Teacher performance data and its discontents

The Los Angeles Unified School District has kicked the hornet’s nest of teaching quality assurance by proposing to publish a list of six thousand teachers’ students’ gains and losses on a statewide test in English and math. The exercise is considerable because it turns out performance is not random but for many teachers, strongly correlated from year to year: some see their students’ relative scores go up year after year, and some teachers’ students do worse, again year after year. For the moment, I’m carefully avoiding language like “raise their students’ scores” and “good teachers and bad teachers.” Jonathan has the links in his post here , along with a well-deserved thumb in the eye of the LA teachers union president.

KQED’s Forum had an hour on this today, and started it off on the wrong foot with the title: Evaluating Teachers. This common shorthand is an instant source of mischief: of course no-one has the right to evaluate another human being, and what’s meant (I hope) is evaluating teacher performance, but even that version is off the rails. Evaluating teacher performance is almost entirely sideways to what we want, which is improving student learning. Still, data like the LAUSD files can be a start in the right direction.

I’m having ambivalence overload even thinking about this story. On the one hand, measuring performance is desperately important for improving quality in any service or production process, and it appears the LAUSD has an enormously useful resource here. On the other, it’s so easy to measure it wrong and do the wrong thing with the measurements. Measuring teacher performance is especially difficult because what we really care about, which is contribution to lifetime performance of students (productivity, happiness, income, menschlichkeit, and more) happens long after the teaching ; because different students click with different [kinds of] teachers; because different teachers are provided different resources, especially including differently supportive parents and student peer sociology; and because the world is just noisy and full of random stuff. So, on the one hand, the LAUSD data looks at a narrow measure of value acquired by students (fairly stupid statewide short-answer tests in two subjects), but on the other hand, there appear to be stable, significant effects of individual teachers. Now what? The obvious answer is, fire the teachers in the bottom third, and give the ones at the top a nice raise. There are certainly a few LAUSD teachers who should be fired, but like so many obvious things, this reaction is almost completely wrong (it does respond to several of our worst instincts, including a desire that things be simple and a wish to punish). In the first place, of course, every set of measurements has a bottom third; indeed, though it will shock you to learn this, fully half my wonderful students are below average, no matter how much I shame and ridicule them when every other student scores below the median on a midterm again. I taught an honors course once and only admitted the top half, and would you believe it, one out of two of those stars slacked off and dropped into the bottom half during the semester!

More important, no organization has ever fired its way to success; 50% of new teachers in urban school districts already leave in the first three years, and we see how well that’s working for us. (That fact, along with a good bit of the thinking in this post, is courtesy of my colleague Alan Schoenfeld, an actual education professor who was nice enough to hip me to a lot of interesting background on this issue.)

What teachers need, and don’t have, is a really dispiriting list of resources. The first, and most important, is each other: teaching is probably the most isolating and isolated profession this side of pathology. Teachers never see each other work, almost never get to talk to each other about individual students, and have practically no opportunity for the core practice of quality assurance, which is observing and then discussing a particular practice, comparing alternatives, in a group of peers. Public school teachers in California also lack a long list of pretty basic stuff, from decent, clean, maintained buildings to copy paper, not to mention supportive staff and competent leadership at the school and district level, and too often, parents who are on their side and at the kids’ side.

What the LA performance data does is highlight a batch of teachers at the top of the data whose classrooms need to be visited by their peers, perhaps by videotape, and discussed. The point is not that everyone should be completely focused on increasing these test scores, but that a successful record at that measurable result is a good (not perfect) indicator of teaching practices that, if observed and discussed, will lead to better outcomes for students on a variety of dimensions.

It also highlights a batch almost all of whom (not all, some cases are hopeless) need to have their attention focused on what they are doing by habit or instinct that isn’t working, and to be shown (not just told) some alternatives. Not one of them wants to be a bad teacher! There may be a couple with such weird values that they know how to teach effectively, but intentionally sabotage their own performance unless they are paid some amount more money to deliver, but making policy for bizarre cases, if they exist at all, is absurd.

All this warm and fuzzy collaboration is expensive (an hour in a quality circle is an hour not in class and a cost for a substitute), a real challenge to administrators for scheduling, and more work for managers. It’s a safe bet that real quality assurance will pay off in reduced costs, but not instantly and anyway a lot of people don’t believe this. It’s possible to waste enormous sums in a failing school district not achieving much learning, and breaking a lot of hearts and spirits, but in California we’ve spent a couple of decades feeding the horse one less straw a day waiting for him to learn to live on nothing, and it isn’t working for us. In the end, improving school performance depends on being willing to invest (not spend; invest!) what it takes to get it right, and on management willing to do heavy retail lifting rather than simpleminded stick-and-carrot tricks.  The LA Times enterprise may cut either way; it might just further infuriate and demoralize the workforce, but if it’s handled right, it could be a place to step off in a useful direction.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Teacher performance data and its discontents”

  1. Diane Ravitch's book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" has more good stuff on this crucial topic.

    The most important of Deming's principles was "Drive out fear" — he noted that you couldn't really ever get improvement in an outfit as long as people were waiting to see you drag the stragglers out into the alley and shoot them. Something about concern that they might, on any given day, be defined as a straggler. (And isn't it odd how the people who call the shots never experience that same fear, and keep failing upward?)

  2. "What the LA performance data does is highlight a batch of teachers at the top of the data whose classrooms need to be visited by their peers, perhaps by videotape, and discussed."

    And at the bottom? How about this: all teachers should be required to spend an hour a week observing a colleague's lesson, and 10 minutes discussing it with him or her afterwards. Different colleague each time. You don't have to mark out teachers in advance as models and laggards; they can work this out for themselves. The time wasted would lie with average teachers observing average teachers, but since their strengths and weaknesses will still tend to have different profiles, you can have a lot of learning there too. An average teacher may be an excellent or poor observer.

    Videotape looks cheap but where do you point the camera? It's how the teacher is interacting with the pupils. Takes a top-class cameraman to be a good fly-on-the-wall.

  3. Some really good ideas. Districts spend a lot of time and money on teacher development but rarely is there systematic collaboration like you describe here, where teachers spend time observing each other and discussing what they see.

    Again though, I'll just have to note that while good teaching is important, the real problem is much greater. I spent some time yesterday traveling around LA schools via http://schoolperformancemaps.com/. The site uses google maps and gives every school a color code based on their academic performance index rating. Red is the lowest, blue the highest. The effect is pretty mindblowing. Inner city schools are largely red, while those in more affluent neighborhoods, forming a general ring around LA – the hills and coastal areas – are largely blue.

    One of the findings in the article was that teacher performance tended to vary within schools as much as across them, so that essentially you have an almost random distribution of performance. What this tells us is that those red schools have generally the same quality of teachers as the blue schools. Of course, a really awful teacher in a poor school is going to set those children back much further than a really awful teacher in an affluent school. Hence the special importance of making sure a lot of really good teaching is going on in poor schools.

    But every major reform now in place is solely targeting teacher performance. Assuming we make great strides in rooting out the really bad teachers, and assuming we can find enough good replacements, especially if we target our efforts in poor schools, where the environment is most difficult and burn-out is greatest… assuming all of that. Does anyone think all those poor inner city schools are going to go from red to blue? And why is that? At this point I could really go into detail.

    But we aren't even having that discussion.

  4. One thing that has always struck me as odd about our higher ed system is that almost all of us outside schools of education have had minimal training in good pedagogic practice. In my case, I attended a half-day meeting for new TAs and I was paired with a brand-new Assistant Professor in my department to makee-learnee with him. The half-day was focused on University policies rather than pedagogy. The professor I was paired with was a whiz at research, and a good seminar teacher. He wasn't much in a classroom of 50 sophomores and juniors.

    The net results is that almost everything I know about pedagogy I've taught myself, and almost all the good ideas I have had and used were stolen from others. Teaching is the art of larceny. Stealing good ideas means that you must be exposed to them somehow. I'm shocked to learn that public school teachers don't have the time to visit each other's classes and to visit with each other about the students and how to teach them.

    If Tommy's an auditory learner, isn't it better that Mr. Prometheus know that going into class, rather than figuring it out a month or six weeks into the school year? And if Tommy's an auditory learner, maybe Mr. Prometheus isn't a particularly good choice for him… isn't this (in part) what principals are for?

  5. "50% of new teachers in urban school districts already leave in the first three years, and we see how well that’s working for us."

    With no agenda here, there are some obvious questions to ask about this:

    (a) are those that leave teachers that were, or were not, effective in their teaching? If the bulk that leave were not much good at the job, then this is surely a good thing (apart from the waste of having them go through teacher training); on the other hand if they were the more effective teachers, or even matched the stayers, that is a different story.

    (b) did they leave because of lack of money or other factors? If they left because of lack of autonomy, or because they were tired of being harassed by a few sociopathic students, or because they were tired of the vast bulk of their students exhibiting not the slightest interest in learning — well those are three very different reasons from money; and fixing the situation will require dealing with THOSE particular issues, however distasteful that may be, rather than once again pretending that the problem is that teachers are paid too little. I could make a crack about economists here, but even economists are smart enough to realize that utility is larger than money.

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