Federal Opinion

ALEC Reports on the War on Teachers

By Anthony Cody — January 26, 2012 7 min read
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As state after state rewrites their education laws in line with the mandates from Race to the Top and the NCLB waiver process, the teaching profession is being redefined. Teachers will now pay the price - be declared successes or failures, depending on the rise or fall of their students’ test scores. Under NCLB it was schools that were declared failures. In states being granted waivers to NCLB, it is teachers who will be subjected to this ignominy. Of course we will still be required to label the bottom 5% of our schools as failures, but if the Department of Education has its way, soon every single teacher in the profession will be at risk for the label.

This revelation came to me as I read the Score Card on Education prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), authored by Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dan Lips. This is a remarkable document. It provides their report on where each of the states stands on the education “reform” that has become the hallmark of corporate philanthropies, the Obama administration and governors across the nation.

It begins with a histrionic comparison between the struggle over our schools and the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. The authors write:

Britain's enemies overreached, invading the Soviet Union and attacking the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Finally, British forces defeated the German army in Egypt, securing their hold over the strategically vital Suez Canal. Prime Minister Churchill recognized the turning point:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Henceforth Hitler's Nazis will meet equally well armed and perhaps better armed troops. Hence forth they will have to face in many theatres of war that superiority in the air which they have so often used without mercy against others, of which they boasted all round the world, and which they intended to use as an instrument for convincing all other peoples that all resistance to them was hopeless.
We mean to hold our own.
In 2011, America's struggle for education reform may have also reached a turning point--an end of the beginning.

In case you missed it, in this analogy, the teacher unions represent the Nazis, while the forces for corporate reform represent the doughty British and their allies.

The greatest success story cited in this report is Indiana, where the corporate reform “alliance"succeeded in passing comprehensive “reforms.”

Gov. Daniels detailed the reforms to the American Enterprise Institute audience, describing how Indiana lawmakers limited collective bargaining to wages and benefits. Indiana law ended the illogical practice of LIFO (Last In, First Out) in layoffs, mandating a determination of merit-- based in part on student test-score gains--rather than simply seniority be used as the basis for making layoffs.

Readers may recall my post last July describing the role the Gates Foundation-funded group Teach Plus played in advancing this legislation. The Gates Foundation last year also gave ALEC a grant of $376,635

to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement.

The report describes many other reforms enacted by the Indiana legislature, including expansion of vouchers, charter schools, “virtual schools,” and a parent trigger so that parents can petition to convert neighborhood schools into charters.

But it was the introduction to the report, written by Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, that brought this into focus for me. He writes:

Prior to this session, 99 percent of Indiana's teachers were annually rated "Effective." If that rating were actually true, 99 percent--not just one-third--of our students would be passing national tests. From this point on, because of the diligence and fortitude of our reform-minded legislators, teachers will be promoted and retained based on performance rather than seniority. Teacher evaluations, which will be locally formulated, will rely on student improvement. Successful educators will be rewarded, while those whose students lag behind will be asked to find work elsewhere. Additionally, schools will now be graded on an A-F scale and they, too, will be held accountable for student advancement; and the state will not hesitate to intervene in those schools that fail repeatedly.

According to this logic, the individual teacher’s accountability for student performance is absolute. Governor Daniels apparently believes there ought to be a one to one correspondence between student achievement and teacher effectiveness. This is rather incredible, but there you have it. Most systems base between 25% and 50% of the teacher’s evaluation on test scores, but that is enough to make a big difference in one’s career, as examples below illustrate.

Even Eric Hanushek, the economist who has done more to advance these evaluation systems than anyone, admits that teachers only account for around ten percent of the variability in student test scores. (Teachers are the largest IN SCHOOL variable, but their influence is dwarfed by factors such as family income and education levels.) But when teacher unions represent the axis of evil, I guess anything that can be done to rout them is justifiable.

According to the Wall St. Journal, as of last fall, nearly half the states now link teacher evaluations to student test scores. This week Connecticut became the latest to make the move.

I do not think teachers in many states quite understand how the profession is being transformed. And our unions are, in some cases, negotiating these agreements into place. Tennessee has been ahead of the curve, and may offer us a preview of what may be in store. There, the state has had en extensive data collection system for years, and, in order to gain Race to the Top funds, implemented a comprehensive system that rates teachers using test scores.

Michael Winerip wrote about Tennessee in the New York Times:

Teachers have it worse. Half of their assessment is based on their students' results on state test scores, a serious problem for those who teach subjects with no state test.
To solve that, the state is requiring teachers without test results to be evaluated based on the scores of teachers at their school with test results. So Emily Mitchell, a first-grade teacher at David Youree Elementary, will be evaluated using the school's fifth-grade writing scores.

These “reforms” have been created to give principals more authority, so they can fire bad teachers. But even principals are questioning the new model. Carol Corbett Burris has been outspoken, and has rallied more than 1,278 principals in the state of New York to object to the new evaluation system there.

In a New York Times column posted yesterday, Principal Corbett Burris writes,

The right question to ask, however, is not whether this evaluation system is good or bad for adults, but rather whether it is good or bad for students.
Numerical evaluations of educators, 40 percent of which is based on student test scores and achievement, will damage the relationship between teachers and students, a relationship at the heart of student success.
It will accelerate teaching to tests instead of teaching to the needs of kids.
It will put teachers in the terrible position of wondering whether the performance of their weakest students on a test might be a threat to their careers.
It will make principals hesitate to lead schools where test scores are low.

This is a good summary of the bad effects of this shift. In the brave new world of teacher evaluations based on test scores, every teacher, every year, will be subject to the vagaries of chance. Every teacher will have to decide how that class of English Language Learners will affect their livelihoods. Every teacher will live in fear of being assigned special ed students, likewise difficult to move on the VAM charts. We are moving from the time when schools were blamed to a new time of the toad, when individual teachers will be vilified, their careers ruined over their scores.

To make this more real, I want to share with you some specific results from the Houston Independent School District (HISD).Houston has been evaluating teachers based on value-added student test data (calculated through a widely-used commercial system called EVAAS) for the purpose of both merit pay and dismissal.

In spring of 2011, a number of HISD teachers’ contracts were not renewed, largely due to:
“a significant lack of student progress attributable to the educator,” and
“insufficient student academic growth reflected by [EVAAS] value-added scores.”

A recent research summary included evidence about the value-added scores of several teachers, including this one, who had been a highly-regarded elementary teacher in HISD for more than 10 years. In each year, she “exceeded expectations” across every domain in her supervisor evaluations. She was given a “Teacher of the Month” award in 2010 and a “Teacher of the Year” award in 2008.

Here are her scores for the previous four years:

Many studies have found that the scores that come from these models are subject to a great many factors, and are highly variable from year to year. In Houston, the study quoted here found that most teachers’ value-added scores were lower in the years when they had a large number of newly mainstreamed English learners, a practice that occurs in grade 4, as shown in this teacher’s case.

Here is another example.

This teacher certified for grades 4-8 via HISD’s Alternative Teaching Certificate (ATC) program. She took a full-time position in HISD in 2006. Until 2010-11, she was rated as “exceeded expectations” or “proficient” across every domain in terms of her supervisor evaluations. Like most teachers, she had positive (3 out of 6) and negative (3 out of 6) value-added scores across the years.

In 2009-2010, when she was assigned to teach a large number of English Language Learners who were transitioned into her classroom, her value-added scores went down. This well-regarded teacher has now also left the Houston school district, while those who have stayed are increasingly confused and demoralized by this system.

These teachers report that there is no relationship between their instructional practices and their value-added ratings, which appear unpredictable. As one teacher noted:

I do what I do every year. I teach the way I teach every year. [My] first year got me pats on the back. [My] second year got me kicked in the backside. And for year three, my scores were off the charts. I got a huge bonus, and now I am in the top quartile of all the English teachers. What did I do differently? I have no clue.

These examples were drawn from the report of a policy briefing sponsored by the American Educational Research Association and National Academy of Education, Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: A Brief for Policymakers, by Linda Darling-Hammond, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, Edward Haertel, and Jesse Rothstein. The report notes the results of a number of studies that have found wide swings in teachers’ value-added ratings, based on classes and characteristics of the students they teach, the year, the test, and the statistical model used. For these reasons, this research summary points out that leading research organizations, like the National Research Council, ETS, and RAND Corporation, have all counseled against the use of these kinds of ratings for high-stakes decisions for teachers. As a letter from the National Research Council’s Board on Testing and Assessment stated in a letter to the US Department of Education:

“VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness ... should not used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.”

Of course this is all taking place against a backdrop of rising class sizes and cuts to support services such as school libraries and health programs. But teachers alone are held accountable for the results of their students, on the narrowest of measures. How many more teachers will we lose as these policies spread? How far will this corporate reform war on our profession go? At the end of the day, this will hurt the most vulnerable students the most, as it will speed up the revolving door of their teachers and create a dynamic in which teachers with options will try not to teach in the schools and classes where poor students and English Language learners predominate.

It seems that ALEC considers itself engaged in a battle of epic proportions, yet many teachers are too busy working to even realize that their profession is being redefined in state after state. I would offer another quote from Winston Churchill:

One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.

What do you think? Will teachers suffer a fate similar to that of our schools under NCLB, and find themselves declared failures? Is it time to turn and confront this danger?

(tables from the report, Getting Teacher Evaluation Right: A Brief for Policymakers, used with permission.)

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.