First Person

Teacher Report Cards: My First Thoughts, Revisited

My recent writing on the teacher report card issue has brought me back to my original writing on the topic when I received my first data report. I was a little surprised how my initial reaction echoed my feelings a year and a half later. Even though I’ve publicly advocated for the scores to be released, I still agree with my first assessment:

That said, the whole thing has to be taken with a grain of salt. As much as my job has been overwhelmed by testing, I refuse to judge my performance on test scores alone.

Ultimately my job is to prepare my students for a life of learning and success. Tests that measure students’ academic performance are one way to assess my own performance. But I’d like to believe that there are intangible aspects to my job — for example instilling a love of learning and proper work ethic — that can’t possibly be measured quantitatively. I think any attempt to rate teachers without accounting in some way for these aspects of teaching will be fatally flawed.

Rereading this old post from last year, I was also struck by the conversation that followed in the comments. I think they’re worth reading:

Jonathan said:

But when we open the door to this sort of evaluation, it will become in many cases the only evaluation.

There is nothing easier than picking a number out of a report.

Qualitative observation, qualitative evaluation, would take work.

Skoolboy said:

Ruben,

Would you be willing to share your report? If you’ve only been teaching for a year, it’s very likely that the information is extremely unreliable — i.e., your percentile location in the experience-adjusted distribution might be due to chance.

Aaron Pallas
[email protected]

NYC HS History Teacher said:

Many teachers say this, and I have to believe it will be true

“When they measure teacher performance on student test scores, every kid will get an A.”

And really, does anyone believe the DOE would have an effective way of figuring out whether teachers are fudging grades or not. After all, high scores make them look better. Just look at the abortion the Regents exam has turned out to be.

I responded:

I don’t remember the exact numbers but I believe my ELA percentile was 58 and my Math was 33. I already knew that math was a weak area for my last year though, and I expect this year’s scores to reflect a big improvement. To NYC HS Teacher, I agree partly, but in the case of the ELA and Math scores, I don’t assign them, so it’s impossible to “give every student an A” to raise my grade. That doesn’t mean however, that teaching to the test becomes the standard practice

Skoolboy responded:

Ruben,

One of the things that worries me about the teacher data reports is that teachers might focus on their percentile ranks — 33 and 58 in this case — without considering just how much uncertainty there is in the data that go into those percentile ranks. The report displays the range of percentiles which might be a teacher’s “true” percentile rank, but we’re drawn to the single number that is the best single estimate.

I think it’s quite likely that estimates such as the 58th and 33rd percentiles represent broad ranges of possible values, to the point that the 58 and 33 are statistically indistinguishable. What appears as better performance in ELA than in math may simply be a matter of chance.

I don’t know how useful these reports might be. Teachers who take their work seriously are going to be striving to improve regardless of what the teacher data report says. But if you find it useful, that’s great.

If any other readers would be willing to share the information in their teacher data reports — and anonymously is fine with me — I’d very much like to see them.

Aaron Pallas
[email protected]

And I responded:

To be clear, I think the report cards are far from perfect, and yes, more than a little annoying. But I’ve always cared about grades, even if I’m had problems with the teacher or their grading system. Even in these cases, I’m the type who will strive for an A. So if nothing else good comes of this report card, at least maybe I will improve my practice to the point where all my students will achieve beyond the predictions of the system.

To which Jonathan said:

But achieve what? Is your job limited to maximizing their scores on the state ELA and Math exams?If you strive to increase your “grade” you will be working to master test prep. Is that the kind of teaching you want to learn to do? What would you be neglecting?

Unfortunately, I never responded to this final, and essential question. I want to do so now with a resounding refusal to let test prep dominate my practice. I understand the fear that the use of test score data will precipitate test prep centered teaching, and that’s why I think it’s essential we have a open dialogue on valid methods of quantitative and qualitative evaluations for teachers. It’s imperative that this discussion includes teachers.

I believe that good readers, writers and critical thinkers can score well on any test they’re given. These are the skills I have always worked to develop in my students. It’s my hope that by preparing my students for the tests in this way, their scores will rise. To belatedly answer Jonathan’s questions, I do worry that report cards predicated on test scores will drive test prep in the classroom. However with the right balance of qualitative evaluations, this practice would be discouraged. In my own classroom, I think it is possible to strive for high test scores (and by extension a high mark on a teacher data report) without sacrificing what I know are the best practices.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.