Friday, April 18, 2008

More on the NY Tenure Law

I wrote before on the tenure law that was passed in NY and had no intention of writing about it again, in part because I think the end result is essentially inconsequential. But the more I read about it the more annoyed I become with critics of the law. Not because it's not a bad law -- it is -- but because the effects of the law are constantly overstated.

The latest offender is Kevin Carey over at The Quick and the Ed. I hesitate to pick on him b/c I've read more ridiculous assertions than his, but his just happened to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Before I begin let me say that he's written a lot of other things that I thought were very good.

Though not the main focus of his post, Carey implies at the end that using standardized tests to make tenure decisions would eliminate a lot of bad teachers in NY. That theory, of course, makes sense on paper -- but it plays out differently in reality.

The tests are ill-suited for use as a measure of the amount that students learned in one year for three major reasons: 1.) They're given well before the end of the year, 2.) They're not designed to be value-added tests -- they're designed to determine proficiency in each separate grade, and 3.) The majority of teachers do not teach tested subjects.

Carey writes that academics are too cautious about endorsing programs, and he may have a point, but this one case where the caution is merited. It's not the case that the information gathered from these tests would be only a little helpful rather than a lot, it's the case that the information gathered from the tests would be so inaccurate as to be useless.

He writes that there are a number of bad teachers in NYC (and references this as proof). Of course there are a number of bad teachers -- anybody who disputes this is dead wrong -- but would the information gained from these tests really solve the problem?

First of all, a number of the bad teachers referenced in that blog post do not teach a tested subject (3rd-8th grade Math or English) and would, therefore, be completely unaffected by the use of the test scores. This means that a 4th grade English teacher, say, with slightly sub-par scores might face some heat while the Spanish teacher who takes his shirt off in class will not. Secondly, all of the offenses mentioned in the post are observable by peers and supervisors -- a test will not inform a principal that a teacher had an affair with a student. Thirdly, because the test results would be somewhat random it very likely that a good teacher could get bad results and a bad teacher good results -- completely defeating the purpose of using the tests in the first place. In short, using test results would likely hurt at least as many people as it hurt.

It is clear, then, that the test results should not be a deciding factor when evaluating teachers. The argument that NY should hold off for a couple years until they develop a better value-added testing system is correct.

As I previously wrote, it is a heavy-handed law and was passed in a devious manner -- which are both worthy of negative press attention -- but it is quite clear that the rule regarding the use of test results will not, in and of itself, do substantial harm over the next two years. I find any argument that it will to be disingenuous.

Let me end with two clarifications. 1.) I do not object to change. Not in the least. Bad teachers should be removed from schools. I will never, ever, argue this point. The tenure law, however, does not prevent bad teachers from being removed from schools. 2.) I bear no personal ill-will toward Kevin Carey. If I've been unfair to him then I assume either he or somebody else will let me know.

Update: I've been informed that I misspelled Kevin Carey's name 4 out of 5 times in the previous edition of this post. My apologies -- it's been corrected.

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