particular forms of professional development to enhance their professional practice. For most of these purposes, it’s essential that those with a stake in the education system view these evaluation systems as legitimate—and the perceived efficiency and fairness of an evaluation system are central to such judgments. It’s not hard to see why a great many teachers, in New York City and across the state, have serious doubts about the fairness of New York State’s APPR process. And if future teachers do as well, the process could have the unintended consequence of reducing, rather than increasing, the pool of individuals willing to consider teaching as a vocation. This, coupled with the more than 1,300 principals across the state who have raised questions about the efficiency of the process, illuminates the challenges confronting the state as it seeks to implement the APPR system and avoid a scolding from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

William Blackstone, an 18th-century English legal scholar, wrote “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of our country, later upped the ante to 100 to one. The principle captures squarely the trade-off between the value of efficiency and the value of fairness. A legal system that lets the guilty go free is inefficient, as these offenders are free to continue to transgress against the common good. But to Franklin and others, that was still preferable to a legal system that did not provide adequate procedural protections for all, whether innocent or guilty, because such a system would be inconsistent with the principle of fairness so central to the American polity.

It’s important to note that Blackstone and Franklin were concerned with the workings of government; fairness in the private sector was not a central concern, and efficiency was taken for granted as a consequence of market forces. Civil servants, as agents and employees of the state, arguably are subject to a different set of rights and responsibilities than those working in the private sector, and teachers are one of the largest groups of such public servants. What’s an acceptable tradeoff between efficiency and fairness in the mix of teachers’ rights and responsibilities? It’s a lot easier to speculate about percentages in the abstract than to confront the possibility that you, or someone close to you, might be out of a job because of an untested teacher-evaluation system that cuts corners on fairness.

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

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.