Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teacher Effectiveness in New York

Yesterday, I spoke of the sad performance of public schools in New York City.

The chancellor of the system called the situation "unacceptable."  She said, “Our schools must be a place where students feel safe, supported, and engaged in learning – no matter their zip code or the challenges they may face at home.”

No one disagrees with her sentiment.  The question is how to achieve the goal she has set.

Here's a worst-case scenario in which the school district tried to do the right thing but was stymied.

A Bad Teacher

In February, the New York Post ran a sad story.  It described a city teacher who had received "unsatisfactory" performance ratings for six years in a row.  (This in a city where 96 percent of teachers are rated "effective" or better.)

The district moved to fire the teacher. After a 16-day hearing, the hearing officer conceded the teacher did not control her classroom, did a poor job of lesson planning and had a bad attendance record. (She was absent or late more than a third of the year.)

On the other hand, the hearing officer (selected jointly by the school district and the teachers union) did not conclude that the teacher did a poor job; rather, he said, she had not received enough coaching.

The Post article quoted testimony from an assistant principal's observation of the teacher's classroom in her sixth year on the job.  He described what he saw in the classroom as "chaos."

            “Students up out of their seats, at least one was running, another was demonstrating
     karate moves on the closet door and the majority of the students were not involved in
     anything instructional — an issue that has repeatedly plagued your tenure as a
     classroom teacher,” he wrote at the time.
             Three of her 6-year-olds were injured in a classroom melee that day, he added.
            Amid the “mayhem,” the assistant principal wrote, the teacher was “buried in a corner at
      a computer table” where she could not monitor all the kids.
            She said she was “re-sharpening pencils” that were too sharp — to prevent accidents.
      She claimed the students were “walking around the room working on word activities.”

If this was going on during on during a formal classroom observation, you have to wonder what was happening when the teacher was not being watched by an administrator.

Sadly, this was a first-grade teacher.  First grade is really important:  It is when students begin to read and make numerical calculations.  It is when they must learn, if they haven't in kindergarten, to pay attention in class and focus on their lessons. Every other school year builds on the first grade foundation.

If this teacher had classes of 20 first-grade students every year for six years, she basically threw a wrench into the school careers of 120 children.  It would be interesting to learn the reactions of second-grade teachers who inherited the students who had been in her classroom.

The teacher, still drawing her $84,500 salary, has been placed in a substitute teacher pool to minimize damage to students.  She also is suing the school district for discrimination.

If the school district cannot rid itself of this teacher, it is difficult to see how it can tackle the many other challenges to achieve  better results for its students.

The Rubber Room

Reading the Post article reminded me of another article  -- "The Rubber Room" by Steve Brill -- that ran in The New Yorker in 2008.  It described how the school district was keeping more than 600 staff members on the payroll but confined for each schoolday in "rubber rooms" where they did no work but, most important for the district, had no access to children.

These teachers had abused students sexually and physically, had abused drugs and alcohol to the point of incoherence in front of classrooms.  The New Yorker was unable to do the math, in two tries, but by my calculations, the rubber room employees accounted for 0.008 percent of the roughly 78,000 teachers in the system.

That the district was unable to get rid of such extreme bad apples was bad enough.  Worse, the article revealed, a full 1.8 percent of teachers -- more than 1,400 -- were classified as unsatisfactory, like the teacher described above, and were still working in classrooms.

The article explored why these unsatisfactory teachers had not been released.  In conversations with a hearings officer, the officer said he was unaware of any hearing that had resulted in the actual firing of a teacher for incompetence.

The New Yorker article cited a Brookings Institution study of the Los Angeles schools, another troubled district.  The study concluded that "having a top quartile teacher rather than a bottom quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white (test) score gap."

A district employee affirmed the point.  "If you look at the upper quartile (of teachers) and the lower quartile, you know that these people are not interchangeable."

The message was plain: Teachers are really, really essential.  Strong teachers have a critical, positive effect on student learning.  Getting such teachers into classrooms is the single best thing a school district can do to for its students.

New York School Improvements

Much has changed in New York education since the Rubber Room story ran.  Many more charter schools have opened; not all are great, but the ones that fail are closed.  Parents are asked to name the schools they want their children to attend, listing several schools in their order of preference.

The school district has tightened up on pre-tenure teacher evaluations, deferring what used to be automatic tenure awards in many cases.  Teachers passed over for tenure after the traditional three-year period now may face deferrals for an additional year or two; many of these teachers do not receive tenure.

This has a limited effect, however.  As the school district loses students to charters and private schools, enrollment has declined and, with it, the need for new teachers.

And, still, 96 percent of teachers are ranked effective or highly effective, which may be hard to justify in a district with as many problems as New York's recent results demonstrate.

Worse, the four percent of teachers who are ranked less than effective remain with the district.  Like the teacher described at the top of the post, they almost certainly limit their students' progress.

The simple fact of an incompetent teacher's being kept on, year after year, is an indictment of the district and, too, of a teachers union that claims to represent professional workers but then goes to the wall to defend teachers whose unworthy performance damages all teachers' reputations and subverts the best interests of children.

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