Assessment Opinion

‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’

By Deborah Meier — March 21, 2013 5 min read
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Dear Rick (vs. Eric, now that we know each other better!),

I’m going to try to go through your thoughtful response one step at a time, and then propose one of many alternatives.

First. Many, many of us have objected to standardized tests for students (FairTest is an OLD organization). IQ tests were the focus of critiques for a hundred years, and SATs for half a century. The list of books on the subject is long. My own writings on the subject began in the late 1960s and were joined by many others. A famous physicist (Banesh Hoffman) wrote a book: The Tyranny of Testing. I could go on and on. It was less critical when few stakes were involved, but as the stakes increased, our alarm increased. Check out Linda Darling-Hammond’s work, check out the work being done by the Coalition of Essential Schools, and on and on. Check my website. Also the bibliography at the back of my book, In Schools We Trust.

Second. Actually VAM (value-added measurement) is new to the scene, but as you know has been debunked for its unreliability and probably lack of validity by many others, besides cranks like me. First of all, as they say, “Garbage in, garbage out.” No playing with refined statistics can make flawed data less so. If the first test was invalid for making judgments, the second is too and comparing them doubles their unreliability. The percentage of teachers who’d be fired one year and get a bonus the next is simply too high.

Third. Actually, the intention of common core is to test in all areas over time AND in the meantime to judge teachers on both in whatever they teach.

Fourth. A good system of observation may take note of various forms of testing—including standardized. But in most states now the VAM rumps everything else. I’d prefer it not be used at all, but noting it would do little harm. Many folks do not acknowledge how many teachers leave because they’ve had it, they are pushed out by so-called strong leaders, or they are counseled out, or they are effectively fired—whatever it’s called. Often more for being “troublesome” to the “climate” (e.g. the principal) rather than ineffective with their students and families. I’d guess that’s the No. 1 reason principals and superintendents harass teachers until they quit or transfer to another town.

But to argue that teachers say “no way, not now, not ever” ignores the fact that virtually all schools evaluate teachers annually. And have whether there’s a union or not. It’s done by principals, who recent reforms have made more, not less, powerful with respect to their staff.

We can do a better job at hiring and firing if (1) we have a glut of teachers to draw from (“better a weak teacher I know than another I don’t,” some principals argue) and (2) if approached in a less adversarial way. More on this later. But no one I know has proposed a “scorched earth” approach—that’s a strong word when we’re trying to find common ground!

Fifth. The whole point of our complex judicial system is about “due process,” so why do you pass that off as a unworthy argument? It’s the cornerstone of our republic. Without unions, I don’t think I could have stayed in teaching—because I can be one of those “troublesome” people and I knew it. But I wasn’t ineffective. Even in terms of testable “outcomes” I wasn’t much different than most others—although I personally avoided having to use them with kids most of my career. I discovered on the ground, so to speak, that my judgment was far better than the tests, which were often dramatically misleading. I discovered, on the ground so to speak, that the tests, were often dramatically misleading.

The more democratically a school is run, the easier it is to “fire” weak teachers, especially truly “bad” ones. In a hierarchical school colleagues tend, virtually always, to come to the defense of a teacher who they see as being “pushed out” by the administration—usually without knowing who is right/wrong, and perhaps not knowing because there is no system for knowing. It causes tension and morale problems.

Both CPESS (Central Park East Secondary School) and many other Coalition schools were set up with this problem in mind. (I’ll see if I can send you the Mission Hill manual on evaluation.) We use a committee of peers to review/supervise/consult with new colleagues on a regular basis, combined with classroom visitations. After a teacher is “tenured” at our school we do this every few years. The teacher being reviewed can suggest one member of the three- or four-member team. The team drafts a recommendation, which is shared and responded to first by the principal, who may want to discuss it with the committee, and then by the teacher in question. The faculty recommendation comes before the full faculty prior to our spring staff retreat so that both the school and the teacher have a chance to consider what to do next. I can recall one case where I asked the team to give the candidate another year. After this the candidate can appeal to our trustees (1/3 staff, 1/3 parents, 1/3 community members), and/or to a special process developed by the superintendent and the union president. In addition, it must be remembered that hiring is done in consultation with students and parents, and finally by the faculty council—on which I also sit.

Given this collegial approach I cannot imagine benefits would come by adding teacher salaries into the mix. Thank god for the union—to which we all belong. It frees our in-school relationships from worrying about who likes who, who needs more salary, who needs less. We distribute a lump sum (about what other schools spend on professional development) amongst all staff members in return for not dealing with overtime, per-session moneys, etc. Everyone gets the same allocation. And the union has never objected. I means we all work very hard and do not feel martyred for doing so.

As for teachers who should not be in any school at all, Eric, I cannot imagine our not agreeing to let such a person go. What’s harder to imagine is how I could look parents and kids in the eye and explain why their child’s teacher is not at the top of our ranking order, but is getting one at the bottom! When we have a new or wobbly teacher we acknowledge it up front and add resources: an extra adult, lower class size, as we do also when a teacher is going through a personal crisis (like divorce, death in the family, etc.).

We think we are modeling for students—openly and flagrantly—what we mean by a balance of powers, due process, the exercise of disciplined judgment, as well as the value of compassion. In retrospect these may be the strongest and most powerful long-term effects and what I think engages students in their own studies because they see how and why such often-tough judgments matter.

Meanwhile, schools need to work on creating a climate of “pride” in each other’s work. We remind kids often that how they act reflects on the school’s reputation, which in turn will help or hurt them. We count on that from faculty as well. It changes the way we think about “our school.”

We never fully live up to our mission statement, but we never lose sight of it. This is more than you ever wanted to know. Let’s not stop.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.