Thursday, August 16, 2012

Which students first?

Its been a while since Students First came into being. I followed them closely when they started in the hope that there really would be a new movement whose goal it was to improve public education and counter the impact of anti-tax or anti-public education ideologues and state legislatures, but the group turned out to be just another body jumping on the dogpile of reform.

One of SF's goals is to impact state laws related to tenure, seniority (unions) and teacher evaluations. Specific to the latter, the group has been calling for the use of standardized test scores in the teacher evaluation process and in the process has ignored any concerns that standardized test scores might not actually measure the quality of teacher input.

One of its first 'achievements' was working with Florida's Governor and legislature to completely change the nature of teacher workforce hiring and firing. The result of this work was the now infamous SB 736. That bill did a number of things, including essentially removing tenure by requiring maximum 1 year teaching contracts, and firing of teachers who rate unsatisfactory for 2 years in a row. But what it also did was require that standardized test results be used as a basis for these evaluations of teachers and administrators. It required that 'at least 50 percent' [my emphasis] of the evaluation be based on student test scores (the percentage could be reduced if not more than 3 years of data is available, or the school had an exemption under RTTT, and for administrators, but there are still requirements that performance factors are 'the single greatest component of an employee's evaluation').

The Florida Dept of Education is also supposed to post information about the status of teacher evaluations on a website, broken down by district and school.

NB: The bill allows the test score calculations to take into account disability status, english learner status or attendance record, but NOT their socioeconomic status. This last point is quite important, imho, because it essentially means that there will be a disincentive for teachers (and administrators) who would like to remain teachers to teach in schools with low parent involvement, high poverty, high single-family incidence, low parent education level; all the things that correlate to lower test scores in spite of quality teachers.

While these things dont have to be a barrier, statistically speaking they are. Especially in our current environment of perennial budget cuts, rising poverty and unequal access to kids and families in need. In the past, a teacher could choose to work in the toughest schools, knowing that even if they didn't always get the results on some standardized test, at least they knew they were helping kids. Now, such a teacher risks career suicide, regardless of how good they are. There is already a tendency for teachers to move, over time, toward the easier-to-teach-in environments. This law will essentially force teachers to make a choice between a career as a teacher and teaching in poverty schools. That's the worst kind of incentive and one that will disproportionately hurt kids in need.

Since this law requires the state board of education to post information about these evaluations on their website starting this July, I went and looked for any such indication. I did not find anything that appeared to be satisfying that requirement (not surprising given that much of the bill related to evaluations does not kick in until 2014-15, though the tenure aspects were already scheduled to have kicked in--if lawsuits haven't derailed that--and gathering student performance data should already have been started), but I did find a listing of 'grades' given to districts and schools by the state board. In fact, the district grades were also presented in a nice, map-based, graphical manner:

After looking at that map for a little while, it made me wonder about something, so I went to the poverty map for Florida (Source: Darker red = higher concentrations of poverty, though the darkest red corresponds to any poverty rate between 16.9% and 100%. ):

Pretty interesting correlation, and thats not even child poverty (child poverty rates average 7.5 percentage points higher for all counties, with the maximum difference being almost 15%--Putnam with a 40% child poverty rate vs 25.6% overall.  14 of the 68 counties had child poverty rates 10 percentage points or more above the overall poverty rate).

So if you believe that teachers are the cause of lower performance in higher poverty areas, then you'll probably be happy about SB 736; and maybe even like Students First's efforts.

But if you believe that teachers have limited control in countering the effects poverty has on kids then you will realize that this bill will work to disincentivize good teachers from teaching in higher poverty schools. And even if they wanted to, if those scores continue along this line for 2 years, those teachers (and administrators) will be fired. Ironically, the law exempts substitutes from these evaluations. Perhaps a perverse incentive to replace teachers in poverty schools with long-term subs? 

This bill seems like the furthest thing from 'students first' I can think of. And this was one of their first 'achievements'.  Just one reason I am hesitant to believe that Students First truly is students first. Except maybe for more affluent students first?

1 comment:

PoliticAli said...

Welcome back Navigio. Very portant comment on SF. I also was drawn in until I wealized the real agenda.
Very good analysis of Florida correlation between poverty and performance. Keep up the good work.