Teacher evaluation flap is much ado about not so much

It’s a problem with being a legislator. You pass a law, and you expect everyone will fall in line. And sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Case in point: Indiana’s teacher evaluations. Results were released last week, and they weren’t what some lawmakers had in mind when they mandated that all teachers be evaluated annually and rated highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective.

Of the teachers who were rated – and quite a few weren’t, either because their districts have multi-year union contracts that supersede the law or for other reasons – over 97 percent were rated highly effective or effective.

Rep. Bob Behning, who sponsored the 2011 legislation in the House, told Chalkbeat Indiana the results showed the system wasn’t working. “We may have let there be too much local control,” he said. “There’s obviously too much subjectivity.”

Some thoughts:

It’s a new system. Even if you think the teacher ratings are a good idea, they’re a new way for schools to do business. The state didn’t provide any extra resources, leaving it to school principals to find time to do the evaluations themselves or scrape together money to hire and train evaluators. Many districts adopted the state’s RISE system and are learning to implement it. Others are creating their own systems. With either approach, they may be feeling their way.

Beware of unintended consequences. The law says any teacher rated ineffective or needs improvement can’t get a raise. As state Superintendent Glenda Ritz suggested, that creates a disincentive for low ratings. Suppose you’re a principal and you’re evaluating a new teacher who shows lots of promise but needs to get better. Do you rate the teacher “needs improvement,” deny a raise and risk driving away a potential future star?

Labels aren’t everything. The undifferentiated ratings don’t necessarily mean the evaluations were a waste of time. Maybe the classroom observations, consultations and data that were part of the evaluations will help teachers improve. “If, as is hoped, the feedback generated from these reviews is more helpful to teaching and learning, then perhaps the year-end score isn’t the most important thing to consider,” Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week.

The “bell curve” idea is nonsense. Len Farber nails this in a post for Indy Vanguard. If you randomly pulled people off the street and put them in a classroom, sure, you’d expect some to be lousy at teaching. But teachers have selected to teach. They’ve finished college; many are motivated enough to get a master’s degree. If they aren’t good at it, chances are they figure it out and leave the field. It’s not surprising that most would be competent.

It’s a myth that only in public education are most employees rated effective. California teacher-blogger Paul Bruno makes this point, citing an economics paper that examines why businesses don’t use employee evaluations to reward superior performance. The paper focuses on two large manufacturing firms where 95 percent of managers and professionals were rated good or excellent.

Finally, in nearly 40 years of working in the private and public sectors – and not as a teacher – I have never experienced annual evaluations as a tool for weeding out “bad” employees. I can recall maybe one time that a co-worker was urged to leave for being ineffective. Maybe I’ve been blessed with remarkably tolerant bosses. But I doubt my experience is that unusual.

Indiana schools worse than average for ‘discipline gap’

Indiana schools are among the nation’s leaders in an unfortunate category: the rate at which they suspend and expel students of color. That’s according to the Civil Rights Data Collection report issued last month by the Department of Education.

The report includes extensive data for 2011-12 from nearly all U.S. public schools and highlights equity issues ranging from availability of preschool to distribution of experienced teachers to access to challenging high school courses.

Some of the starkest disparities were in school discipline. Black students faced out-of-school suspension and expulsion at three times the rate for white students. And in Indiana, the numbers were higher:

  • 27 percent of African-American boys were suspended or expelled: the second-highest rate in the nation, tied with Missouri. The national rate was 20 percent.
  • 17 percent of multiracial boys were suspended or expelled. That’s second in the nation, tied with North Carolina and behind Florida. The national rate was 11 percent.
  • 16 percent of African-American girls were suspended or expelled, tied for second with Michigan and Missouri and behind Wisconsin. National rate: 12 percent.
  • 8 percent of multiracial girls were suspended or expelled, tied for second with several states and behind only Rhode Island. The national rate was 5 percent.

discipline-chart-revised

Indiana also had some of the largest racial gaps in suspension rates. Eight percent of white male students and 3 percent of white female students were suspended, as were 5 percent of Asian males and 1 percent of Asian females.

Some folks are sure to suggest poverty, class or culture, and not race, account for the disparities in discipline. But researchers with the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Consortium, including Indiana University professor Russell Skiba, have shown it’s not that simple. There’s evidence that African-American youth are more likely to face harsh penalties for offenses that might draw a slap on the wrist for others.

At any rate, discipline is an educational issue, not just a civil rights issue. When kids are suspended or expelled, they aren’t learning, and they’re arguably apt to become discouraged and alienated. As Skiba, Anne Gregory and Pedro Noguera argued in a 2010 paper, the discipline gap and the achievement gap may be “two sides of the same coin.”

More evidence against the myth of charter school superiority

Conventional public schools in Indiana are doing better than charter schools when it comes to helping the state’s poorest children achieve passing grades on state tests. Not a lot better, but enough that it should give pause to those who assume charter schools are superior and we need more of them.

This claim rests on a simple comparison of 2013 ISTEP-Plus passing rates for charter schools and district public schools where more than 80 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price school lunches. On average, students in the district public schools were more likely to pass the tests.

Now this isn’t sophisticated research, and it certainly doesn’t prove charter schools are inferior. It looks only at the schools’ overall passing rates for math and English/language arts exams, which of course make up just one small measure of school effectiveness. It says nothing about individual schools.

But neither should the result be particularly surprising. It meshes with what University of Illinois professors Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski have found: that conventional public schools, on the whole, outperform not only charter schools but also private schools. Continue reading

Charter schools and segregation

The folks who want to open a Waldorf-inspired school in Bloomington are back, this time with a plan that sounds a bit more secular than what they laid out the first time around.

They’ve asked the Indiana Charter School Board to approve a charter for what they’re now calling The Green School. The board will have a public hearing on the proposal Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Monroe County Public Library. Comments can be emailed until April 8 to charter-applications@icsb.in.gov.

The Green School charter application describes a school that will emphasize environmental sustainability and social justice with an “arts-infused” curriculum on the model of Waldorf schools, created a century ago by Rudolf Steiner. It will be a school “that meets the needs of the whole child: head, hands and heart.” Sort of a new-age 4-H club without the H for health – although that’s in the plan too: There will be crafts with beeswax crayons and natural paints and healthy cafeteria meals from the local co-op.

Initially calling their proposal the Green Meadows School, the organizers applied last year to Ball State University but withdrew that application. They have now dropped many of the explicit references to “spiritual” values and practices that made the first plan sound sectarian. But the Indiana Charter School Board should still look critically at whether a school whose curriculum is “informed” by Steiner can claim to be nonreligious.

Continue reading

Preschool bill is one baby step for Hoosier-kind

It’s a start. A tiny one, for sure. But to use a cliché that for once is totally appropriate, you’ve got to walk before you can run. And in Indiana, we’re barely crawling when it comes to early childhood education.

House Bill 1004, which establishes a state-funded pilot program to help low-income parents send their children to preschool, was approved Thursday by the state House and Senate. The measure limits the program to five counties in its first year. It can be expanded later if lawmakers agree.

Best of all, the legislature dropped a provision that would have made participating preschoolers eligible for vouchers to attend private K-12 schools as they get older. As initially approved by the House, the bill had the potential to eventually make nearly half of Indiana students eligible for private-school vouchers.

Votes for the final version of the bill were 92-8 in the House and 40-8 in the Senate, with all the no votes by Republicans. It now goes to Gov. Mike Pence, who can sign it and claim the legislature approved one of his signature initiatives. Continue reading

Don’t let schools be an excuse for not fixing poverty

It’s a mystery. Why are people who call themselves education reformers comfortable with the status quo when it comes to poverty and economic inequality? Why are they OK with social circumstances that are convenient for adults but aren’t good for children?

Why can’t we talk about poverty and the challenges it presents for schools without being charged with excusing failure? As Adam VanOsdol of Indiana Education Insight noted recently: “Anyone raising the poverty issue these days gets accused of letting schools off the hook. These allegations stand in the way of serious form.”

Folks in the reform community like to say schools are the solution to poverty. Certainly good schools are part of what’s needed. But to suggest schools by themselves can solve the problem is naïve. And to suggest there’s nothing we can do is just giving up.

Just for a start, we could:

  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Quit passing laws to weaken unions.
  • Create a fairer tax system.
  • Fund safety-net programs like food stamps, housing and unemployment.
  • Ensure people have access to health care.

And, yes, we could take on the shameful segregation of America’s education system Continue reading

More evidence Indiana vouchers are about teaching religion

Parents are using Indiana school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to provide their children with religious education at taxpayer expense. That’s the finding that jumps out from a recent survey of private school parents by three pro-voucher Indiana organizations.

The survey found that more than half of parents who used vouchers to transfer their kids to private schools did so in part because they didn’t like the fact that public schools don’t teach religion. And more than two-thirds chose their current school for its religious instruction or environment.

That’s not the only motive parents listed. Survey participants were invited to check multiple reasons, and many did. The most common: Three in five disliked the “academic quality” of their public school; nearly 80 percent chose their current school for “academics.”

The Friedman Foundation, which conducted the survey with School Choice Indiana and the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, seized on that result. “Survey: Voucher parents chose private schools for better academics,” says the headline on its press release about the results.

But academic quality means different things to different people. (I guarantee it has very different meaning for me than for some of my close friends).  Continue reading