Pointing Fingers

Mea culpa! I’m sorry! I messed up. Last week I posted a comment on an article in the Post-Gazette that caused quite a stir among some of the people whose opinions I care deeply about. I issued a public clarification, but I feel this episode could give us all an opportunity to think through some issues together.

In fact, from its inception, that is what this blog has been about – a place where I have essentially been “thinking out loud,” posing questions, and looking for answers. It has often been a place for public dialogue, with people posting responses and counter arguments. As posts have circulated in social media (and occasionally been picked up in the national media), they – and your reactions to them – have become a part of the public conversation around education justice.

But I should note that this is often a very uncomfortable form of writing for an academic: it’s vulnerable and offers much less shielding than peer review and the lengthy research and publication process. No matter the format, I believe scholars ought to approach their writing with humility, admit they don’t know everything, and be willing to ‘fess up when they step in it. So here goes.

Last week Tony Norman published a column on education, taking some black leaders to task saying, “Their emphasis on teacher evaluations as the key to closing the education gap and spurring black academic achievement is misplaced….” And he noted, “The racial achievement gap and the academic mediocrity of far too many black students is not the creation of diabolical teachers unions determined to protect the jobs of unqualified teachers at the expense of children in urban schools.” [Post-Gazette, 2-18-14] He then turned and pointed the finger at black parents, suggesting they are the real problem in education today.

Now anyone who has read my work surely knows that I do not blame black parents: from my book on black and white families and the history of child welfare, to the over 250 posts on this blog calling for equity and vociferously objecting to racism and the disproportionate impact of education policies such as school closures, discipline, and resource decisions on students of color and communities of color. But I did a poor job of explaining that when I posted my comment:

“Thank you, Tony, for moving the needle on this conversation. It’s time to think bigger about our persistent opportunity gap. Parents and families are a crucial part of the equation — but they, too, must often be supported. I am very excited about the Community Schools strategy put forward by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, with proposals for working with the mayor’s office, community partners, teachers, parents, faith based groups, foundations, social services, and more. Community Schools can engage entire communities in supporting families and students, and put the resources we need back in our neighborhoods. This is a positive, attainable plan to re-energize our public schools as the hearts of our communities again. I encourage everyone to read:

In response to a public firestorm around Norman’s article (it seemed everywhere I went last week it was being discussed), and several pointed emails from friends that landed in my inbox, I realized in horror that my comment could be interpreted as support for blaming black parents and I posted this additional note:

“Several people have contacted me in regards to this comment, so I am offering this clarification. I am glad to see a piece that is not simply blaming teachers, which has become a very loud public narrative that I do not find helpful. And I am most indeed very concerned about our achievement/opportunity gaps. But I disagree with Tony’s conclusion: I don’t want to blame parents, either. Substituting parent blame for teacher blame won’t work and plays on long-standing, troubling assumptions about race and families. My hope is that we can find bigger solutions, that address our pernicious equity and resource issues. That is why I am hoping everyone will take the time to read the new GPS report, which offers both vision and solutions.”

Obviously I am excited about the new Great Public Schools Pittsburgh report and am eager for folks to read it, comment, and discuss. I do feel it offers a blueprint for community collaboration that will let us get past pointing fingers at teachers or parents, and focus on bigger answers to the complex problems that vex public education in our city. If I was overly eager to direct people to the report and missed an opportunity to shake my finger at Mr. Norman, I apologize.

Right now, however, I would like to put all those fingers down. I am concerned about the growing divisiveness I have seen over the past year in the education justice movement, especially around the issue of teacher evaluation. (And to the extent that I have contributed to that, I apologize, too.) I have largely resisted writing directly about Pittsburgh’s new evaluation system because it’s extremely complex and I still have more questions than answers. But perhaps now would be a useful time to sketch out what I see and pose some of those questions.

First and foremost, I think we all believe teachers should be evaluated. That’s not the issue. It comes down to the context in which it is done and the way that process impacts students and our schools (not to mention individual teachers).

Here’s my understanding of how the new system works. Most teachers will now receive a score based on 50% observation (a relatively new system called RISE), 15% student ratings (a new system called the Tripod survey), 30% teacher Value-Added Measure (VAM) and 5% school VAM. The value-added system is a complicated formula that attempts to predict how much individual students should learn in a year and then calculates how much they actually grow, on the basis of test scores. The VAM system uses Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs) and unit assessments, which are given throughout the year, as well as PSSA and Keystone results from the state exams, which are given just once a year. There are VAM scores generated for both individual teachers as well as for the whole school.

I have heard very good things from teachers and administrators alike about the new RISE system, which uses both principal and peer observation. I particularly appreciate that it is done in the spirit of practice improvement and to target professional development. It seems to me that multiple classroom visits by both peers and principal evaluators also means problems can be caught earlier (rather than relying, say, on state test data that is not available until six months later, in the next school year). Presumably, this kind of improved observation can help the district weed out unacceptable teachers more quickly.

I’ve been hearing more mixed results about the Tripod surveys, which students complete about their teachers, especially concerning poorly worded and confusing questions. I learned recently that the survey is made and administered by the Cambridge company, and that we can’t change these questions. But, it’s “only” 15% of the total score, so maybe not enough to get too worried about. (If it’s fair to say that about numbers that affect real human beings.) I am curious if the district is seeing a strong correlation between RISE and Tripod data? In other words, are principal and peer observers seeing the same thing that students are saying?

VAM is where I have the most questions. Again, I am glad that the majority of the teacher’s score is observation based. But with 35% of the score dependent on student test data, I am concerned about the impact on students as we continue to expand the number of tests (for example, so that we can get test data for all teachers, including music and art) and therefore the change in test culture in our schools. For instance, we now see far more test-prep and focus on the tests with posters, morning announcements, pep rallies, and more. And I worry that Pennsylvania will see a similar lawsuit like the one in Florida this week which forced the state to release individual teacher’s names and VAM scores to the media. [Tampa Bay Times, 2-24-14] When that happened in California a few years ago, a highly regarded teacher committed suicide. [LA Times, 9-28-10]

Yet even with my concerns about privacy and individual pieces of the new system, I have listened to and been reassured by Dr. Lane that our teachers will not be force stack-ranked (in other words, the system does not force a certain number of teachers into each category, thereby guaranteeing a particular “fail rate”). I have met with district officials who have described very positive professional development and support structures, some existing, some in the works. And just last week I heard the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee interview Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis, who reiterated the union’s support for the entire evaluation system and described the current quibble with the district as a disagreement over where to draw the “cut score” defining unsatisfactory teachers.

So if the district and the union both think this is a worthwhile system, it seems to me it’s time for them to get back together and figure those numbers out so we can move on to talking about much more important things. I have zero interest in the cut-score debate.

I would rather be talking about what kind of professional development and support our teachers need and what they’re getting. I would much rather be talking about how to reduce the overall number of high-stakes tests our kids are taking and how we might work together to change some of those stakes attached to the tests. (For instance, I just learned that students applying to district magnet schools get two extra weights for advanced PSSA scores, while low income status adds only one extra weight: should good test taking count for more than poverty for kids trying to get into some of the district’s best schools?) I want to have an honest conversation about test culture. Heck, I want to talk about the Community Schools strategy and nurses and librarians and early childhood education.

There’s room for disagreement in these conversations, but we could be working together. Here’s what I’ve committed to working on in the coming weeks in the spirit of collaboration and fostering dialogue:

  • I’m delighted to serve on Mayor Peduto’s newly appointed Task Force on Public Education.
  • I’m also thrilled to be working with the Heinz Endowments and several other key community leaders on a proposal to bring a major national education justice conference to Pittsburgh (we are one of two finalists in the running!)
  • On Friday I will be going to Austin along with two other Yinzercation activists, where I’ve been invited to speak at the first national conference of the new Network for Public Education. I look forward to learning more about the national education justice scene and reporting back.
  • On Tuesday, March 11, Yinzercation will be hosting a screening of the new movie, “Standardized,” followed by a community discussion of testing and student learning.
  • On Tuesday, April 8, Yinzercation and PIIN will be co-hosting a gubernatorial candidate debate focused exclusively on education (the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania!). The event will be co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and others are coming on board. I’ll have more details for you soon. We need help organizing, so let me know if you’re interested.

I’m inviting all of us to put away the fingers and participate in some good old-fashioned civil discourse.

11 thoughts on “Pointing Fingers

  1. In the spirit of your theme here, two thumbs up for the post! Thank you from this teacher. Your writing handles teacher evaluations with thoughtfulness and thoroughness. Our conversations, even when we do not agree, must always be framed around our students’ needs. This is the exact dialogue our community should value.

  2. The cut score debate is rather important to teachers. Pittsburgh teachers are being held to a standard higher than any other teachers in the state. Why would a new teacher choose a district where the work is more challenging than in most other districts, and you are being judged by more stringent criteria than teachers in districts with fewer challenges? If PPS has had trouble filling positions in the past the higher cut scores will only make it more difficult. This is not because we don’t want a fair system of evaluation. It is because we do.

  3. I read the article written by Tony Norman, and quite frankly, as a minority who grew up in the inner city of a big city, and now a PPS teacher, I don’t see why you are apologizing. He is spot on. Why are we afraid to state what is in fact the case. Too many of our students, black and white, are underachieving. Having lived in the inner city, broken, single parent home, in drug infested neighborhoods, I know first hand the importance of parent involvement in a child internalizing and placing great value on education. My mother was not involved, never asked if I had homework, no books in the house, I was never read to, yet I managed to achieve, but my older brother and sister fell through the cracks. I don’t blame the teachers of the inner city schools for the failures of my sibling; I believe mostly all my teachers had great intentions. The reasons why my siblings failed had more to do with family and community than the teachers teaching us. I did have a teacher that inspired me to become a learner, but overall I developed a passion that took me beyond my desperate upbringing. Now, with my own children, I place great value on education and have expected nothing less from my children. They are successful, not only because of a few great teachers, but because everyday I ask questions and behave in ways that demonstrate that I place great value on education and they should too: How was your day at school? What Do you have for homework? Let’s see some graded assignments. Finally, do you need help? Most evenings we are all seated together doing school work. My house is wall to wall books and my kids see me reading and learning all the time. I have done everything possible as a parent to give my children an edge, and they know I will not accept less of them, so they have risen to the challenge and even enjoy it most of the time.

    On another note, what teachers have you been talking to? Your understanding of how the evaluation system is working at PPS and how it is actually playing out in real time is not completely accurate. Most teachers I know are miserable, overworked, stretched thin. This evaluation system is not working and is demoralizing teachers. Further, it has decreased the amount of time teachers can spend focusing on their classroom, their students, creating meaningful lessons, providing students with meaningful feedback, and simply having the time to sit down with their students and just listen to them. We are being judged harshly and all too often unfairly. I have counseled and consoled to too many teachers who are stressed out, crying, and even on medication to calm their nerves. How is this a good thing?

    Someone really needs to take the time to listen to our teachers. They need to be heard and supported.

  4. Jessie — Thank you for your ongoing courage and search for the truth. We all have much to learn. We are all stakeholders. And I believe we all can come to agree that the most important facts are the ones that directly impact each and every student’s success. Listening to each other, working together, finding common ground — always focusing on each individual student achievement — a noble challenge for our society. Jessie, you are an invaluable regional leadership voice for education — your Yinzercation blog — and all your tireless studies and research have provided a strong focus on individual student learning. Funny thing about people. No matter how hard we try to be clear in our communications, there are always misunderstandings and misperceptions. But the areas of dissonance are opportunities for reflection of individual values and perspectives. It is very hard work for each of us in every sector across society. We do have to sit down together at the same table. We can all learn to be kinder to each other — and we can all learn from role models and mentors like Lois and Evelyn — to be respectful of each other — valuing each and everyone’s unique gifts — and understanding that we must all work together. Thank you. Karen Date: Tue, 25 Feb 2014 21:38:17 +0000 To: kjr50@msn.com

  5. In response to the question about the relationship between Tripod and RISE: We wouldn’t want or expect to see near perfect correlations between our measures. They each look at something different and, together, help provide a more complete and useful picture of teacher performance. But we do expect them to be positively correlated. In our analyses we do see positive correlations between RISE, Tripod, and VAM of a similar magnitude to what was found in the national Measures of Effective Teaching study.

    • Thank you so much for responding and for this information. That is very helpful to understand. A reader has informed me that RISE does not include peer evaluation. I apologize if I misunderstood that. Could anyone offer clarification?

      • Principals are the only ones who can rate a teacher’s performance or issue ratings, but there are more than 60 teacher leaders across the District who are observing and supporting their peers through the RISE process, and can contribute evidence related to performance.

      • This statement about a “teacher supported process” is a smoke screen that is masking what this evaluation system is really doing to most teachers. I really wish people would become educated about the harm that is being done to our most vulnerable schools and to the lives of dedicated teachers.

  6. It is my understanding that teachers, in an ITL2 position, do observations for RISE. Those are peers in a sense.

    As a parent, it is really helpful to hear the perspective of teachers regarding the system of evaluation. Everything parents hear comes directly from the district or A+ Schools.

    I imagine teachers don’t feel safe to speak up but I am really interested to know if the system of evaluation has been implemented in the way it was explained to us.

    The demoralization of teachers is a real concern for me. That is not a good learning environment for my children and ultimately, it will force teachers (even the best) to leave.

    I have to wonder if this elaborate evaluation system was necessary. All teachers can improve. Why didn’t we just spend the oodles of money we got from Gates to improve and develop all teachers (we already had RISE)? I truly believe if we spent every dime of the money on teacher improvement/development and meeting the needs of our students, we would be much better off.

  7. I didn’t interpret the earlier post (or the PG article) as saying that all the blame should be placed on black parents. It seems clear to me that there are multiple factors that influence student performance (parents, teachers, poverty, access to pre-k, school funding etc.). I think the blog has done a good job covering all the bases (no need to go overboard with the apology).

    I wanted to comment on the mangnet lottery from the perspective of a SciTech parent. For SciTech, the problem with the magnet lottery is that there are too many cases of kids who do not love math and science getting into SciTech in order to avoid their neighborhood feeder school. While it is true that you are required to write a brief essay as part of your application, that essay isn’t evaluated and has no actual impact on your lottery result.

    Now compare that to the CAPA application process where there is no lottery… instead you have to audition and are judged before you can get in. It doesn’t seem fair to me that CAPA can have such a subjective admission process (e.g. compared to the randomness of the weighted lottery that all the other magnet schools have to deal with).

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