Lessons from the teachers strike

When an article concludes with this line, we're going to recommend you read the entire piece.

As both policy and politics, the demonization of teachers unions is a dead end for improving American education. Working with, not against, teachers is the more sensible way to better our schools.

Shame, errors and demoralizing

Shame, errors and demoralizing, just some of the emerging rhetoric being used since the NYT and other publications went ahead and published teacher level value add scores. A great number of articles have been written decrying the move.

Perhaps most surprising of all was Bill Gates, in a piece titled "Shame Is Not the Solution". In it, Gates argues

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.
Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public shaming. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.

Following that, Matthew Di Carlo at the Shanker institute took a deeper look at the data and the error margins inherent in using it

First, let’s quickly summarize the imprecision associated with the NYC value-added scores, using the raw datasets from the city. It has been heavily reported that the average confidence interval for these estimates – the range within which we can be confident the “true estimate” falls – is 35 percentile points in math and 53 in English Language Arts (ELA). But this oversimplifies the situation somewhat, as the overall average masks quite a bit of variation by data availability.
This can be illustrated by taking a look at the categories that the city (and the Journal) uses to label teachers (or, in the case of the Times, schools).

Here’s how teachers are rated: low (0-4th percentile); below average (5-24); average (25-74); above average (75-94); and high (95-99).

To understand the rocky relationship between value-added margins of error and these categories, first take a look at the Times’ “sample graph” below.

That level of error in each measurement renders the teacher grades virtually useless. But that was just the start of the problems, as David Cohen notes in a piece titled "Big Apple’s Rotten Ratings".

So far, I think the best image from the whole fiasco comes from math teacher Gary Rubinstein, who ran the numbers himself, a bunch of different ways. The first analysis works on the premise that a teacher should not become dramatically better or worse in one year. He compared the data for 13,000 teachers over two consecutive years and found this – a virtually random distribution:

First of all, as I’ve repeated every chance I get, the three leading professional organizations for educational research and measurement (AERA, NCME, APA) agree that you cannot draw valid inferences about teaching from a test that was designed and validated to measure learning; they are not the same thing. No one using value-added measurement EVER has an answer for that.

Then, I thought of a set of objections that had already been articulated on DiCarlo’s blog by a commenter. Harris Zwerling called for answers to the following questions if we’re to believe in value-added ratings:

1. Does the VAM used to calculate the results plausibly meet its required assumptions? Did the contractor test this? (See Harris, Sass, and Semykina, “Value-Added Models and the Measurement of Teacher Productivity” Calder Working Paper No. 54.)
2. Was the VAM properly specified? (e.g., Did the VAM control for summer learning, tutoring, test for various interactions, e.g., between class size and behavioral disabilities?)
3. What specification tests were performed? How did they affect the categorization of teachers as effective or ineffective?
4. How was missing data handled?
5. How did the contractors handle team teaching or other forms of joint teaching for the purposes of attributing the test score results?
6. Did they use appropriate statistical methods to analyze the test scores? (For example, did the VAM provider use regression techniques if the math and reading tests were not plausibly scored at an interval level?)
7. When referring back to the original tests, particularly ELA, does the range of teacher effects detected cover an educationally meaningful range of test performance?
8. To what degree would the test results differ if different outcome tests were used?
9. Did the VAM provider test for sorting bias?

Today, education historian Diane Ravitch published a piece titled "How to Demoralize Teachers", which draws all these problems together to highlight how counter productive the effort is becoming

Gates raises an important question: What is the point of evaluations? Shaming employees or helping them improve? In New York City, as in Los Angeles in 2010, it's hard to imagine that the publication of the ratings—with all their inaccuracies and errors—will result in anything other than embarrassing and humiliating teachers. No one will be a better teacher because of these actions. Some will leave this disrespected profession—which is daily losing the trappings of professionalism, the autonomy requisite to be considered a profession. Some will think twice about becoming a teacher. And children will lose the good teachers, the confident teachers, the energetic and creative teachers, they need.
Interesting that teaching is the only profession where job ratings, no matter how inaccurate, are published in the news media. Will we soon see similar evaluations of police officers and firefighters, legislators and reporters? Interesting, too, that no other nation does this to its teachers. Of course, when teachers are graded on a curve, 50 percent will be in the bottom half, and 25 percent in the bottom quartile.

Is this just another ploy to undermine public confidence in public education?

It's hard to conclude that for some, that might very well be the goal.


If you are a corporate education reformer, with the requisite pathological desire to want to fire educators, having educators stand in your way, blocking this deep seated desire is something that must be overcome.

We therefore see a secondary policy preference expressed by those wanting to privatize and corpratize public education. Policies designed to remove the collective voice of educators.

SB5 is a very clear example of this, and while publicly it was couched in "reform rhetoric", the governor has already expressed his desire to "break the back of organized labor in the schools". Scott walker in Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and the legislature in New Hampshire have all tried similar approaches to removing educators voices.

But even with SB5 massively defeated, corporate education reformers like the Fordham Institute continue to push for such approaches

Teacher unions are among the most powerful political actors in America on a wide range of issues (just ask Terry Moe, Paul Peterson, or Mike Antonucci). It’s not a given that that should be so, however, or that union intervention in partisan elections is always (or even often) good for teachers as a whole. Rhee and other education reformers would do well to add paycheck protection to their toolkit of reforms to increase parent power over education policy – and protect the rights of teachers to spend their paychecks on political issues they believe in, not on the agenda of labor leaders.

We left the following comment on their post "this is a very ill informed post.

Teachers can opt out of funding unions and pay only fair share to cover the costs of professional services. Political advocacy of candidates is NOT paid out of any dues, but instead is paid by VOLUNTARY contributions by educators, typically into the Fund for Children and Education (FCPE).

One would hope that a "policy fellow" would at least avail themselves of some basic facts and understandings before espousing an opinion on a topic they clearly have no understanding of.

But the folks at Fordham aren't the only ones who would like to see educators slip quietly into the background. The Columbus Dispatch often published opinion pieces that echo these desires, and did, publishing a piece by Pat Smith, titled "Expert panel could revamp education in Ohio"

An expert panel in Ohio could identify similar savings and direct them where they’d do the most good. Such a panel ought to include certified public accountants, economists, futurists and technologists and perhaps be chaired by Ohio’s state auditor.

We're not sure what a "futurist" is, but we are sure educators are not on that list, indeed educators get a special mention - "It should welcome input, but not control, from educators..."

We asked Ms. Smith "Curious why you do not include any teachers/educators in your list of people who would serve on your proposed expert panel?". She was kind enough to respond, and her response included this

No one is more supportive of teachers than I am. I come from a family of teachers: mother-in-law, aunts, sister-in-law, my daughter and, of course, my own experience - four different systems under five different principals. But, I think the kind of expertise we need to improve the productivity of the entire state system has to come from those with different sets of skills: technology gurus, numbers crunchers, data experts, demographers, futurists, etc. Yes, as I said, they need to have input from educators (the editor edited out the adjective "strong" before "input.") But, you know as well as I do, much of the decision making in education circles revolves around ideology and not about what really works. Also, the educators tend to wear down others on panels. My worry is that there is only a finite amount of resources that is going to go into education and that we must make the very best use of those resources and that educators don't know or agree how to do that. For example: should we fund early education or lower class size? Yes, a surgeon has the expertise to operate, but not to run the hospital where he performs the surgery.

We're not sure what's more insulting, the mistaken belief that educators have no expertise in these matters, or that they constant pointing out of ill-conceived ideas wears the purveyors of those ideas down. But at least in this exchange we can see why educators simply must be silenced.

According to ODE statistics, Ohio teachers have an average of 15.08 years experience, giving them a combined 1,560,379 total years of experience. Each day they add almost a million hours of experience to this massive total. Who else in the state has this amount, depth, and level of expertise in public education?

Anyone who doesn't recognize that educators have earned a central role in education policy reform isn't serious about reforming education, they are instead more interested in partisan politics.

The Myth of Security

When the Business Round Table released a report that showed public employees made 43% more than their counterparts, a lot of eyebrows were raised. That would have been quite a result, except as more reputable think tanks have discovered, that report was riddled with errors, bad methodology and a sprinkling of fantasy.

Innovation Ohio has just published a piece titled The 43% Myth that takes apart this bogus report from the BRT and AEI, piece-by-piece. Let's focus on just one of the most outlandish claims the BRT made, because it gets to the heart of SB5 and corporate education reform.

BRT adds 10% to public employee salaries for the benefit of “job security” they claim these workers enjoy. The number itself was artificially inflated by the researchers’ methodology, but also falsely suggests that this “benefit” costs taxpayers anything. If, as BRT asserts, public workers remain in their jobs longer, it actually saves employers money by not having to locate and train replacement workers as frequently.

How much security do educators have to begin with? We took a look.

We can see in the graph below, that educators have experienced significant employment declines in this recession - over 200,000 since 2009.

In Ohio specifically, we can look at the declines over the past decade. In December 2001 there were some 322,700 people in local government employment connected to education - teachers, education support professionals, principals, etc. In 2010 there were on average just 288,600.

That's a loss of 34,100 jobs in public education in Ohio.

It is clear to see that education has not been a particularly secure profession. When one considers that it also requires regular voter approval of tax levies to even maintain current staffing levels, anyone claiming that being an educator draws a 10% "security bonus" is someone who hasn't familiarized themselves with the facts.

To add to this uncertainty, corporate education reformers now want to tie employment to test scores, in a means that is unproven. By swapping mythical job security for promised (but not delivered) higher pay, corporate reformers believe teachers and students benefit alike. However, no evidence exists to support this claim, indeed, evidence of the damage these policies produce is now surfacing.

Rhee vowed to remove significant numbers of teachers. About a third of the 4,000 teachers on the payroll on Sept. 1, 2007, are gone, through firings, layoffs and normal attrition, according to D.C. officials.

It has left the teacher corps younger and less experienced. The proportion of first- and second-year teachers has increased in all wards of the city, according to an analysis by Mary Levy, a lawyer and education finance expert who has worked as a consultant to District officials.

The biggest increase in novice teachers, who often struggle in their early years, has been in low-income areas of the city. Nearly a quarter of the teachers in Ward 8 are beginners, triple the level in 2005. But other communities have also seen a spike. In Ward 5, the proportion has gone from 9 percent to 22 percent.

Job security has been destroyed, and a profession that already suffers from high attrition, has seen that problem escalate significantly. Teachers are not motivated by profit, and when their employment becomes driven by such factors, it drives them out, not higher.

It should also be noted that in Ohio, while corporate reform measures are targeting job security, they have not appropriated a single dime to go towards merit pay.

The goal, therefore, is to lower costs, not increase quality. With these corporate education reform policies, costs will surely go down, as will the quality of education Ohio students receive, and in the long run - that's the cost that the state cannot afford to bare.