The Boston Teachers Union’s discovery of a racial bias against black and Hispanic teachers in the new teacher evaluation system should be a clear warning signal that the rush to implement “objective” evaluation standards may not only result in arbitrary termination of experienced teachers, but can also have a detrimental impact on the quality of education that students receive. This is not an issue isolated to Boston, but rather impacts school systems across the state and nation.
Before I go any further, I would like to dispel some misconceptions. First, as professionals, teachers recognize the need for evaluations that gauge teacher effectiveness and measure teaching progress. Second, teacher unions do not “support” bad teachers. We want good teachers and expect good teaching. As a union, one of our roles is to represent individual members against a variety of administrative actions and this reality is often twisted by anti-union forces to imply that unions “support” bad teachers.
The issue of potential racial bias in Boston’s evaluation system is symptomatic of the problems inherent in the new push for “objective” teacher evaluations nationally. Simply put, one person’s ‘objective’ criteria can be another person’s arbitrary decision.
Many point to the use of standardized tests as a holy grail for objective teacher evaluations. The recent testing scandals around the country are an extreme example of the abuses that testing creates. A more subtle and far more widespread consequence of over-emphasizing standardized tests is the reality of “teaching to the test” as opposed to teaching to the needs of each child.
The challenge of “objective” evaluations is that even the strongest advocates of this approach cannot articulate a clear standard for using student test results as an evaluation tool. Recently, Michelle Rhee–the most recognized advocate for using standardized tests to evaluate teachers–bounced back and forth on this, suggesting that student test results should represent 50% of an evaluation, but quickly backpedaled down to 35% when challenged to cite research to support her assertion. In fact, even the 35% figure is based on just one study and there is no consensus regarding the correlation of standardized tests and teacher effectiveness, if one exists at all.
Yet with all the uncertainty and demonstrated bias, the push to aggressively roll out arbitrary evaluation systems continues unabated around the country. At best, the unintended consequences of arbitrary criteria in the guise of objective evaluations will deprive our educational system of experienced and well qualified teachers. At worst, it creates a mechanism to lower the cost of education by weeding out higher paid teachers (who are often the most experienced and effective) as a way to lower costs. Either way, the system of educating our children loses.
When it comes to educating students, teachers should be held to high standards of performance, as should school principals, superintendents and other education policy makers. As we look at the apparent racial bias of the current evaluation system, the latter groups appear to be failing the teachers and their students.
Are minority teachers singled out for more probing reviews? Is there something being asked of teachers that white people inherently have an easier time doing than minorities? Are there questions that white teachers can more easily answer than others? According to the linked article, the percentage of teachers on review plans are in single digits for all races, so it doesn’t strike me as statistically disproportionate. In polling we would call that within the margin of error.
and there are no room for “errors”. These are people’s lives. A little more than half of the teachers have been evaluated. If the current trend continues, the disparity will become even more alarming.
The evaluation process is a waste of time and money. Time that could be better spent by already over-worked teachers, and money that could be spent on meaningful programs. Teacher quality is not a “problem”. Bettering teaching is not the goal of these evaluations. The bottom line is to save money on human capital by driving out experienced teachers who know a heck of a lot more than the makers of the “evaluation”, the admin who evaluates, and the policy makers who shove nonsense rephormy policy down our throats – much like an overzealous aristocracy.
If BPS is trying to diversify their teaching staff then why do minority teachers seem targeted? Unfortunately, I think I know what the outcome of this report will be. Admin will no doubt be coached into firing more white teachers in order to keep up appearances. Sorry, I gotta go I have to download some artifacts onto the evaluation website, and then right a rationale of why it proves I’m an effective teacher. Oops, I meant “write” – I hope I don’t now get a “need improvement”.
Mark L. Bail says
talking about disproportionate, you have to talk percentages.
It’s a relative small number percentage of teachers affected so far, but if you’re black, you’re about 3 times as likely to be singled out for remediation. Regardless of the cause, that’s a problem, and there should be an investigation, at the very least to see if there is a racially- or culturally-based reason for this.
I can’t speak for the people doing the evaluations in Boston, but all over the state, there are former gym teachers and band directors evaluating English and Calculus teachers. And even if their backgrounds don’t hinder their accuracy, their general competence can. The average administrator is woefully prepared for their jobs these days.
You can’t have a margin of error in evaluations. Aside from what it does to the teacher, think about what it does to the student if you are harassing or firing competent teachers.
I took them from this paragraph in the linked article:
All the percentages are very low, so does not strike me as disproportionate beyond standard statistical anamoly. If the white figure was low single digits, but the others were well into the double digits then I would wonder why.
that a 7-to-1 ratio is a problem, but a 3-to-1 ratio is not. We’re talking about people’s jobs here. It’s a pretty serious matter. If I saw 5.9% of black people in Boston were violent crime victims or lung cancer sufferers, and only 1.8% of white people were, I’d be troubled by that. This seems troubling as well.
You’re looking at them as multiples rather than parts of a whole (ie 100%). When the sales tax was raised from 5% to 6.25% the opponents screamed that the state was raising the tax by 25% in one fell swoop and made it sound like a huge increase. In reality we raised it by just 1.25 percentage points which was I think was the more appropriate way to look at it. Likewise you shouldn’t look at 5.9% as 3x 1.8% but rather as just 4.1 percentage point difference. It would strike me as a tremendous coincidence if the percentages were equal, almost to the point that I’d wonder whether that were deliberate.
By my count, black teachers make up 25% of the total teacher population, yet 50% of the teachers being set up for review. You’d expect that if race has nothing to do with performance, around 34 black teachers would be targeted, but 68 actually were. You’d expect that 86 white teachers would be up for review, but only 53 were.
The first link (to a Globe page) won’t open for me. Is there another source for the story?
what is “objective” about this system at all. Test scores are referred to as “objective” but there are all sorts of problems with that as a tool of evaluation. The other criteria, evaluating teachers’ lessons and (per columwhyte) their own defenses of their lessons, seems not objective in the least.
Seems like part of the strategy is to conflate quantitative with objective.
“We sat in the classroom and ranked on 1 to 10 based on identified criteria, then added up the numbers.” That’s not objective if all the underlying scores are subjective.
Mark L. Bail says
look at some criteria and then assign you a number for those criteria.
But what number they assign is based on subjective judgments.
Mark L. Bail says
the evaluators should are trained. Ideally, in this sort of measurement, you’d have at least two independent evaluators and then check their scores for discrepancies. This is how some qualitative research works. After categories for observation are created, multiple evaluators view a phenomena and code it. Reliability is obtained by these evaluators coding things the same way.
It works the same way with scoring MCAS essays. There’s a rubric, and two scorers who score the essay independently. If there is a discrepancy larger than one, the table leader flags it and they hash it out. If that doesn’t work, the table leader gets involved.
I don’t know the BPS system, but I doubt they have multiple evaluators for everyone. In my system, we have options for appeal that involve a second evaluator.
Reliable evaluations are one problem, the other is how valid they are. It looks like the BPS also have a major problem to consider with the race of teachers.
I would not be so quick to dismiss the ‘objectivity’ of the evaluations because you do not like the implications: It is entirely possible that the evaluations are true, objective and correct and could simply indicate further existing deep seated disparities between the ‘races’: to be sure, 50 years ago, if you measured black against white using ‘objective’ evaluations black would never have measured up: that’s what’s wrong about keeping someone down. This is the nature of that legally sanctioned racist and racialist society we had, and held, not so very long ago. Slightly more than 50 years ago just exactly this dynamic was the basis for overturning ‘separate but equal’ and ‘Brown v Board’ on the grounds that separate was inherently not equal. However, many of those people who teach today, under this context, were themselves taught, yesterday by people who existed under the older, racist and sexist, context. Do we think that one or two generations removed from ‘Brown v Board” would see us perfected? That things have gotten better is very much true but that things are far from perfected is equally true and this sort of ‘bias’ might be a clean look at the underlying dynamic of racism in education, which merely mirrors the racism in our society at large, and hints at further work to do.
The problem isn’t identifying teachers who are better or worse but the idea that such identification tells us anything at all about the individual teachers and is divorced from this wide social spectrum we all surf daily. I was born in 1967 and didn’t share a classroom with a black person until, at least, 1980 and that student was a “METCO” student, meaning he was bussed in from elsewhere. I remember befriending the one asian kid in our entire school. The only time I’ve interacted with an hispanic in a classroom was a teacher of French, who was from Spain. I never had a black teacher until I went to college, and even there, only a few. I think that I can say, without fear of contradiction, that a black man my age is very unlikely to have had the educational opportunities that I have experienced. I can’t speak to hispanic opportunity at all. I know a heck of a lot of white people who had the opportunities and didn’t take advantage of them, but I don’t know many black people who even had much of the opportunities to begin with. My childrens education, however, is more diverse and they are experiencing probably the same level of public school education that I did, surrounded not, as I was, almost exclusively by other whites but by a host of different ethnicities. So I have hope for the future. I think, to an approximation, more black kids the age of my oldest son will have the same opportunities as my son, in contrast to the dynamic that prevailed in my youth. My point being, in part, that that dynamic might well haunt us to this present pass and this is what the results of evaluations are telling us.
I start with the premise that very, very few people become teachers from low motives. Certainly not from a profit motive. Teaching was once termed merely a ‘womens profession’, meaning not suitable for ‘manliness’ and treated, in the bucket of career choices, as an afterthought. Yet we’ve moved beyond that, to the point where people can become teachers because they love the idea of teaching… And so I would say, that the vast majority of teachers, black, white, hispanic, whatever, do so out of an essential core of good motives. People who lack the empathy and compassion for teaching become stock brokers or lawyers. If, for individual teachers, there is a lack of technical proficiencies, or some poor presentation skills, these can be overcome not with the threat of termination, which is just shortsighted managerial bluster, but with team teaching and continuing professional development. But I would much rather have my children attending a class with a compassionate and earnest teacher, whatever the technical deficiencies, than to have them learn from the most technically astute, but soulless, educational brigadier. Ideally, a technically astute and compassionate teacher can emerge: I have a few in mind from my education, so I know this can happen.
If the evaluations are truly NOT objective then we have problems. If they truly ARE objective then our problems are deeper than even that.
chalk time matters…not the fact that you went to Harvard, that we can agree on….