Education research heavyweights are headed to Albany next week to offer their advice about the state’s imminent overhaul of teacher evaluations, and they represent many sides of the contentious debates around how to rate teachers.
Seven researchers, economists, and professors accepted an invitation to weigh in on the debate at a May 7 summit being held by the State Education Department and Board of Regents, according to a department memo obtained by Chalkbeat. Officials are required by law to collect public comment on how to design the regulations that will govern how a teacher’s performance in the classroom gets graded, a process that must be complete by the end of June.
On Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s side is Thomas Kane, an economist from Harvard University who last week penned an op-ed praising the governor and the evaluation system he pushed into law earlier this year. Kane is best known for directing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study, an influential project that many states drew from when designing their new evaluation systems over the last half-decade. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat also receives some funding from the Gates Foundation.)
Kane’s three-year, $45 million project ultimately recommended that 33 to 50 percent of a teacher’s rating be determined by student growth as determined by their state test scores, 25 percent by student surveys, and the rest by classroom observations. (New York’s new system puts a heavier emphasis on student growth, but prohibits the use of student surveys.)
Kane will have some intellectual allies on the panel, but he’ll also be joined by several experts who are less supportive of Cuomo’s ideas. They include University of California at Berkley economist Jesse Rothstein, who analyzed data from Kane’s MET study and found substantial differences in value-added scores for the same teacher when different tests were used. Rothstein has also questioned whether state tests are the best assessments to capture teacher quality.
“If it’s right that some teachers are good at raising the state test scores and other teachers are good at raising other test scores, then we have to decide which tests we care about,” Rothstein told Chalkbeat in 2012. “If we’re not sure that this is the test that captures what good teaching is, then we might be getting our estimates of teaching quality very wrong.”
Also due to offer their opinions are Catherine Brown, vice president of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, which has published papers endorsing the use of value-added methodologies; Manhattanville College professor Stephen Caldas, who once called New York’s evaluation system “psychometrically indefensible“; and Teachers College sociologist Aaron Pallas, who has been critical of New York’s system and served as an expert witness in lawsuits brought by teachers unions challenging low teacher ratings.
Balancing out the panel will be Sandi Jacobs, a vice president at the National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization that has pushed states to adopt stringent evaluation systems that rely more on student learning measures, and Leslie Guggenheim of TNTP, an advocacy organization whose influential 2009 paper “The Widget Effect” was critical of districts for not using teacher performance to make important policy decisions.
It’s unclear what influence the researchers and policy analysts will have on the state’s work, given that much of the evaluation system has been prescribed by the law passed in April. Still, officials have decisions to make about what types of student performance should be factored into evaluation plans and how those scores should be used.
According to the memo, the state’s invitation was turned down by several other prominent researchers. One was Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who said in an email that she was working with the California’s education department and couldn’t travel. Another was Sean Corcoran of New York University, who has found that the city’s teacher ratings calculated by value-added measures were highly volatile from one year to the next and often riddled with errors, and said he was traveling.
Six of the seven experts will appear in person next week, where representatives from teacher unions, superintendent associations, and other advocacy groups will also be in attendance. A spokesperson for the department said the experts will get about 45 minutes to present their views on teacher evaluation policy before taking questions from Regents members.
Meanwhile, the city teachers union got a jump start on its attempts to influence state education officials, sending a lengthy letter and documents to the Regents this week outlining its own goals for changes to teacher evaluations.
The letter stated for the first time that the union wants the state to eliminate the use of “group measures” of student growth, which can be used to give ratings to teachers based on test scores of students or subjects they do not teach. Those measures are among the most frustrating aspects of evaluations for teachers of non-tested subjects like art, music and physical education, but also allow schools to reduce the time students spend taking subject-specific tests.
The union also pushed for as many aspects of the evaluation system as possible be left to districts and their unions to negotiate, rather than be decided by state officials.
“Every district is different, and a top-down, one-size-fits-all system will not meet the needs of all students and schools,” Evelyn De Jesus, the union’s vice president for education wrote.