Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New study on inequity and teacher "effectiveness" misses the mark

Yes, there's lots of evidence to show poor kids and children of color are generally being taught by teachers with less experience (or no experience) which puts them at a severe disadvantage. But the Huffington headline calling schools "racist" is one-sided and misleading. Credit instead should go to Race To The Top. To TFA. To the power philanthropists, corporate reformers, re-segregationists and private charter operators. They all contribute on this.

But a recent study from Center For American Progress takes this worthwhile exposure of discrimination and inequality to a different level. After basing their study on the new evaluation practices and teacher rating systems now in place in Louisiana and Massachusetts and accepting the premise that teacher quality can be assessed entirely or mainly on the basis of student test scores, (La. requires every teacher to be evaluated, with 50% of the evaluation rating based on test scores or  "student growth") they conclude that minority students have "less effective teachers" in general.

My problem with this broader, negative assessment of teachers who teach in schools with high concentrations of poverty, is that it measures the symptom and not the cause of the so-called achievement gap. The results from tests that are being used to measure teacher effectiveness are often correlating more with parent income, rather than what students are actually learning or anything going on in the classroom. And the so-called VAM or value-added model of teacher evaluation has already been proven to be flawed and unreliable. In Florida, for example,  hundreds of teachers were evaluated based on test scores of students they never taught or in subject areas they didn't teach.


The Value-Added Metric Used to Evaluate Teachers
y = Xβ + Zv + ε where β is a p-by-1 vector of fixed effects; X is an n-by-p matrix; v is a q-by-1 vector of random effects; Z is an n-by-q matrix; E(v) = 0, Var(v) = G; E(ε) = 0, Var(ε) = R; Cov(v,ε) = 0. V = Var(y) = Var(y - Xβ) = Var(Zv + ε) = ZGZT + R.

Studies like this and the recommendations that follow, miss the point. It's not just a matter of more and better professional development or redistributing effective and experienced teachers to resourced-starved or low-performing schools -- although that could help. Instead there needs to be more valid and reliable ways of evaluating and sustaining teachers as well as a focus on equity, desegregation, and improving the conditions, in and out of school, of students and families living in poverty.

Otherwise the focus shift entirely on teachers and we get to the point where the same teachers who are rated "highly-effective" when they are teaching in higher-income schools will suddenly be rated "ineffective" when teaching low-income kids. Not a good way to incentive-ize a more equitable distribution of teaching talent.

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