Why are the Chicago public school teachers on strike?
The issues of pay and testing
P.J. is a Chicago public school math teacher, he has two kids in the CPS system, and he’s a graduate from that system. So I think he is qualified to speak on the issues.
He first explains that CPS teachers are paid less than those in the suburbs. This means, among other things, that it’s hard to keep good teachers. Next, he explains that, although it is difficult to argue against merit pay, the value-added models that Rahm Emanuel wants to account for half of teachers evaluation, is deeply flawed.
He then points out that, even if you trust the models, the number of teachers the model purports to identify as bad is so high that taking action on that result by firing them all would cause a huge problem – there’s a certain natural rate of finding and hiring good replacement teachers in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
He concludes with this:
Teachers in Chicago are paid well initially, but face rising financial incentives to move to the suburbs as they gain experience and proficiency. No currently-existing “value added” evaluation system yields consistent, fair, educationally sound results. And firing bad teachers won’t magically create better ones to take their jobs.
To make progress on these issues, we have to figure out a way to make teaching in the city economically viable over the long-term; to evaluate teachers in a way that is consistent and reasonable, and that makes good sense educationally; and to help struggling teachers improve their practice. Because at base, we all want the same thing: classes full of students eager to be learning from their excellent, passionate teachers.
Ultimately this crappy model, and the power that it yields, creates a culture of text anxiety for teachers and principals as well as for students. As Eric Zorn (grandson of mathematician Max Zorn) writes in the Chicago Tribune (h/t P.J. Karafiol):
The question: But why are so many presumptively good teachers also afraid? Why has the role of testing in teacher evaluations been a major sticking point in the public schools strike in Chicago?
The short answer: Because student test scores provide unreliable and erratic measurements of teacher quality. Because studies show that from subject to subject and from year to year, the same teacher can look alternately like a golden apple and a rotting fig.
Zorn quotes extensively from Math for America President John Ewing’s article in Notices of the American Mathematical Society:
Analyses of (value-added model) results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. (Value-added model) estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years and classes that teachers teach.
One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20 percent of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40 percent.
Another found that teachers’ effectiveness ratings in one year could only predict from 4 percent to 16 percent of the variation in such ratings in the following year.
The politics behind the test
I agree that the value-added model (VAM) is deeply flawed; I’ve blogged about it multiple times, for example here.
The way I see it, VAM is a prime example of the way that mathematics is used as a weapon against normal people – in this case, teachers, principals, and schools. If you don’t see my logic, ask yourself this:
Why would a overly-complex, unproved and very crappy model be so protected by politicians?
There’s really one reason, namely it serves a political function, not a mathematical one. And that political function is to maintain control over the union via a magical box that nobody completely understands (including the politicians, but it serves their purposes in spite of this) and therefore nobody can argue against.
This might seem ridiculous when you have examples like this one from the Washington Post (h/t Chris Wiggins), in which a devoted and beloved math teacher named Ashley received a ludicrously low VAM score.
I really like the article: it was written by Sean C. Feeney, Ashley’s principal at The Wheatley School in New York State and president of the Nassau County High School Principals’ Association. Feeney really tries to understand how the model works and how it uses data.
Feeney uncovers the crucial facts that, on the one hand nobody understands how VAM works at all, and that, on the other, the real reason it’s being used is for the political games being played behind the scenes (emphasis mine):
Officials at our State Education Department have certainly spent countless hours putting together guides explaining the scores. These documents describe what they call an objective teacher evaluation process that is based on student test scores, takes into account students’ prior performance, and arrives at a score that is able to measure teacher effectiveness. Along the way, the guides are careful to walk the reader through their explanations of Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) and a teacher’s Mean Growth Percentile (MGP), impressing the reader with discussions and charts of confidence ranges and the need to be transparent about the data. It all seems so thoughtful and convincing! After all, how could such numbers fail to paint an accurate picture of a teacher’s effectiveness?
(One of the more audacious claims of this document is that the development of this evaluative model is the result of the collaborative efforts of the Regents Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness. Those of us who know people who served on this committee are well aware that the recommendations of the committee were either rejected or ignored by State Education officials.)
Feeney wasn’t supposed to do this. He wasn’t supposed to assume he was smart enough to understand the math behind the model. He wasn’t supposed to realize that these so-called “guides to explain the scores” actually represent the smoke being blown into the eyes of educators for the purposes of dismembering what’s left of the power of teachers’ unions in this country.
If he were better behaved, he would have bowed to the authority of the inscrutable, i.e. mathematics, and assume that his prize math teacher must have had flaws he, as her principal, just hadn’t seen before.
Weapons of Math Destruction
Politicans have created a WMD (Weapon of Math Destruction) in VAM; it’s the equivalent of owning an uzi factory when you’re fighting a war against people with pointy sticks.
It’s not the only WMD out there, but it’s a pretty powerful one, and it’s doing outrageous damage to our educational system.
If you don’t know what I mean by WMD, let me help out: one way to spot a WMD is to look at the name versus the underlying model and take note of discrepancies. VAM is a great example of this:
- The name “Value-Added Model” makes us think we might learn how much a teacher brings to the class above and beyond, say, rote memorization.
- In fact, if you look carefully you will see that the model is measuring exactly that: teaching to the test, but with errorbars so enormous that the noise almost completely obliterates any “teaching to the test” signal.
Nobody wants crappy teachers in the system, but vilifying well-meaning and hard-working professionals and subjecting them to random but high-stakes testing is not the solution, it’s pure old-fashioned scapegoating.
The political goal of the national VAM movement is clear: take control of education and make sure teachers know their place as the servants of the system, with no job security and no respect.