Thursday, November 29, 2012

Educators for Excellence’s Almost Quiet War for Value-Added Evaluations

At the beginning of the event, the Director of Educators for Excellence comes to a Powerpoint slide titled, “Critical to our Movement.” A sharp, junior-politician type, Jonathan Schleifer speaks with confidence. The crowd of teachers skews young, like most things ed-reform. They’re unusually polite for a crowd of teachers. A digital poll taken early in the event shows that more than 60% have been teaching five years or less.

They’re here for “A Conversation with Chancellor Dennis Walcott about Teacher Evaluation in NYC” — among the state-mandated evaluation standards are controversial value-added measures based on student test scores. The nonprofit education reform organization Educators for Excellence (E4E) is playing host. With funding in the millions, the organization doesn’t have to skimp on the event: freelance photographers roam around snapping pictures; staffers distribute digital clickers to all comers; two free drinks and a mozzarella stick await each attendee at a nearby bar afterwards.

The introductory slide Schleifer presents states quite explicitly what E4E finds critical to the lobbying campaign they call “our movement”: “a holistic and equitable evaluation system that incorporates value-added methodology.” It is the only plank listed in the weighty “Critical to our Movement” slide.

It will be the last time value-added measures are mentioned that night.

For the next hour or so, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott charms the audience and answers questions about the Danielson rubric, the teacher evaluation pilot program, administrator training, and other practicalities. The concerns aired by teachers in attendance center mostly around practical concerns and administrators’ fidelity to the system. Their contributions are valid, though largely non-ideological. By the time the event is over, one would be hard-pressed to find anything contentious about the looming evaluation contract.

As a publicity event, it went impressively well. Both Tweed and E4E came off as cooperative, thoughtful participants in the education policymaking process. That their agendas are nearly identical only helps keep the “conversation,” as they call it, “results-oriented.”

Someone attuned to the ongoing struggle over evaluation standards, however, would be baffled by the absence of discussion surrounding standardized-test-driven measures. These consistently raise the hackles of union members and opponents of education reform. The state mandate that at least 40% of teacher evaluations be derived from standardized test scores (including a minimum of 20% from state-administered Regents tests) will likely prove the greatest hurdle in ongoing negotiations.

At the event’s outset, E4E ushered in uncritical support of controversial value-added evaluation policy. This was the elephant they led quite consciously into the room to plop next to the podium; no one acknowledged it the rest of the night. Silence on these measures let the chancellors avoid bumpy terrain and kept the discussion on a non-ideological keel. By girding the conversation with tacit approval of value-added measures, E4E reduced the most politically prickly aspect of new evaluation policies to a dull matter of fact.

It’s not surprising, then, that ed-reform critics look askance at Educators for Excellence, which they see as a corporate-funded political lobbying organization, an “anti-union union.” E4E, alternately described as “outside agitators” and “a voice in educational policymaking,” refutes these charges. Though a relatively new organization, their funding grew fivefold between 2010, the year of their founding, and 2011, when they received nearly $2 million in donations. They keep their donors anonymous.

According to their 503(c) filings, E4E aims “to build an active community of educators and citizens who are committed to a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate on education policies that are focused on increasing student achievement.” Central to increasing student achievement, they claim, are value-added teacher evaluations.

Meanwhile, the Educational Policy Institute has written that “there is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians, and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness,” and the National Academy of Sciences warns, “Too little research has been done on these methods’ validity to base high-stakes decisions about teachers on them. 

Multiple studies show that the value-added measures in New York’s own pilot program have shown “very little effect overall,” producing “little impact on student proficiency or school environment it its first year.” To put it mildly, the efficacy of value-added measures is not a matter of fact; they stir up genuine debate in the public conversation. 

Perhaps a “thoughtful and thought-provoking debate” failed to cohere at E4E’s conversation with Walcott because the value-added measures were shuffled out of discussion before debate had even begun. And perhaps the organizers actively sought to staunch debate by keeping dissenting opinions out.

“The dishonest slimebags at Educators 4 Excellence are at it again,” intones the anti-ed-reform blog EdNotesOnline. Not content to argue merely ad hominem, they document two cases in which invitations were revoked from members and nonmembers under questionable circumstances. Presumably “citizens who are committed to a thoughtful and though-provoking debate” will be able to attend future E4E conversations. Maybe E4E has a more anodyne notion of debate.

This probably sat fine with Chancellor Walcott, who seemed breezy throughout. As soon as he took the podium, he teased E4E Director Schleifer about his marathon time; incidentally, both run the Marathon. Their bonhomie was apparent as they traded barbs, both owning up to a rather competitive streak.

This fact is not lost on the teacher who later asks whether the competitive spirit born of marathons and merit-pay could be detrimental to the collaborative and democratic spirit of public schooling. It’s perhaps the only dissenting view expressed all night.

Walcott laughs the question off. He points the teacher to the administration at Tweed. “We’re all extremely competitive,” he says, “but we can still collaborate.” Unperturbed, he rehashes the marathon metaphor in different contexts throughout the night, apparently finding it apposite for discussing public education.

In his final comments of the evening, Schleifer returns to Walcott’s marathon-time jibe. “I want to say that my time is just one measure that I use to evaluate my marathons,” he winks, riffing on the common refrain that student test scores are just one component among many used to evaluate teachers in the proposed standards.

The footrace is an apt metaphor for the director of an organization in lockstep with federal Race to the Top policies. Such an ideology seeks out winners and losers, values prizes and punishments. That the means for determining who wins and who loses remain contentious, both politically and scientifically, is immaterial to E4E. Their success is measured in ed-reform policy outcomes, not in thoughtful or thought-provoking debate.