light of day

City releases Teacher Data Reports — and a slew of caveats

When the Department of Education’s embargo of Teacher Data Reports details lifted at noon today, news organizations across the city rushed to make the data available.

The Teacher Data Reports are “value-added” assessments of teachers’ effectiveness that were produced from 2008 to 2010 for reading and math teachers in grades 3 to 8.

This morning, department officials including Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky met with reporters to offer caution about how the data reports should be used. They emphasized the reports’ wide margins of error — 35 percentage points for math teachers and 53 percentage points for reading teachers, on average — and that the reports reflect only a small portion of teachers’ work.

“We would never advise anyone — parent, reporter, principal, teacher — to draw a conclusion based on this score alone,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Most of the news organizations that filed Freedom of Information Law requests for the ratings plan to publish them in searchable or streamlined databases, with the teachers’ names attached. GothamSchools does not plan to publish the data with teachers’ names or identifying characteristics included because of concerns about the data’s reliability.

At least two other news organizations that cover education are also not publishing the data: the local affiliate of Fox News, according to a representative of Fox, and the nonprofit school information website Insideschools.

Department officials are asking schools not to release the reports to parents. They issued a guide today advising principals about how to handle parents who demand that their child be removed from the class of a teacher rated ineffective.

“Resist changing student/teacher assignments mid-year, as doing so is disruptive to all students’ learning,” the guide advises.

“We definitely will not be moving kids around based on a data point that is two years old,” Polakow-Suransky said today.

Joel Klein, who was chancellor when the reports were launched, was a public champion of the idea that releasing teacher ratings would empower parents to demand better schools and teachers for their children. He argued publicly that the ratings of individual teachers should be released after news organizations filed legal requests for them.

But Walcott began distancing himself from that position almost immediately after becoming chancellor last year. And last fall, his administration announced it had stopped producing the reports, citing a new state teacher evaluation system that will include value-added measures. Walcott explained in a Daily News column today that he is not thrilled that teachers “might be denigrated” as a result of the data dump.

Today, Walcott and Polakow-Suransky argued that Klein’s initial stance was justified — at the time. “What we’re looking at in 2012 is quite different from what Joel was looking at in 2010,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Because New York City adopted value-added measures relatively early, he said, the ratings were in fact among the most sophisticated measures available at the time. But even at the time, the ratings were not meant for public consumption or to be used in high-stakes decision-making, he said.

Polakow-Suransky acknowledged one exception to the high-stakes decision ban: School officials did use value-added ratings to inform decisions about whether to grant some teachers tenure.

We reported last year that principals said they were being prevented from granting tenure to teachers whose students had low test scores, particularly if they were among the roughly 12,000 teachers annually to receive a data report.

Polakow-Suransky said today that 133 teachers up for tenure last year were flagged because of low value-added scores. More than a third of the flagged teachers received tenure after their principals and superintendents determined that other factors carried more weight, he said.

The city released reports for about 18,000 different teachers over the course of the three school years during which they were produced. About 12,000 teachers received reports in each of the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, and about half of them received two because they taught both reading and math. (A smaller pilot group received reports in 2007-2008.)

Because many teachers’ students were tested in both math and English, some teachers were given two different value-added ratings for a single year — below average in one subject and above average in the other.

The reports also indicate whether teachers were found to have done especially well at boosting the test scores of particular types of students, such as students with disabilities, low-income students, or students who are considered English language learners.

Department officials said 77 percent of the teachers who received reports are still working in the city schools.

Next week, ratings will be released for teachers in schools for students with severe disabilities and for charter school teachers. The release of charter school teachers’ data reports reverses the department’s earlier decision not to release them because charter schools had opted into the Teacher Data Report program voluntarily.

Officials cautioned that the scores were especially unreliable for teachers with relatively few students. That group includes elementary school teachers, who typically had fewer than 30 students factor into their scores.

They also said reports are less reliable for teachers whose students were either all high-performing or mostly low-performing. The difference is due to the nature of the state tests, which were designed to distinguish among middle-level students — those just above and below the state’s proficiency cutoff. As a result, small differences among students at the top and bottom had an outsized impact on a teachers’ rating, Polakow-Suransky said.

The issue was one of several lessons learned that Polakow-Suransky said the city has flagged for the State Education Department, which is building its own value-added algorithm to be used as a part of new teacher evaluations.

The state is working with the American Institute of Research to build its model; the city’s model was designed by a research center at the University of Wisconsin.

Other lessons Polakow-Suransky identified include the importance of publishing value-added scores in the context of their margins of error and the need to create a way for teachers and principals to verify data.

The city introduced a verification system that teachers could use two years into the Teacher Data Report project. Less than 40 percent of teachers signed in to use it, but a significant number of them found major errors. For example, three percent of the teachers who signed in discovered that they had been marked as teaching classes that they had not actually taught.

In their lawsuit attempting to stop the ratings from being released, United Federation of Teachers officials identified more than 200 such errors. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today that the errors showed that the city had not been respectful of teachers in developing or releasing the ratings.

“This was a complete debacle in terms of how the DOE has handled [the reports] and the mismanagement of the data inside of the system,” he said.

Asked whether he thought the state’s model would avoid the pitfalls the UFT identified in the city’s reports, Mulgrew said, “I’m not confident.”

But he said the state’s evaluation requirements are an improvement over the Teacher Data Reports because the new evaluations will showcase the value-added calculations alongside other measures of teacher quality.

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.