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Teacher Evaluation Fail in New York

In the burgeoning education reform movement, teacher evaluations—especially those using the “value-added” model—have become a central focus for aspiring reformers. Yet a teacher’s take in the New York Times casts serious doubt on these measures. NYC’s teacher evaluations, he says, are wildly inaccurate, with margins of error as high as a startling 57 percent. In his own case, the score rose from the 6th to the 96th percentile in one year:

Reality set in. If my first grade of 6 percent was bogus, so was this one. I had taught the same grade, in the same school, to the same types of students, using the same curriculum and many of the same lessons. And my score jumped 90 points year over year. If the value-added model were even close to being reliable, that couldn’t happen.

This ridiculous boost is evidence of the dirty secret of the teacher evaluation movement—most evaluation methods are terrible. Bureaucracies, especially massive ones in cities like New York, are terrible at this sort of complex evaluation process.

But just because current methods of teacher evaluation are, to say the least, imperfect, doesn’t mean teachers can escape growing public pressure to show results. Teacher unions would like for virtually all teachers to have lifetime tenure and for evaluation to play little or no role in their lives. Principals don’t want parents nosing into administrative decisions or complaining that their kids are getting stuck with subpar math teachers. Pointing to the deep and real flaws in everything from standardized tests to score students to individual teacher assessments is, among other things, a way to stave off public pressure for more accountability in the schools.

The public wants a look inside the “black box” of the American school. Some parents are too ignorant, too dysfunctional or just too laid back to care, but increasingly parents want to make sure that their kids are getting the best available teachers—or at least avoiding the turkeys.

This pressure isn’t going away; school districts and teachers are going to have to live with it. Demand for parental choice is growing, and it will grow further as more educational opportunities arise. Between charter schooling, homeschooling, and new forms of online education, there are now opportunities that simply weren’t available thirty years ago.

Back when modern public school systems were being organized, parents (often immigrants who didn’t speak English or illiterate farmers) felt out of their depth when assessing the performance of teachers and schools. That isn’t the case today, as most parents are high school graduates and many have college degrees.

Ultimately most parents are going to insist on the right to choose which schools their children attend. Schools will have to provide information about their teachers and their success in order to attract pupils. Today’s crude and often unfair bureaucratic evaluation methods are a baby step in the direction of a choice-based educational system. More and better steps will come.

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  • alex scipio

    Speaking of education, and reading the title to this post… when did “fail” become a noun?

  • Pincher Martin

    Hope springs eternal for WRM. Students aren’t widgets, and government bureaucracies aren’t competent at gauging and encouraging productivity. And parents will resist attempts to objectify their children if they don’t like the results of the analysis.

    But the only way to properly understand what a teacher adds to a class is to understand what the students bring to the class — not just in raw knowledge, but in the ability to learn.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I think any evaluation of teachers that isn’t based on student testing is bogus, as teachers should be measured by how much their students learned from them.

  • Richard Treitel

    A better designed system would evaluate entire schools, and the principal of a good school would be presumed to know how to tell good teachers from bad and/or assign children to the teachers whose teaching style suits their learning style. More important, the principal would be able to fire a teacher without needing a megabyte of evaluation scores to fend off lawsuits.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Ultimately most parents are going to insist on the right to choose which schools their children attend.

    Bingo. That’s all the evaluation system you need. It’s the same one we use for food, clothing and shelter. Not to mention electronics, automobiles, tools… Because the personnel evaluation systems corporations and other large organizations use for evaluating personnel aren’t really very good either. Except at Lincoln Electric.

  • Jbird

    Coming from a teaching family and having been a teacher myself, most evaluations are the result of the principal dropping in and sitting through 1 class maybe once or twice a year. I don’t see how that could possibly give anyone an idea of how good a teacher is day in and day out. It’s much too small a sample size. What other profession creates evaluations based on 45 minutes worth of work every year?

  • Axel

    You wrote:

    “Bureaucracies, especially massive ones in cities like New York, are terrible at this sort of complex evaluation process.”

    I respectfully disagree.

    These entrenched bureaucracies are in fact unsurpassed in their ability to manipulate all evaluation processes that attempt to shed light on the sorry output they produce.

  • Kris

    I am outraged. I have read an entire Via Meadia post on education and increasing involvement by parents, as well as seven comments, but have yet to see a single critical response by WigWag. This post is incomplete, I demand a refund!

  • Luke Lea

    If you want to evaluate a teacher put a web camera in his or her class room. You can also evaluate cases of student misbehavior that way. In fact it is the only practical way.

  • John Barker

    Once the better teachers are accurately identified and made known to the public, I imagine they will organize themselves into elite academies with market based tuition.

  • http://None Jerry Arnold

    Almost everything I read that discusses education at any level seems to me to focus on the wrong subject. In fact, there is only one subject: educating the student. The next issue is deciding whcih subjects we want to see the students learn. Once we know that, then determining progress is a simple matter of regular progress checks: they are called tests. And not just a once-a-year thing but regular, scheduled, with pop quizzes thrown in to keep the students on their toes. The teachers’ evaluations are then laid out for anyone to read. They are the sum total of the progress made in each teacher’s subject by each teacher’s students. Old-fashioned? Out-of-date? Okay, I’m old-fashioned and out-of-date. But I do know a system that works, especially when it is compared to one which doesn’t.

  • Mark Michael

    CBS’s 60 Minutes had an interesting segment on the Khan Academy yesterday (March 11th). If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an Internet-based school that started out with videos of lectures of a variety of subjects (maybe) 10 years ago. An investment banker made them for a niece in Texas who was struggling in some subjects and he was asked to help her out. He put them on the Web and they became big hits. So he made more and more of them. He expanded into a interactive programs that would walk students through subjects with series of questions.

    Bill Gates heard about it, invited him to Seattle, and his foundation gave him a $15 million grant to expand the program in a big way. Rather than elaborate further here, here’s a link to the Academy’s website:

    Here’s its Wikipedia entry:

    We need to have entrepreneurs like Salman Khan to break the monopoly the education bureaucracy has on K-12 public education. Yes, there have been a variety of attempts to crack into that stranglehold by for-profit charter school operators, non-profit organizations also, but at this point, 95% of K-12 students remain in traditional public schools. But I’m optimistic; I think it’s only a matter of time when private educational institutions when catch on in a big way.

    I gather the Khan Academy method works very well for certain types of students and not so well for others. But that’s okay. It will take a variety of approaches, a lot of trial and error, refinement since the learning process isn’t a simple thing easily mastered so it can be automated.

    It’s also a fact of life that politicians and the political class are very conservative about trying new things. (Conservative in the sense of being cautious, afraid to offend strong interest groups, or of being seen to fail.) Hence, the slow pace of adopting real reforms that actually work.

  • Bruno Behrend

    Not that it’s the final word, but I wrote about this here…

    There is a consulting class that is itching to get a piece of the pie that the teacher unions have been munching on for decades.

    Forget teacher evaluations, and have the money follow the child to a vast new array of education providers. The money will flow to what people want, which is how it is supposed to work.

    All of the big brains that read this excellent blog need to understand that there is no way to “save” this awful system. It needs to be entirely dismantled.

    That is why we simply need to persuade the majority of citizens to do so instead of pretending we can “reform” this mess.

    Once money follows the child outside of failed and/or expensive districts, the system will improve itself. No, it won’t be perfect, as there is no such thing. It will, however, be a vast improvement over what we have now.

  • lhf

    A parent in Fairfax County Virginia who had served on several committees set up to propose teacher evaluation methods suggested having the teacher of the next grade up evaluate the previous year’s teachers’ results. In other words, are the students prepared to handle 3rd grade work after spending a year in x teacher’s 2nd grade class?

    The teacher’s unions opposed this, but it seemed really sensible to me. Assuming classes don’t move forward as a group, it would be possible to look at each student’s progress and assess how much was the teacher’s contribution and how much the – individual student’s – including possible outside contributing factors such as poverty, single parenthood, etc.

    The schools could be improved alot by ceasing to use them to solve every imaginable social problem. Cut out fire prevention week, sex ed, sensitivity to other cultures week, financial literacy, all holiday celebrations, etc. and focus on a limited number of standard disciplines. This could reduce costs too by eliminating nonessential staff.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Once the better teachers are accurately identified

    This assumption is at the heart of the problem. There is no ideal model teacher because students and environments vary so greatly. A teacher who excels in one situation may fail in another. And a teacher who excels one year may fail the next.

    That is why parents must have control, so that they can make the best decision for their child and start to assume their responsibility for their child’s education instead of ceding it to a faceless bureaucracy.

  • Duncan Frissell

    Can’t these people talk to their kid’s teachers and cross-ex them? It’s easy to tell how dumb someone is. My favorite test: ask them to sight read a passage from a random book they are handed.

    Complete the rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two…”

  • Thucydides

    One word:


  • Brian

    Public schools are set up for the benefit of the entrenched employees, not for the children. It is obscene and immoral that we are forced to fund these monopolized excuse factories of ineptitude and indolence.

    Anyone who is truly for “education” wants open and health competition for public schools. If they can survive, great, if not, so what? Children need to be #1, not educrats.

  • Edwin Leap, MD

    I asked a friend, who does vocational education in the local high school, if my home-schooled sons could take welding. ‘No, unless it comes through adult ed.’ When asked why, I was told, because. When I mentioned the idea of tax credits and vouchers, he and another educator were fairly incensed. ‘But my kids aren’t in school there. Why don’t I get the money for the time my kids aren’t in school?’ I was told, ‘because you choose to home-school. And the school are good for society so you should never get a tax credit.’ Reform won’t happen while this sort of punishment for outliers is the standard party line.

  • gpops


    There is no more fair way to evaluate teachers than the market. You have it 100% correct!

  • Mark in Texas

    One reason that this subject may be getting more attention these days is that due to the reverses in the real estate market, many middle class families no longer have their previous remedy to a bad school system – that is to sell the house and move to a better school district.

    The suburban middle class have had school choice. With so many of them upside down on their mortgages this is no longer the case and you are going to see a lot more pressure to improve the schools now that the middle class can no longer escape them.

  • Miller Thomas

    I’m a chemistry teacher in the DC suburbs and I am all for a value added approach when determining if I get hired from year to year.

    On day one of the school year all the students get a chemistry final exam. On the last day of school all the students get another final exam. They will show my value added. How could I lose? But I bet that’s not the way it will be done.

    The day keeping my job is determined by student test scores two things will happen: 1) No admin type will tell me how to teach in any way whatsoever or what to put on my walls or even what book (or not) to use. The days of admin micromanagement will be over. I now have a “property right” in how I teach. And 2) parents, admin, and students who do not do what I tell them to do in regards to homework and study habits will be treated to tort actions.

    The two items above have been settled by the US Supreme Court via the “property right” rulings made over the many decades. if I am responsible and can have a loss of income due to my performance, then I have rights I never had in the old system of evaluation.

    Hope the powers that be thought about that. I’m all for it. I always wanted those admin type out of my hair….Oh! and lack of supplies will be a tort as well.

    Lots of fun litigation to come!

  • dagwud

    “I think any evaluation of teachers that isn’t based on student testing is bogus, as teachers should be measured by how much their students learned from them.”

    I’d support pre-test/post-test evaluation of student learning. The problem is that most of the existing standards of testing for teacher evaluation look only at meeting some arbitrary performance level.

    Who’s a better teacher, the one who starts with good students who pass the standardized tests, or the teacher who got students who were reading 4 grade-levels below their grade but are only 1 level behind at the end of the year?

    Most of the standardized testing doesn’t measure actual student achievement. It’ just determines if they meet somebody else’s requirements.

    My point being that most of the legislated requirements of testing students are created by those who aren’t teachers and have no idea about how solid research works.

  • Reinventing the wheel one spoke at a time

    If only there were some system where the parents could keep their money and pay the people who educate their children directly then the teachers who provide good service as judged by those who would know best would prosper while the incompetent ones would be forced to seek employment more commensurate with their abilities… no doubt something involving a drive-thru window or perhaps a position as one of Obama’s czars.

    But who has ever heard of such a system? If such a thing existed we would use it for providing all sorts of goods and services in an efficient manner because it would truly be a miraculous thing indeed.

  • Piper

    Wow, many things contribute to education and how parents react to teachers and schools. The teacher’s ability to teach is sometimes low on the list.
    @#2 “But the only way to properly understand what a teacher adds to a class is to understand what the students bring to the class — not just in raw knowledge, but in the ability to learn.”
    This is very true, a student that knows how and is encouraged to learn enters the classroom with a tremendous advantage. The teacher’s goal should then be to help those that do not know how to learn, understand the process. Here is where we get a ding on a parent’s view of the teacher, “they spend too much time on other students and MY child does not get what I think they should have”.
    @#3 ”I think any evaluation of teachers that isn’t based on student testing is bogus, as teachers should be measured by how much their students learned from them.
    Agreed, as a teacher, I can show you at what level the students were at when they entered my class and where they are now and when they leave, all based on exams that directly relate to what I have taught. My concern is that I have brought students up 2-3 grade levels in Math, but they are still 2 grades behind and my kids will fail the state tests for their grade. I will be evaluated on that, not on the fact that they learned 3 years of curriculum in 1 and are successful at that level, but that they did not know how to do problems that they have not had yet. My ability to teach is high, some evaluation systems will not show that.

    @5. “ That’s all the evaluation system you need. It’s the same one we use for food, clothing and shelter. Not to mention electronics, automobiles, tools…
    Not really, some of the best schools are NOT the ones that are touted. Relators constantly tell a new home buyer that X high school is best and X just happens to be in the area they are trying to sell a bunch of houses. Neighborhood associations also have a vested interest in making sure that the schools in their area are “the best” so property values stay higher. The school might be the State Champions in football, but horrible if you child is not on the team. Many factors lead to a school, being the best. I searched 3 areas (places I have family) for the best schools. In the Sacramento area I got 2 different schools, in Albuquerque, 3 different ones and in Northern Nevada, I found a real bizarre situation, a school ranked 177 on the Newsweek list, but did not make greatschools and it was almost 600 places higher than highest greatschool pick.
    @#19I “ I asked a friend, who does vocational education in the local high school, if my home-schooled sons could take welding. ‘No, unless it comes through adult ed.’ “
    Hmm, in my woodshop (yes I teach multiple subjects) I have had many homeschooled students, I have 3 right now. It sounds like your district needs to get with the program, in many states it is illegal to prevent homeschool students from partaking of activities at school. The only restriction on home schoolers we have, is they have to fit MY schedule so I do not have overloaded classes, 36 is enough in a shop class.
    Okay prep period is over back to class

  • http://americaninterest ny teacher

    We’ve been handed a 36 page memo from New York full of this kind of double-talk, gobble-di-goop. I invite the average parent to get their heads around 36 pages of this.
    “A district may decide to set an (sic) SLO based on school-wide growth on the State ELA tests as a measure of student growth for all arts teachers within a district since growth in various arts is difficult to measure and ELA skills could be enhanced by course work in the arts. A district may decide to measure all elementary school push-ins and pull-out teachers on school-wide growth on ELA and/or Math because the districts (sic) believes it will help promote collaboration, and it is difficult at this point to determine their individual contribution to specific student’s growth.”

    It’s about as clear as mud, and entirely designed by “educational consultants” who happen to be politically connected in Albany.

  • dagwud

    @ny teacher: I don’t know if you added the “(sic)” notations to the quote, but the pedantic nerd in me wants to point out that “an SLO” is an appropriate indefinite article.

    If it’s used as an abbreviation, “an es-el-oh” is appropriate. If folks in NY use it as an acronym, then “a slow” is appropriate.

    Still, I’m gobsmacked that they got subject-verb agreement wrong on “districts believes.”

  • NY Parent

    Mark Michaels,
    My homeschooled high school student uses the Khan Academy regularly to bolster his understanding in any given math or science subject. He is taking classes at the local community college and finds that the 10 minute explanation is terrific when he’s unsure about a given topic.

    NY Teacher:
    I feel for good teachers, I really do. My kindergartener is with a top-notch teacher this year, but the class is filled with students who are not only not ready to learn, but emotionally are not ready for school at all. To assess this teacher on her students’ performance would be a real disservice to her. HOWEVER, most parents in any given school KNOW who the good teachers are – that’s why our school district does not allow parents to request teachers for the next year.

    Based on that knowledge, it would be very very easy for an administrator to assess teachers – let parents make requests for teachers and deal accordingly. Market value. The science teacher above probably wouldn’t have any trouble with parents valuing his/her work.

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