reaction roulette

Meaningless? Cause for celebration? Interpretations of newest test scores run the gamut

PHOTO: Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the city's gains in reading and math as proof that his education policies are working.

New York state’s latest test scores are completely meaningless — or the key to understanding whether any students are learning.

The city’s modest gains are the result of a year of rolling back the education policies of the Bloomberg administration, adding teacher training time, and empowering district leaders — or they demonstrate just why those policies are doomed to fail.

On test-score day, it all depends who you talk to.

To be sure, there are many ways to interpret the city’s scores, which increased by one percentage point in math and two points in English this year, continuing a slow climb while revealing persistent disparities. But for the elected officials, charter-school leaders, and big-spending advocacy groups with a stake in New York’s education debates, the results are used to bolster almost any argument.

At a press conference at P.S. 19 Asher Levy in the East Village, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the continued progress was cause for celebration, and credited his administration’s focus on extra time for professional development for teachers and a shake-up of the education department’s structure with contributing to the gains.

“The building blocks that we put in place all are contributing and will contribute much more going forward to the progress we’ll make,” de Blasio said, calling it a “great day for New York City.”

Last week, the mayor played down the relative importance of state test results, and Chancellor Carmen Fariña has tried to reduce the pressure schools feel to rapidly improve scores. But de Blasio will also soon have to win over a governor and state legislature that gave him just one year of control over the school system, and officials took pains Wednesday to link the increases to their new education policies while also acknowledging longer-term gains.

“We will continue to make superintendents accountable for what happens in their districts, principals accountable for what happens in their schools and teachers accountable for what happens in their classrooms,” Fariña said, referencing the recent restructuring.

Meanwhile, Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which encouraged parents to opt their children out of the state tests, said “it would be a huge mistake to read anything into these test results.” Especially since one in five eligible students statewide declined to take the tests this year, the scores “aren’t worth the paper they are printed on,” she said.

Another union leader, Michael Mulgrew, of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, found some value in the results.

“We’re seeing progress, particularly in reading, thanks to a city administration that really cares about student learning, increased availability of appropriate curriculum and training, and hard work by teachers and students,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools and a political rival of de Blasio’s, found different reasons to celebrate. Of the 3,000 Success students who took the state tests, most of whom are black and Hispanic, 93 percent passed the math exams and 68 percent passed the English exam, beating city averages for white students by roughly 40 and 20 points, respectively.

“These results prove that the educational inequality that traps thousands of New York City’s children of color in poverty can be eliminated, if only our elected officials muster the political will,” Moskowitz said.

Allies of Moskowitz were more pointed in trying to tie de Blasio’s policies to the continued poor performance of black and Hispanic students.

“Unless Mayor de Blasio reverses policies that deny students access to high-quality schools, he risks presiding over a failing schools crisis defined by educational inequality,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organizes parent rallies for Success Academy.

The reaction from other charter advocates was measured. The charter sector often points to its students’ performance on state tests as evidence for why the city needs more charter schools. This year, the city’s charter schools outperformed the citywide averages in math but lagged in English, and both numbers improved by a smaller margin than the city’s.

Dave Levin, founder of the KIPP network of charter schools, noted that its overall proficiency rates exceeded the city’s growth by three points in English and four points in math.

“While we are proud of these academic gains, we have more work to do,” Levin said in a statement.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, noted that charter schools bested district schools when comparing the results of black and Hispanic students.

“While proficiency rates are still not as high as they need to be in charter or district schools,” he said in a statement, “this is definitive proof that charter schools serve a critical role in meeting the needs of traditionally underserved populations and it shows why they are in such high demand from families in long underserved communities.”

Meanwhile, Advocates for Children of New York called the proficiency rates for the city’s English language learners — 4 percent in English, under 15 percent in math — “devastating.” Proficiency rates among students with disabilities actually declined slightly in math, the organization noted, and achievement gaps between those students and their peers in general education were growing.

“This is unacceptable,” it said in a statement.

Also up for debate was how to interpret the state’s acknowledgement that 20 percent of eligible students statewide opted out of taking the tests, up from 5 percent a year ago. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia stressed that while 1.1 million students were eligible to take the tests, and about 200,000 did not, the state still had 900,000 valid test scores — valuable information for teachers and schools.

Others, including supporters of the tests, said the huge opt-out numbers could call the usefulness of the results into question.

The varying numbers of test-takers “creates an apples-to-oranges comparison” between years, said Steven Sigmund, who heads High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that support the New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards.

Derrell Bradford, whose organization NYCAN is part of High Achievement New York, said students who took the tests were still in a better position to get the help they need to succeed.

“Everyone else just has a best guess about college and career readiness,” Bradford said.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”