Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Zero Sum Game

There are many serious flaws in the Louisiana Act 54 evaluation system, but the most serious one is that it is a zero sum game. Here is the Wikipedia definition of a zero sum game:
zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant's gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Thus cutting a cake, where taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others, is a zero-sum game if all participants value each unit of cake equally (see marginal utility).

The way the VAM portion of the teacher evaluation system was designed, there will always be 10% of teachers each year rated as ineffective. This will happen even though student performance may improve from one year to the next. The teaching force will never be seen as improving even if student scores go up statewide, because this zero sum system always dictates that teachers be ranked based on their VAM scores and the bottom 10% are always classified as "ineffective".  Likewise the top 20% are considered highly effective, no matter whether student scores go up or down. If one teacher goes up another teacher must go down. It is a zero sum game!

Also since the principals are supposed to be rated based on the performance of their teachers, the principals with the most "ineffective" teachers each year must also be rated as ineffective. So far there is no quota set by the state for ineffective principals but we can expect that the DOE will try to insure that some principals are rated ineffective and possibly fired based on the teacher VAM ratings at their school.

Superintendent White recently announced that he wanted to give more autonomy and authority to principals in determining the final evaluations of teachers. He was quoted as follows:

“Over time you really need to give the local administrators total authority over this or they won’t be able to use it as a tool to help their teachers,”

Based on that statement, one may conclude that White is finally beginning to treat principals like professionals and intends to trust their judgement on teacher evaluation. Don't believe it for a minute. You see White and his staff have a very cynical attitude toward the education professionals in Louisiana. The following is an excerpt from an email by Erin Bendily, one of the top administrators at DOE, concerning Louisiana's evaluation systems:

Dec. 31, 2011 Erin Bendily, Asst.Superintendent at LDOE, writes that they need to push “more on the CCSS [Common Core State Standards] alignment/integration throughout. "This sounds harsh, but we should show that our current/old educator evaluation system is crap and the new system is stellar."

I need to point out that even though the COMPASS was based on the rubric developed by Charlotte Danielson, current national guru on teacher evaluation, the actual author of the COMPASS system in Louisiana was a person by the name of Rayne Martin. Ms Martin was selected for this task by former Superintendent Pastorek, even though she had no experience in teaching and had never served as a school administrator who would have evaluated teachers. But Erin Bendily, who is also a non-educator, could casually claim that Louisiana's old evaluation systems were "crap" even though they were developed over the years by experienced educators based on expertise and experience actually implementing evaluation systems. 

It turns out that Charlotte Danielson whose credentials for developing evaluation systems I question also, recently disavowed any connection with the Louisiana COMPASS system claiming that too many of her components of effective teaching were dropped from COMPASS.
Here is an email from a DOE official complaining about the Danielson objections:

July 18, 2012: Kunjan Narechania, White’s chief of staff wrote:  “Charlotte Danielson, expert on teacher effectiveness, is being a pain again. Apparently some reporter interviewed her about us using a version of her rubric for our system. She said she thinks it’s a bad idea for us to use an abridged version of her rubric and that we should have piloted for a year. So lame…” 

Concerning trusting principals to make decisions of teacher evaluation, I believe the following is the real truth: White does not care much about the evaluations of teachers above the ten percentile ranking produced by VAM. That's the group he intends to throw into the volcano every year to satisfy LABI and the other critics of public education (I guess these groups are like the gods of our modern society that have to be appeased each year) That bottom ranking 10% immediately lose tenure, are first in line for layoffs based on that one year ranking, and are placed on a path to dismissal and decertification no matter how their principal rates them. This result may not be so objectionable if the VAM were a precise system for rating teacher effectiveness. But the DOE data tells us that approximately 75% of teachers who fall in the bottom 10% one year will move up to a higher ranking the succeeding year even if they change nothing in their teaching. This tells us that the VAM is extremely erratic and most probably was wrong in its original rating of a teacher as "ineffective". So when that teacher who had her/his reputation forever sullied with that one ineffective rating moves up to the effective level the following year, another teacher who was previously rated effective must take her place as "ineffective". Remember this is a zero sum game! And this will happen every year even if student performance goes up significantly state-wide.

John White recently exempted about 50 teachers of high performing students from their initial "ineffective" rating because of an admitted flaw in VAM or because of the Seabaugh solution. . .whatever. But that means that when those 50 teachers are pulled out of the "ineffective" group, another 50 teachers have to take their place as ineffective. Remember this is a zero sum game!

But what about the teachers teaching in a B rated school that moved up from a C rating the year before? Teachers at such a school would be understandably elated because their efforts finally moved their school to a highly respectable rating. It means that the students there have significantly improved their performance on state tests. But how would such a gain affect the ratings of the teachers at this school the following year? Remember that the VAM ratings of the teachers the following year will be based on growth in student performance. So kids that may have performed above normal expectations in one year must grow again in performance as dictated by their newly calculated VAM expectations. These kids may not be achieving at high enough levels to have their teachers exempted as were the 50 teachers above, so they have to do even better the next year if their teachers are to get good VAM scores. So if they just continue to perform at the same good level, their teachers could be penalized even if the school maintains its B rating the following year. You see, the teachers at other schools will not need to show as much growth in their students to move ahead of the teachers in the newly improved B school. So you could have a whole bunch of teachers in a B school who get rated as ineffective the year after their school attained a B, even if their students are still doing well. Remember this is a zero sum game!

Just one more example: One of my readers wrote in some time ago to tell me about how VAM affected him. As an 8th grade teacher, he had achieved a high score on the trial run of VAM, so his principal asked him to "teach" some of his techniques to the 7th grade teacher teaching the same subject. He did assist the other teacher and found out later that this had an adverse affect on his VAM score the following year because his students were then starting at a higher baseline score. This is not what we signed up for as educators!

I could go on and give you more examples of how this new evaluation system is not only educationally absurd but is cruel and results in professionals being treated like helpless pawns in the Jindal/White destruction of public education. That's why  I believe as professionals, we should not allow ourselves to be meekly herded down the slaughter house chute. Educators need to loudly object to zero sum evaluation systems and to all so called "reforms" that damage the teaching profession.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Things That Worry Me About Common Core

Paul Pastorek, the previous State Superintendent who was also a non-educator superintendent agreed to adopt the Common Core standards for Louisiana sight unseen. Maybe he did it because someone told him that this would "raise the bar" and increase "rigor" or maybe because the developer of Common Core, David Coleman, was on the Board of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst reform group. Overall I think it was adopted because it was the next big thing in education reform, and Jindal and Pastorek needed to approve it so Louisiana could promote its image as the most education reformed state in the nation.

The actual substance of Common Core was never important to Pastorek just as it is not really important to John White. That's why White fired or reassigned almost all the curriculum experts at the DOE and announced in recent education meetings that the Department was not going to tell teachers how to teach to the common core. Instead he was going to "empower" teachers to teach it any way they chose. Teachers will just need to be dammed sure students achieve a good VAM score if they want to keep their jobs. There will be no more GLEs, and no more lock step lesson plans that were supposed to demonstrate that the teacher had covered certain important concepts by certain dates. Now with the Common Core teachers will "be given" a form of "academic freedom". There will be no required curriculum at the elementary level, and maybe no specific amounts of teaching time for specific subjects. Subjects other than ELA and math won't matter very much. There will only be the PARCC. To teachers the simple message will be: "Do whatever is necessary to get as many of your students as possible over the bar."

Will the Common Core finally be the perfect standard for all our students? Is this list of standards (we are repeatedly told that it is not a curriculum) so miraculous that it will transform our schools into the world class learning institutions we want them to be? Will our frustrated teachers who have been beating their brains out trying to close the all important achievement gap finally have the illusive magic formula that will insure that all students will achieve at average or above levels? Will the fact that most states will be testing students and rating schools by the same set of standards finally bring excellence to our Louisiana public schools?

John White and Bridget Neiland of LABI (who recently wrote this op-ed in support of the Common Core) are promoting a really strange educational theory. That is: If you have  a bunch of kids who are having trouble clearing a certain academic bar, somehow those kids will magically do better if we raise the bar higher than the one they couldn't clear in the first place. Kids who are doing poorly even with rote learning will somehow rise to the challenge when we require them to switch gears and do a lot more critical thinking. Also, their reading skills will improve when we challenge them to read serious technical manuals instead of entertaining fiction.

Here are the reasons I am very skeptical that the Common Core will be the panacea for our schools.

1. The developer of the common core, David Coleman never taught a day in a K-12 school! As a student, he attended a special public high school for gifted students in New York, then received his university education as a Rhodes scholar in English literature and classical philosophy. He was turned down when he applied to teach at the high school level, so he became a self proclaimed expert in curriculum. I understand he worked on some high visibility tutoring projects but I can't help but be a bit skeptical that he knows very much about teaching low performing K-12 students. At least he is not hindered by the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Education seems to be the only field where the professionals with the most experience in the field are ignored when new standards are developed and self proclaimed "experts" such as Coleman are preferred. College philosophy professors and lawyers apparently have special knowledge of child development and the educational needs of all children.
Just saw this post by Diane Ravitch about how David Coleman sold us the common core. Another case of creating an imagined need.

2. Experts in early childhood education have been complaining lately that some of the Common Core standards are inappropriate for very young students. There were practically no early childhood educators on the committee that reviewed the standards. Many educators wonder if it is appropriate to have first graders analyzing the meaning of a paragraph before they can even read the words.

3. The Common Core requires much more of our ELA instruction to be based on non-fiction reading. Reading classes will shift from what may have been interesting fiction stories to cryptic instruction manuals and other informative pieces. See what David Chura, a respected educator of at-risk youth has to say about this. He wonders how this will encourage our least motivated students to read more.

4. With Common Core, math instruction will progress to more difficult concepts in earlier grades and will push students rapidly into abstract math. I googled a guide for common core geometry on the Internet and found that the practice problems are loaded with mathematical jargon instead of practical everyday language. Just try googling Common Core geometry practice problems and see if you find many that are useful in everyday life.

5. The common core standards are basically college prep material. When questioned about this, the promoters of Common Core simply state their ideology that students going into skilled crafts and careers requiring associate degrees or entering service fields need exactly the same preparation from high school as do those who plan to go on to 4 year degrees. I believe that people who say this must have no concept of what math and English skills everyday people really use. When we increase the emphasis on "higher level math skills" we neglect teaching kids about the benefits of ordinary concepts like compound interest and the virtual slavery caused by payday loans. So much for equipping young people with real life skills.

Common Core has never been field tested to see if it works, and real classroom teachers were not consulted to see if it was appropriate before Louisiana adopted it.  Would the medical profession adopt a new surgical procedure without asking real surgeons to test it? Would the highway department adopt a new bridge design developed by philosophy professors and lawyers? This is basically what we are doing with the Common Core in Louisiana. Guess who will be blamed if it does not work!