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.