OpEd: Linking teacher evaluation to student test scores: wrong 25% of the time

Originally published on Huffington Post

Nowhere is the disconnect between billionaires and public school teachers more stark than when it comes to merit pay proposals. So why are self-anointed “reformers” pushing this agenda, and why do public school teachers so overwhelmingly oppose these efforts?

The Los Angeles Times launched a series on “Value-Added” assessments last year, and they continue to stand by it, despite the reportedly high error rate. This year, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy (who previously worked for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) has launched a new proposal, now called Academic Growth Over Time, and unilaterally implemented it, even though teacher evaluation is a negotiated issue. The District has even offered money to school sites that participate in this “voluntary” process. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) over its implementation.

During an Education Summit panel discussion August 31 hosted by Patt Morrison that included Deasy, LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia and UTLA President Warren Fletcher, at one point Fletcher said, “And the Superintendent has proposed a system of evaluation called AGT, Academic Growth Over Time, which in most of its aspects is identical to Value-Added models used by the [LA} Times. But the US Department of Education itself says that it’s inaccurate 25% of the time.” Click the third audio file to listen to the discussion about Teacher Evaluation at the Education Summit.

To be absolutely clear, according to the US Department of Education report, “Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains,” 25% of the time programs like AGT will wrongly label an effective teacher as ineffective, and 25% of the time programs like AGT will also label an ineffective teacher as effective.

Did Garcia or Deasy correct Fletcher’s assertion that AGT is mostly identical to Value-Added models? No. Did Garcia or Deasy dispute, in any way, Fletcher’s assertion that the US Department of Education stated that models like AGT are inaccurate 25% of the time? No.

Instead, Deasy focused on alleging that teacher input was included in the development of AGT. Fletcher responded, “I would prefer that those people who were selected to develop an evaluation system not exclusively be made up of people who were selected by the Superintendent, the school board, and senior management.” Did Garcia or Deasy correct Fletcher on this assertion? No.

In fact, there were four UTLA members and professional staff who did participate in this process that were not hand-picked by the Superintendent, school board, and senior management—and together they wrote and signed a four-page letter sent to LAUSD administrators stating, in part, that while they were provided an opportunity to voice their concerns, “we believe that these concerns were not heard and therefore we must put our concerns and comments on the record as this process seems to be unfolding rapidly.”

Among the numerous unanswered questions and concerns they raised about AGT: “What is an acceptable level of error if your job is on the line?”

While they were offered a meeting in response to their letter, there was no assurance that the consultants designing the program would be available to address their concerns, and, to date, there has been no written response. The Obama administration is now letting individual states opt out of No Child Left Behind, which, in part, incorporates the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. Unfortunately, however, states can only opt out if they agree to certain provisions of Race To The Top, which also require the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation, despite the 25% error. One of the main proponents of this effort, Bill Gates, has poured millions of dollars into this proposal, and for unknown, unstated reasons, he’s determined to attempt to apply unproven mathematical models to teacher evaluation, even though, in this case, 2+2 = 5.

I called and emailed the following individuals, organizations and their press representatives, and gave all more than five days to respond to this article: President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Batelle For Kids, the Ohio-based organization that operates AGT for LAUSD.

I asked each to address the same exact question: “According to the US Department of Education report, ‘Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains,’ an effective teacher could be rated as ineffective 25% of the time, and an ineffective teacher could be rated as effective 25% of the time, so, my question is, what is an acceptable rate of error when your job is on the line?”

Neither President Obama, Secretary Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, or Batelle for Kids responded directly.

I did receive an email from the LAUSD Media and Communications Department, though I had not directly contacted them. The email did not reveal which of the above parties had contacted them, and did not attempt to answer the central question I had posed regarding the 25% error rate. I also received a 237-word email response from The Gates Foundation Media Team that stated, in part: “The foundation does not support a system of teacher evaluation that is solely based on student test scores.” The response referred to a survey of teachers that they indicated was, “commissioned by Scholastic, Primary Sources.” They did not reveal what I discovered in the small print on page two of the survey after I downloaded it: “This report is a collaboration of Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” The response also did not address the one and only question I had posed: “what is an acceptable rate of error when your job is on the line?”

The question remains.