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One Reason Why Risky D.C. Teacher Evaluation Might Work

My colleague Bill Turque has a terrific story today about D.C. Schools Chancellor MIchelle Rhee's plan to evaluate the effectiveness of her teachers and get rid of those who are not helping students learn.

The idea is full of risks. Rhee's plan to evaluate each teacher's class at the beginning of the year, based on prior test scores and other factors, and set a reasonable mark for their improvement, has not, as far as I can tell, ever been tried before on this scale.

There is only one reason why I think it has a reasonable chance of success, and his name is Jason Kamras. He is now Rhee's deputy for human capital, an unusual title, but I sort of understand what it means.

Turque said Kamras "led the effort to revamp the District's system" for assessing teachers. If Kamras were just another headquarters paper pusher, I would predict doom for his plan.

But he is one of the best teachers in the country. Long ago, I once spent a few days getting his life story and checking him out with other great teachers I know. He taught math at Sousa Middle School in the District, and also offered a photography class for those students, most of them from low-income families.

His work was so good that he became the national teacher of the year. He did many unusual things. He visited student homes. He called parents on his cell phone, from the classroom, to tell them their children has just done something good. He set high standards and kept to them.

The assessment system he must oversee has all kinds of pitfalls and problems, but the fact that Kamras has so much influence over it makes a big difference. He knows, from many years working with D.C. kids, what is real and what isn't, what works and what doesn't.

Those who feel this is a bad idea should tell me why, and I will report your concerns. But I think we should not make up our minds about his plan, just as Kamras did not close his mind to the potential of his students, until we see it in operation for a while. If any one can make it work, he can.

By Jay Mathews  | October 1, 2009; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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Next: A Crazy Idea for Middle Schools

Comments

Must every new initiative be tried to see if it will fail? This is an ongoing cycle in education which needs to stop. There is a difference between innovation and blind hopefulness. The new system does encourage sound pedagogy but it assess on something completely different - test scores. There is no way to scientifically predict what scores should be getting. This is as certain as is gambling at the race track (Race to the Top)! There are many factors which can influence a child's development; furthermore, are these narrow tests a true measure of what students can do? For some teachers, 50% of their final evaluation is based on test scores that some outsider determines should be the right score. Those who assert themselves as being scientific are actually the least so... child development is not linear.. it is organice and can depend upon many factors, a great majority of which are uncontrollable... ie.. health, iq, family life, the economy, etc. Yes, good teaching should be continued and expected, but someone needs to ask what we actually want our students to be able to do. If being good test takers is it, bravoe; if not, watch out world; we're going to have a lot of adults who can't answer a question unless it's multiple choice.

Posted by: lk11 | October 1, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

What's this:
"Even custodians will have 5 percent of their evaluation based on schoolwide test score growth."
Is that after Mrs. Rhee initiates her clean "sweep" on the bad teachers, all that will be left are the custodians to clean things up?

Posted by: edlharris | October 1, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

to edharris---good one, you made me laugh.

to lk11.---this is America. we get an idea, it seems to make sense, we check the idea with people who are experts in the area, like Jason Kamras, and then we try it out. This is on a large scale, but how can you tell if it works if you don't try it?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 1, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Jay, would you let this guy try stuff out on your child?

I'm tired of my kids being test dummies for Rhee and everyone else who spent a hot minute in a low income school and then moved on to bigger and better things.

On a personal note, I've met this guy a couple of times. He was clearly not interested in having any sort of interaction with a DCPS parent. And believe me, this was back when I still was cheering for Rhee.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | October 1, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Jay, as a DCPS teacher I don't have a problem with a revamped evaluation system. I'm an effective teacher and have the data to prove it. What I object to is rolling it out on a Friday--presented by principals who had just been briefed on it a day or two before and didn't understand it themselves--and the implementing it on Monday. I don't care what anybody says, that's poor program management. How about having the program presented and explained by people who created it and know all its intricacies and nuances? How about not fully implementing it the first year but having teacher and principal focus groups meet with the creators of this program and hammering out its deficiencies and shortcomings. This program is more punitive than anything else.

As for Jason Kamras, just because he was a fantastic teacher does not make him a fantastic manager of human capital. That's part of the problem in public education: people get promoted and become principals because they were great classroom teachers. There's a big difference in teaching children and managing adults. My experience in DCPS is that most principals and administrators have no clue about human resource management. I had another very successful career running a non-profit before switching to teaching several years ago. The "managers" in DCPS have no clue as to how to manage and motivate people.

The bottom-line for Rhee is all about numbers. Fenty is up for re-election in Nov. 2010 and Rhee needs to show significant gains this year and that's why all the pressure on teachers to work miracles this year.

I would love to sit down and talk with you about my experience in DCPS. Most of my complaints about my job aren't related to my students--whom I love teaching--but the so-called adult "professionals," i.e., principals and central office staff, who speak to me as if I'm a third grader.

DCPS is a degrading and demoralizing institution in which to work and the morale is the lowest I've ever seen in the several years since I've made the switch to education.

I've decided to leave education and am now job hunting. I will miss my students but Michelle Rhee and her young, inexperienced, number crunchers in the central office have turned DCPS into more about data and less about students. We all know that we can spin numbers to make ourselves look good. That's what it's come down to under Rhee--numbers--not students and our relationships with them.
That, to me, is very sad and unfortunate.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | October 1, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

To follow up on lk11's comments: teachers, like students, do not all fit one mold: a quiet,patient,methodical teacher may get just as much out of his/her students as an extroverted, Type-A "go get-'im", or one with light-hearted, slightly off-the wall
approaches, etc. etc. Test scores and superficial evaluations can not tell the whole story, and neither can ONE, albeit outstanding professionally,individual.

A model to consider is that of the music education system: when a musician is being judged as to competency in college, they literally perform before a JURY of experts in their field. I hope that Mr. Kamras has a healthy ego and the good sense to have a number of experts assist him in the assessment process.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 1, 2009 8:13 PM | Report abuse

To follow up on lk11's comments: teachers, like students, do not all fit one mold: a quiet,patient,methodical teacher may get just as much out of his/her students as an extroverted, Type-A "go get-'im", or one with light-hearted, slightly off-the wall
approaches, etc. etc. Test scores and superficial evaluations can not tell the whole story, and neither can ONE, albeit outstanding professionally,individual.

A model to consider is that of the music education system: when a musician is being judged as to competency in college, they literally perform before a JURY of experts in their field. I hope that Mr. Kamras has a healthy ego and the good sense to have a number of experts assist him in the assessment process.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 1, 2009 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kamras may be a fine fellow, but the plain fact of the matter is that teacher value-added measurement is highly flawed, even when highly sophisticated statistical models (which require graduate training in statistics to understand) are used, much less the slop DCPS is going to implement. This is the conclusion not just of teacher unions, it is also the consensus of scientists who have studied the issue. For example, a group at the RAND corporation reviewed teacher valued added models a couple years back, and the best they could say is that teacher value added models probably weren't any worse than NCLB type accountability. And that's assuming the tests are structured to measure longitudinal growth, which the DC tests are not. It doesn't matter how wonderful Mr. Kamras is, the method itself is flawed.

Posted by: dz159 | October 1, 2009 10:18 PM | Report abuse

It is almost as if every new administrator or principal wants to start at square one. Aren't there any well-established programs that work that everyone should be doing from the very beginning? Or is everyone doing nothing s that doing something equals innovation?

Posted by: ericpollock | October 1, 2009 11:56 PM | Report abuse

Wow, UrbanDweller! The most intelligent comments I've ever read at this site. Hope you get a face-to-face with Jay and at least reconsider your decision to leave teaching.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | October 2, 2009 5:22 AM | Report abuse

I read the article on this, but haven't seen the full criteria. I agree with many who wrote here and question it, like the poster who wrote about it starting on Monday when it is only announced the Friday prior without pilot groups; new fads being trotted out and "needing to be tried" prior to realizing it isn't that great, etc.

One thing that struck me was that the evaluation looks at 30 minute snapshots, recording what is going on every 5 minutes. Some of the expectations during those 30 minutes include if "chants, or poems" are occuring. Does this mean that all teachers of all subjects and all grade levels need to chant every 30 minutes? Is that a quality all "good" teachers have?

Having criteria that might work well for one teacher at a particular school/grade level, doesn't mean it will work well for other teachers or is even a quality that all good teachers should have. Chanting isn't a necessary activity in all classrooms.

On a related note, Rhee brought in 900 new teachers this year, and many experienced teachers were fired. Studies that you Jay, have reported on discuss how frequently low-performing and urban districts have the least experienced teachers, and recently you wrote an article on NEA supporting districts being allowed to send their "most experienced/highly qualified" teachers into the worst performing schools.

How do you explain that contradiction?

How does Rhee explain hiring so many new teachers, de-valuing the experienced teachers (after all, the evaluation system used previously may not have truly targeted bad teachers)with the research that shows urban/low-performing schools need the teachers with the most experience?

Posted by: researcher2 | October 2, 2009 5:51 AM | Report abuse

UrbanDweller - I also hope you and Jay sit down together. If that doesn’t work out, or even if it does, please also think about writing your own article for the Post or another outlet with a broad readership. You have an important perspective to share with as wide an audience as possible.

Jay – maybe as a way to provide balance, you could find another DC teacher who will go on the record with an opposing point of view, relating his/her positive feedback on the new evaluation tool and experience of high teacher morale under Chancellor Rhee. It should be someone comparable to UrbanDweller regarding length of service, proven teaching ability as measured by standardized test scores, and experience in a field other than teaching.

Posted by: efavorite | October 2, 2009 9:16 AM | Report abuse

The criticisms are right: (1) This sounds likely to devolve, for political reasons, into teach-for-the-test, with "multifaceted evaluation" as window-dressing, (2) qualitative evaluations, to the extent important, are likely to be by "master educators" (arghh) who at best are uncertain managers of human capital, and at worst are people who wanted to get out of the hurly-burly of actual teaching. I offer no solution for the first. For the second, the most effective evalutations would be by a balanced array of actual teachers (not Rhee-anointed toadies); from a balanced weighing of multiple evaluations by different, qualified, still-teaching people, meaningful evaluations are possible. Hard to free up real teachers to do this? Easy, spare them meaningless meetings at which administrators use them as a captive audience for their speeches.

Posted by: WilliamIverson | October 2, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

What is truly amazing to me is that all these evaluations fold in the challenging task of teaching to an inclusive classroom.
This, of course, all part of the "NCLB Act". The brain trust behind all these "bold moves" has decided to fund 143 or so full time positions in to provide educators the continuos training they need to be "effective". Obviously this has been a costly failure considering all the greivence cases in que. What a mess.

There has got to be a better way to provide cost effective training to meet the demands of the "inclusive classroom".

Yes, yet another hurdle for today's educational professional.

The DC Department of Education's slogan should be: "the sky is falling, the sky is falling"

Posted by: DrGupta1 | October 3, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

What is truly amazing to me is that all these evaluations fold in the challenging task of teaching to an inclusive classroom.
This, of course, all part of the "NCLB Act". The brain trust behind all these "bold moves" has decided to fund 143 or so full time positions in to provide educators the continuos training they need to be "effective". Obviously this has been a costly failure considering all the greivence cases in que. What a mess.

There has got to be a better way to provide cost effective training to meet the demands of the "inclusive classroom".

Yes, yet another hurdle for today's educational professional.

The DC Department of Education's slogan should be: "the sky is falling, the sky is falling"

Posted by: DrGupta1 | October 3, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

You simply cannot test kids into getting smarter (let that echo); Rhee's evaluation system is not valid and reliable (has the roll-out been piloted and/or field tested?)—this has nothing to do with Kamras; and Kamras can't ensure that every classroom and school receives things like "equitable tools, support and resources for high, pedagogical success." That's a no-brainer. Not to mention, DCPS (and the public charter schools) recycles the same idiots year after year (so much for transformation and prudent reform). I can go on and on, but all we seem to be doing is setting our children up with the soft bigotry of low expectations. As a matter of fact, close the expectation gap, then talk to me. You're all welcome!

Posted by: rasheeedj | October 3, 2009 9:56 PM | Report abuse

Here are three technical reasons why this initiative is doomed:

One, the achievement tests being used are insensitive to instructional differces.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1335923

Two, "value added methods" are not up to the task of measuring teacher effectivenss.

www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICVAM.pdf

Three. The 22 items on the observational check-list are a grab bag of unfounded indicators. For example, the requirement to teach to at least three different "intelligences" in each lesson wrongfully assumes that there are such "intelligences."

There is methodology for untangling the differential effects of instructional programs and for sorting out differences among teachers and schools, aggregated by the "usual" demographic variables of interest. The methodology yields "Educational Intelligence" analogous to "Business Intelligence." But the methodology is largely unknown by education "reformers."

Posted by: DickSchutz | October 4, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the sports analogy, but here it comes.

When a new GM or coach is hired, it is the exception, not the norm, that s/he keep the coaching staff as is. S/he comes in with a vision and a mission in order for that team to be as successful as possible. S/he will hire those who believe in or will buy in to that vision and mission, while cutting the current staff.

How is this different? The vision and mission has shifted and it is nearly impossible to achieve with naysayers on your own team!

So... snip snip... Nobody likes change, even if it's for the better.

Posted by: jstncase75 | October 4, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Nice try with the sports analogy, but it strikes out, fumbles the ball, or whatever. The thing is, the mission of schooling doesn't change. The mission is still to reliably achieve academic accomplishments.

Yes, with a "vision" you can import staff and/or students, and you'll slightly nudge test scores to "make gains" in the distribution of test scores. But change of school site personnel or students is not change we can believe in. It's cherry picking.

When homeschooling parents, with no special training are doing as well or better than teachers in public or voucher schools, that should tell us that "better teachers" is not the route for delivering more reliable academic outcomes.

It's not in the teachers, or in the kids, or in the water. It's in the instruction. Few are looking at what goes on in instruction, and our "best tests" are sensitive to SES differences but not to instructional differences. It's in the texts and tests and how they are used.

Change in other sectors of life does not focus on changing "people" directly. It focuses on changing the "things" people use.

Reforming people is tough. Re-forming the things people use produces "change we can believe in." The same playbook applies to the el-hi enterprise.

Posted by: DickSchutz | October 5, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

to UrbanDweller: I would love to talk to you. Call me at 703-518-3012. But as for waiting another year to work out the kinks in the system, you might look at my recent obit of Don Fisher, the GAP co-founder. He thought that was a bad idea. You learn much more implementing the system than sitting there and thinking about implementing the system. Call me, or email me at mathewsj@washpost.com. I am now reading through the full IMPACT plan, as least what there is of it in writing, and have talked to Kamras about it. I am away most of this week, but will try to write about it for my Oct. 16 column. And I will be spending the year at Dunbar High, watching its implementation first hand.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | October 5, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

The Gap is a corporation, not an educational institution. There is really no way to compare the two. The business model does not work for education becuase a) students are not products
b) teaching a child is not the same as selling a product.

It is depressing to watch what is going in the DCPS. Rhee is not an educator - she is the spokesperson for those who want to privatize public educaiton. And it seems that the Washington Post is her personal PR firm.

So sad.

Posted by: sfteacher | October 8, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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