Sunday, August 22, 2010

L.A. Unified presses union on test scores

The district wants new labor contracts to include 'value-added' data as part of teacher evaluations

The Los Angeles Unified School District will ask labor unions to adopt a new approach to teacher evaluations that would judge instructors partly by their ability to raise students' test scores — a sudden and fundamental change in how the nation's second-largest district assesses its educators.

The teachers union has for years staunchly resisted using student test data in instructors' reviews.

The district's actions come in response to a Times article on teacher effectiveness. The article was based on an analysis, called "value-added," which measures teachers by analyzing their students' performance on standardized tests. The approach has been embraced by education reformers as a way to bring objectivity to teacher evaluations.

John Deasy, the recently appointed deputy superintendent, sent a memo to the Board of Education on Friday afternoon spelling out the district's value-added plans. He said he hopes that labor negotiations can be completed before The Times publishes a database containing the names and value-added rankings of more than 6,000 elementary school teachers. In the meantime, the district plans to use that data internally to help identify teachers who need extra training.

The Times plans to publish the database later this month. The newspaper has provided the opportunity for teachers to view their scores and comment on them prior to publication. So far, more than 1,200 teachers have received their scores.

Deasy said he had contacted the leadership of both United Teachers Los Angeles and the administrators union, and that he believed negotiations could be successful and swift.

Reached by cellphone, United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy refused to respond to a reporter's questions.

UTLA spokeswoman Marla Eby said Duffy was busy preparing for a speech to 800 union leaders Friday night at the union's annual leadership conference in Palm Springs.

Administrators union head Judith Perez said in an interview that opening formal negotiations hasn't been discussed but that she is aware of Deasy's proposal and would be willing to sit down and hear about it.

Sources said Deasy had a series of meetings with city business leaders, district officials and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who urged Duffy to reconsider his stance.

In an interview, Deasy said, referring to the union, that he has "reason to believe that the leadership is desirous of finding a way to significantly improve evaluations and finding a … way forward that doesn't embarrass teachers."

"The district is available this evening to begin these talks," he said. "We look forward to making decisions about value-added analysis with teachers and school leaders; not to teachers and school leaders," he wrote in his memo.

The Times reported that Los Angeles Unified has long had the ability to use value-added analysis but has never done so. District leadership has largely shied away from it because of inertia and fear of the teachers union.

In California, officials have pledged to make value-added analysis at least 30% of teacher evaluations by 2013 in response to the requirements of the Obama administration's competitive Race to the Top grant program. Union leadership declined to sign an agreement to abide by that plan.

In an interview last week, Duffy criticized value-added analysis because it depends on standardized test scores that he considers flawed. He said that he wasn't opposed to principals using it confidentially to give teachers feedback, but that it had no place in a formal evaluation. Value-added will "lead us down a road to destroy public education," he said.

But other teachers unions throughout the country have agreed to use value-added as one of several measures to evaluate instructors.

In a meeting with the Times earlier this week, Weingarten said she has negotiated 54 contracts with local unions and their school districts that include some form of value-added analysis. She also said parents have a right to know if their child's teacher received a satisfactory review.

Weingarten announced in January that her union would seek to revamp teachers evaluations. She said value-added accounts for 10% to 30% of teachers' performance reviews and it is one of multiple measures to evaluate teachers. In New York City, for example, 20% of a teachers evaluation is based on a value-added rating, she said. "Teacher evaluation has been broken for years," Weingarten said. She said the current system is ineffective; most principals make brief, pre-announced visits to classrooms and merely fill out a checklist.


High School exams are a mess, says top British headmaster

Britain's examinations system is a "complete mess" and A-levels need major reform to allow the brightest students to flourish, a leading educationalist has warned. Dr Martin Stephen, the head of St Paul's School, London, said the new A* grade was nothing more than "statistical trickery" which will only serve to stifle "creativity, imagination and the willingness to take a risk".

He spoke out after last week's A level results produced the 28th successive increase in the overall pass rate, with 8.1 per cent of results being graded at A* - more than had been expected.

Writing for The Telegraph, Dr Stephen said: "The frightening truth is that if we are to rescue our ailing examination system, all we have to do is put the clock back.

"We need to recognise that the top 15 per cent of the ability band are both a priceless asset to the nation and a special-needs category who require specialist teaching. For all their faults, the old grammar schools did recognise this. "We need an extra tier at A-level, with material that can stretch and yet set free the most able, and is marked by those who understand what it is all about."

Dr Stephen continued: "Our examination system is a complete mess, and the new A* A-level grade - awarded for the first time this year - has done nothing to clear it up. The A* is the right idea, but dreadfully executed."

Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications showed that the overall pass rate rose to 97.6 per cent, with 27 per cent of papers graded at least an A, compared with 26.7 per cent a year earlier. The number of A grades awarded is more than triple that of the early 1980s.

Dr Stephen, high master at the 500-year-old school in south-west London where basic fees are £5,800 a term, said the A* had been misconceived and insisted that standards should be set by universities and not by civil servants.

"It's madness to invent a new grade without basing it on testing new material, and the A* is simply statistical trickery, giving the new top grade to those who score over 90 per cent in their three modules," he said. "It means that a candidate could get 100 per cent in one module, 89 per cent in another, and be denied the A*. This means candidates and teachers will suffer.

"The huge pressure not to drop a mark will mean we demote creativity, imagination and the willingness to take a risk. It does not reward those capable of brilliance, but simply rewards those who make the least mistakes."

He proposed that candidates with A* potential should sit an additional advanced paper, or write a 2,000 word essay on an original topic with a viva to guard against plagiarism.

"One of the greatest ironies of the A-level is that our universities exercise virtually no influence over the exam that is meant to decide their entry," he said. "We must reinsert universities back in to the management structure of the A-level. If nothing else, this would address the problem of exam boards that have moved from an academic to a commercial agenda."

Exam boards told schools they had made their papers more "accessible" - which Dr Stephen said was a euphemism for "easier" - because they were under pressure to increase their market share of candidates sitting each subject.

A-level marking schemes restrict the most able students because they leave no scope to express original thought, he said. "I well remember a very bright student who got an E grade on his Shakespeare paper. "He had answered the question 'Is Hamlet mad?' by arguing that far from being mad, he was the only sane person in the play. It was the rest of us who were mad. "Brilliant idea, but not one the examiner was allowed to give credit for because it stepped outside the narrow boundaries of the mark scheme."

Dr Stephen went on: "We have turned the word 'elite' into a swear word, denying the fact that all the world's leading universities are an elite. "In the past, that elite discovered the double helix and invented the internet. In the future, it is only that elite that will find the answer to global warming and a cure for cancer.

"We will not get an effective A-level until we tell those responsible for it that it is okay to give the exam a fast lane, and for it to be used as a means of identifying the most able."

Last week, John Schmitt, head of English at Charterhouse, criticised the A-level as an "increasingly meaningless" exam which "no longer discriminate between the able and the outstanding". He advocated the use of alternative systems such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

Isabel Nisbet, chief executive of qualifications regulator Ofqual, said: “You can be confident that those who have been awarded an A* have achieved it consistently and have been marked fairly. "Other ideas for the A* are a legitimate and important debate. “We would welcome high-level public and academic input into A-levels.”

On the allegation that marking regimes stifle the brightest students, she said: “This year the criteria for marking the A2 papers were particularly aimed at allowing creativity and originality.”

Miss Nisbet urged Dr Stephen to come forward with any evidence he had that exam boards had made papers easier for commercial reasons.


Australia: Vocational colleges to offer degrees

More attempted verbal magic that will just downgrade all degrees. Will it get to the point where you get a Ph.D. for being able to read and write? That's the direction of travel

TAFE institutes are to offer bachelor degrees and could compete with universities for students under a bold plan aimed at combating skills shortages.

The government-owned institutes want funding from next year to offer degrees in areas such as accounting, community services, finances and information technology.

In February next year, TAFE's Sydney Institute will begin offering a bachelor of design through its Enmore Design Centre. More bachelor degrees are expected to be offered by TAFE's Northern Institute and Western Institute in 2012.

NSW TAFE was last month accredited by the state government, under national guidelines, to become a higher-income education provider, allowing it to follow Victoria's TAFE, which is already offering a limited number of degrees.

The head of TAFE in NSW, Pam Christie, said she was reluctant to name specific degrees because the board had yet to approve those that would go ahead.

TAFE wanted to extend opportunities to all communities to gain the sorts of degrees industry was demanding, she said. "We're not trying to compete with universities; we're trying to build relationships with them," she said.

This would include associate degrees offered in conjunction with universities across many of TAFE NSW's 10 institutes and 130 campuses, as well as bachelor degrees.

TAFE bosses in Victoria say enrolments so far are small, and their ability to offer a wider range of degrees to more students is being stymied by a biased funding system that means TAFE students pay more for their degrees than university students - the federal government subsidises only university degrees.

TAFEs say they have also been approached by industry to provide degrees in areas such as optometry, psychology, dentistry, project management, architectural design, technology, social work and aviation.

The head of TAFE Directors Australia, Martin Riordan, said TAFE degrees would give poor and regional students better access to higher education. "Many students in TAFE are from low socio-economic areas and are motivated to go beyond a diploma and do a degree," Mr Riordan said. "This is a way to help them get the degrees they deserve."

He said the plan would also help the federal government achieve its goal to increase the number of people aged 25 to 34 with a degree, from about 32 per cent now to 40 per cent by 2025.

Universities Australia boss Glenn Withers said it would be difficult to ensure the quality of a TAFE degree and the sector's fragile international reputation could be damaged.

"We've already suffered enough from problems with colleges collapsing and international student issues," Dr Withers said. "While we support the idea of TAFEs offering degrees to address skill shortages … the quality-assurance mechanisms just aren't good enough yet."


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