FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Chicago Teachers and Their Students’ Test Scores

Many crucial issues are at stake in the Chicago Teachers Union strike. But the school district’s insistence that student test scores constitute a major basis of teacher evaluations seems to have become a particularly contentious point, leading to the vilification of teachers by the mainstream media, particularly The New York Times.

Joe Nocera of The New York Times, for example, wrote:

“On Sunday night, when she announced that the teachers were going on strike, Lewis said that teachers should not be at risk of losing their jobs over new evaluations that rely heavily on standardized test scores, which don’t account for outside factors like poverty and homelessness. Reformers have long complained that teachers’ unions too often use poverty as an excuse for poor performance. Lewis’s remarks would seem to justify that complaint” (“In Chicago, It’s a Mess, All Right,” September 10, 2012).

Is Joe Nocera right to imply that allusions to poverty as a major factor in determining students’ test scores is merely “an excuse?”  We can look to Joe Nocera himself for the answer. On April 25, 2011, he wrote: “Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn” (“The Limits of School Reform, The New York Times, April 25, 2011). We’ll give Nocera an ‘F’ for failing to uphold basic canons of consistency.

Nicholas Kristof, also of The New York Times, weighed into the debate with at least the intelligent admission that “… the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty” (“Students Over Unions, September 12, 2012).

He proceeded to offer a more sophisticated attack on teachers: “There’s now solid evidence that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of teachers, even within high-poverty schools.”

He continued: “The study found that strong teachers in the fourth through eighth grades raised the game of their students in ways that would last for decades. Just having a strong teacher for one elementary year left pupils a bit less likely to become mothers as teenagers, a bit more likely to go to college and earning more money at age 28.”

Finally, he raised the crucial question: “How does one figure out who is a weak teacher? Yes, that’s a challenge. But researchers are improving systems to measure ‘value added’ from beginning to end of the year, and, with three years of data, it’s usually possible to tell which teachers are failing.”

But this basically concedes the argument to the teachers. Kristoff acknowledges that such a reliable procedure does not yet exist when he states the current one only “usually” works. This could be as low as 51 percent of the time, which would mean it is no better than a toss of the dice. One must keep in mind that what is at stake is a teacher’s career and livelihood. Employing an evaluation system that is only “usually” accurate commits a grave injustice to anyone subjected to it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks also felt compelled to jump on the bandwagon:

“Though the final details are still uncertain, there will also be a serious teacher evaluation process. The various elements of those evaluations will change for each teacher year by year, but, as teachers progress in their careers, student performance will become more and more important. That’s vital because various studies have shown that evaluations that rely in part on test scores really do identify the best teachers” (Apres Rahm, Le Deluge, September 13, 2012).

Brooks’ formulation goes a step beyond Kristof by suggesting that these evaluations “really do” identify the best teachers, although he might have been exaggerating their effectiveness. Nevertheless, his claim still leaves open the question: Are good teachers being correctly identified because of the student test-score component of their evaluation or because of all the other factors that are employed?

Perhaps more importantly, here is what The New York Times itself had to say about measuring the value added by teachers where test scores are a major component: “Several studies have shown that teachers who receive high value-added scores — the term for the effect that teachers have on student test performance — in one year can score poorly a year later. ‘There are big swings from year to year,’ said Jesse Rothstein, associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“National Schools Debate Is on Display in Chicago,” by Motoko Rich, September 11, 2012).

Teachers are not opposed to evaluations, although one would not know this by reading the op-ed page of the New York Times.  They rightfully oppose evaluations that do not provide an accurate reflection of their performance. Shockingly, none of the above writers is troubled by teacher evaluations with accuracy that fluctuates wildly. It would be interesting to discover if their convictions remained firm when faced with the prospect of being evaluated themselves by an equally unpredictable procedure for journalists.

Even The New York Times itself editorialized against the striking Chicago teachers, claiming “Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea” (September 11, 2012). What The Times fails to understand is that teachers also oppose a strong emphasis on standardized test scores because they know first-hand that students are harmed in the process. As the picket sign of one striking Chicago teacher said: “I want to teach to the student, not the test.”

Here is how Diane Ravitch, who served as deputy secretary of education during the George H. W. Bush administration, described the problem: “And so I concluded that value-added assessment should not be used at all. Never. It has a wide margin of error. It is unstable. A teacher who is highly effective one year may get a different rating the next year depending on which students are assigned to his or her class. Ratings may differ if the tests differ. To the extent it is used, it will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to tests. Teachers will be mislabeled and stigmatized. Many factors that influence student scores will not be counted at all” (The Washington Post, October 10, 2010, “Ravitch: Why teachers should never be rated by test scores,” by Valerie Strauss).

When standardized test scores are emphasized, teachers are compelled to teach to the test or risk losing their jobs. Not only do the tests narrow the curriculum, as Diane Ravitch correctly observes, they undermine the entire teaching endeavor. Great teachers love their students and love to instill in them a love of learning. And the students in return love their teacher and become open to horizons of knowledge that were unimaginable to them before. This is the foundation that nurtures wonderful, sometimes, magical learning experiences in the classroom. No standardized test can possibly penetrate or measure this domain, and the attempt to apply such a ruler only reveals the ignorance of those who pretend to know better.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached atsanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail