Thursday, March 25, 2010

TX: Can poor test scores get a teacher fired?

Imagine if a computer could identify the weakest-link teachers – the ones who should be told it's time to get out of the classroom. It's not quite so simple, but a new policy in Houston allows teachers to be fired based on data that some experts say isolates a teacher's effect on his or her students' test-score gains.

Reform advocates say school districts should improve teacher quality in part by using such "value added" data. Dozens of districts, including Houston's, have already incorporated the concept into "pay for performance" systems. Education leaders in New York City and the District of Columbia are moving toward linking it to tenure or dismissals. But none has gone ahead as boldly as the Texas district.

"The worst teachers in a school really drag down achievement," says Eric Hanu shek, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution in California. "The biggest tension is: How much do you rely upon objective statistical information from test scores, and how much do you rely on other measures of teacher performance?"

A number of parents backed the Houston decision at a packed February board meeting. But the local teachers union is planning a legal challenge, claiming, among other concerns, that the formula is not public and leaves teachers in the dark about how they're judged.

The district defends it as a tool to help principals ensure that each classroom has an effective teacher. No one has been let go yet under the new policy, but at the end of the school year, the data could be cited as one criterion for not renewing a teacher's contract.

The controversy highlights a broader debate over how to improve teacher evaluations – which are "largely broken," US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently before a House committee.

Secretary Duncan presented the blueprint of the No Child Left Behind overhaul to the House education committee Wednesday. The plan includes a number of provisions for improving teacher quality.

For all the potential flaws, linking teacher evaluations to student achievement data is a move in the right direction, says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington. Under the status quo, she says, teachers tend to be fired only if they are abusive or break the law. Studies in a sample of districts across the United States have found that less than 1 percent of teachers earn an unsatisfactory rating on their evaluations. "We do not fire teachers because they aren't good at teaching math [or other subjects]," she says.

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is open to some use of student test data in teacher evaluations, but, she says, "there's the right way and the wrong way to do it." In Houston and New York, she says, "it's high-stakes 'gotcha,' as opposed to using data to inform [classroom] instruction."

The Houston AFT-affiliated union has multiple objections to the new policy. One is the time lag: The teachers don't find out how the formula scored them, based on their students' performance on two standardized tests, until the middle of the following school year. That timing is not very useful, they say.

"If you want to come up with a magic number ... and send it to me six months after I give the test and tell me, 'Oh, that was your goal, and – oops – you've missed it,' you haven't done anyone any good at that point.... You haven't helped the kids," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

The move also decreases the trust of the union, Ms. Fallon says, which suspected this kind of "slippery slope" when the data were first used for performance bonuses in 2007.

The Houston union's skepticism is legitimate, says Sean Corcoran, an assistant professor of educational economics at New York University who has been researching value-added methods. Factors such as many students moving in or out of the district during the school year, or even a distraction outside the window on test day, could make the numbers less reliable, he says. "Their high-stakes use is almost impossible, and I think anyone who thinks otherwise either doesn't understand these models or is willing to put aside a lot of uncertainty," he says.

Greg Meyers, president of the Houston Independent School District's Board of Education, defends the district's new policy. Using the data in making decisions about teacher-contract renewals is just a natural progression after Houston's forays into performance pay and other reforms, he says.

"We're probably one of the most data-driven districts in the country.... Teachers and students know which teachers are less effective. This will help pinpoint and quantify it," Mr. Meyers says.

The broader point is to use the data to target professional development, he says.

Groups such as the Education Equality Project – a national coalition that advocates closing achievement gaps among racial and economic groups – argue that if value-added data meet certain criteria and are gathered for several years, they can fairly tie student gains to the individual effect of teachers.

While some object to particular data systems, 55 percent of teachers nationally say that, in general, student growth over the course of an academic year is a "very accurate" measure of teacher performance, according to a survey released this month by Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Student loans get the Obamacare treatment

In Chicago, the legend goes, whenever Mayor Daley needed a quick infusion of cash, he would order a "street sweeping." After the evening rush hour, city workers would post signs warning of a street sweeping at dawn the next day -- any car parked on the street would be slapped with a ticket.

Congressional Democrats' version of "street sweeping" is nationalizing an industry and folding its profits into the budget, thus partly paying for some radical expansion of government -- health care reform in this case.
The budget reconciliation bill being used as a sidecar to the Senate health care bill also contains a federal takeover of the student loan industry. Judging by preliminary data from the Congressional Budget Office, the student loan provisions are similar to those in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act -- a bill that passed the House this year, but faced a Senate filibuster.

The reconciliation version of the bill chops out much of the student aid, making the measure fairly profitable on paper. After all, government will now have a monopoly in an industry already being subsidized by other parts of government. Over the next decade, between reduced subsidies to private lenders and interest collected from students, the expected profit is $60 billion. Student aid would be increased by about $40 billion, leaving the U.S. Treasury $19.4 billion in the black thanks to this takeover. That profit gets counted toward the reconciliation bill's score from the Congressional Budget Office, and voila! more deficit reduction from the health care reform bill.

If only Democrats had thought of this trick back in the spring, they could have budgeted in the nationalization of other profitable industries. Throw the porn industry into the Department of Health and Human Services and nationalize Exxon Mobil, and your budget score looks even better. Why not put Goldman Sachs on the budget so that Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, in a reversal of roles, would be working for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner?

But the student loan game playing gets richer. The CBO revealed Thursday the bill would "establish a new program for lenders who were chartered before July 1, 2009, and are owned by a state under the control of a board including the governor and offered guaranteed loans prior to June 30, 2010."

That's an oddly specific description of a financial institution. That's because this program applies to exactly one lender: The Bank of North Dakota. The CBO explains, "Under the new program, these banks [sic] would be allowed to offer guaranteed student loans." In other words, all student lenders would be killed by the budget reconciliation bill, except for the biggest one in the state of Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad.

This sort of game playing is the hallmark of health care reform, which has included backroom deals with the drug lobby, parliamentary innovation, and budget tricks to make Enron accountants envious.

While nationalizing student loans may seem irrelevant to "reforming" health care, there is something fitting in pairing the two undertakings in one bill -- it's almost a foreshadowing. Student lenders have long fed at the federal trough, pocketing so many subsidies that Democrats were justified in asking why there needed to be a private sector in that industry at all.

This weekend, it's the drug companies, hospitals, doctors, and insurers who are latching more firmly at Leviathan's teat. How long before Congress decides to knock out the profit-taking middleman, and institute a single-payer system or even a national health system?

When we get wherever this "reform" is taking us -- when our deficits are ballooning and health care is scarcer -- we may remember the games, gimmicks, and scams used to pass it into law, and maybe conclude that evil means yield evil ends.


British teachers suspended after pupil Sam Linton dies from asthma attack

They should be jailed for manslaughter. They didn't give a damn about the kid. They were too busy having one of their innumerable "meetings"

A headmistress and four other members of staff have been suspended from a school that faces possible legal action after a pupil died from an asthma attack.

Sam Linton, 11, was made to sit in a corridor at Offerton High School, in Stockport, struggling to breathe while no ambulance was called. His parents are considering legal action against the school and the council after Sam died in hospital two hours later in December 2007. An inquest jury found that the school’s neglect had been a significant factor in his death.

A spokesman for Stockport council said yesterday that the five staff had been suspended while an internal inquiry is carried out. Evelyn Leslie, the head teacher, and Jan Ford, the teacher who told Sam to sit in the corridor, are among those who have been asked to step down during the inquiry.

Sam had been wheezing continually and using an inhaler on the day that he died but staff failed to call 999. He was left to wait in a hallway until two other pupils found him and raised the alarm. By the time his mother arrived Sam’s lips had turned blue.

The three-week inquest at Stockport Coroner’s Court was told that valuable time was lost while Sam was made to sit in the corridor. The jury found last week that Sam died from natural causes but said that neglect at an “individual and systemic level” had been a significant contributory factor.

Sam’s father, Paul Linton, described the council’s move as “too little, too late”. He told The Times: “We are considering legal action against the school and the local authority.

“I would hope that the head teacher doesn’t get another job as a head at another school. Education-wise I couldn’t fault the school but on the policy for looking after a child that was ill they get a big fat zero.”

The jury found that staff had failed to implement the asthma policy, were not sufficiently trained to deal with asthma and that a healthcare plan was not in place. Information about Sam’s attacks was not shared among staff and they failed to monitor Sam’s condition on the day of his death, the jury said.

The school, which was judged “unsatisfactory” in its latest Ofsted inspection, refused to comment. A spokesman for Stockport council said that detailed evidence presented to the inquest and the verdict of the jury had led them to carry out an inquiry.

“While it has been some time since Sam’s death there has not been a period of inactivity,” he said. “Immediately following Sam’s death, the governing body reviewed the handling of pupils’ medical needs relating to asthma and other medical conditions, and has adapted systems and practices at the school.”

The council has decided three times not to hold a serious case review, saying that the case did not meet the necessary criteria.


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