Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

John Thompson Reviews “Confessions of a Bad Teacher”

By Anthony Cody — September 14, 2013 4 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Maybe this should go under the heading of confessions of a naïve teacher, but I still try to put myself in the shoes of Arne Duncan, his boss, Bill Gates, and others who seem to believe that value-added, as a part of a multiple measures, can be valid for teacher evaluations. Anyone who would believe such a thing might also believe the claims of New York City small schools’ websites.

James Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher describes his year at a New York City small school, which earned a “B” on the district’s report card. “Latinate,” as he called it, had a six year old, full-color brochure with a zippy design. It claimed an accelerated college-prep curriculum, peer mentoring, tutoring, programs in technology, Art History, ethics/service learning, step/hip-hop and ballroom dancing, b-ball, tennis, fencing, filmmaking and chorus.

According to Owens, the only program that it retained was basketball.

Latinate was a small school that “co-located” in the same building with another small school referred to as the “blue school.” Latinate spun itself as a school based on “non-negotiables.” The principal, “Ms. P,” believed that Latinate could take every kid who walked into the building, and by accepting “no excuses” it could bring them all to academic excellence. The “blue school” sought to offer a more well-rounded education, and its principal raised an additional $500,000 to fund programs that Latinate could not afford.

The damage done by false promises and inequitable spending became clear when Owens took his 8th-graders on a tour of the blue school’s library. His students were “dumbstruck” by it and “even the most outrageous of them walked gently and touched nothing, knowing that this was a special place.”

Latinate was supposed to have access to the library during certain hours on two days a week, but it took months before they had access. The fact that the co-located students were treated with more respect continually grated on Owens’ kids.

The full force of New York’s value-added evaluations had not taken effect. Consequently, the quatitative component of Owens’ evaluation was to meet the expectation that:

Classroom practices reflect teacher awareness and utilization of available data, state and city assessment data, e.g, biographical/attendance data, state and city assessment data, ARIS data, in-house baseline-interim-end line data, etc.

Owens then explains the flaws of some of the value-added absurdities that were then on their way (and have since become real). Value-added models cannot take into account the effects of peer pressure and neither can control for ineffective policies or poor implementation. Even its most fervent advocates are acknowledging that value-added models often have false positive rates of 20 to 25%, meaning that the statistical model will falsely indict a teacher as ineffective 1/5th or more or the time. But, they still claim to believe that “multiple measures” i.e. principal observations and other metrics, can make value-added a valid evaluation metric. In other words, the administrator who implements failed policies can be trusted to determine whether it was the teacher or the policy-makers who should be held accountable for failing to hit growth targets.

It shouldn’t be necessary, real world, to explain to “reformers” why there should be a firewall between the observation part of the evaluation and the quantitative part. But, then again, it should be equally obvious that, in an age of “accountability,” the observation metrics will also be manipulated to reward friends and punish enemies. Even so, Owens explains the absurd process so that even the most extreme true believer should recognize its unfairness. Owens writes,

It didn't take deep analysis to see that the most important point on Mrs. P.'s sixty-six point formal observation expectations checklist had little to do with in-class performance. It was the unwritten Number 67 - "Volunteering to Promote the Pageant of Today's Successful School."

So, what were the real metrics? Were I to make a guess, I’d speculate that across the nation that the data that is most commonly used to get rid of teachers, in low-income schools at least, is likely to be related to violating petty rules in regard to “word walls,” “data walls,” and the phrasing of objectives, standards, and other silly paperwork. Again, there is a long history, that precedes standardized testing, of teachers being harassed over cosmetic trappings. (When my old school faced inspection, it was widely known that the central office administrator was fixated on stray pieces of scotch tape and teams with step ladders would repeatedly inspect the places where some old tape scraps could have been left behind.)

Predictably, Owens’ school was preoccupied with classic dog and pony shows for inspectors. Teachers were monitored for their detailed compliance in displaying student work, but the rule was “never (never!) display student work diagonally. It must be hung straight up and down.”

Of course, they knew that the bureaucrats would never read the work. So, the principal, Ms. P., gushed over the display of a paper that plagiarized Wikipedia, declaring it, “Amazing!”

I could go on with Owens’ exposes, as well as the mendacity that has become worse since accountability-driven “reform” became dominant, but this is a good point for doubling back to my original question. When Bill Gates or Arne Duncan tour a high-performing school that supposedly serves the “same” kids as failing neighborhood schools and proclaim, “Amazing!,” do they really believe it?

What do you think? Do “reformers” really believe what they are told when they tour the educational versions of a Potemkin Village? Do they believe the claims of success in Washington D.C. or New York City? Are they blind to the damage done by schools like Latinate? Or are their sound bites just the way the game is played? Do they not have enough respect for teachers and students to inquire into what really happens in schools during an age of “reform?”

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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.