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An Open Letter to California Public Officials

September 2, 2010

The following is an open letter that was also sent electronically to the following recipients:

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

Members of the California Board of Education

Bonnie Reiss, Secretary of Education

Senator Gloria Romero, Chair of the California Senate Education Committee

Assemblymember Julia Brownley, Chair of the California Assembly Education Committee

Dear California Education Policy Leader,

As the new school year begins, students and their families always deal with changes – new schools, new classes and teachers, and a whole array of questions about what the new year holds in store.  More than in most years, teachers find themselves uncertain about what to expect, in part due to the swelling general and political interest in teacher evaluation.  While most of us would welcome improved teacher evaluations that actually help us do our jobs better, our fear is that politics and expediency will lead us towards the misuse of state test scores in teacher evaluation.

Even the advocates of so-called “value-added” measurements concede the existence of variables known and unknown, and offer up various attempts to control for those factors.  They concede that sample sizes present a challenge.  Then, they typically offer all sorts of mathematical formulas and ignore the longstanding warning from the three leading educational research bodies that advise against using test scores for teacher evaluation.

I’d like to take this opportunity to inquire about a more personal matter, however: my teaching evaluation.  You see, this year will bring with it considerable changes at my school, many of which I believe will impact my teaching and my students.  If you are willing to consider using student test scores in my future evaluations, I believe that I deserve to know how you view the relevance of these factors as they affect those test scores.  As you read on, please realize that I am not talking about hypothetical situations (with one exception at the very end), and  not exaggerating for rhetorical effect.  Each listed item is a real change occurring at my school this year, and each change has the potential to affect test scores you might suggest using to compare students, teachers, or changes in teacher performance over multiple years.

1.  New principal – According to an Urban Institute study (Damon, et. al., 2009) the experience level of a principal has an effect of student performance.  “An important finding to emerge from our analysis is the positive impact of principal experience, particularly over the first few years of principals’ careers. … [T]his implies that new, inexperienced principals will, on average, hurt school performance.”  In fact, authors of the study refer to that particular information as their “clearest finding.”  How do you propose to control for the effects of a rookie principal before evaluating me with test scores?  What formula should be used for each successive year of our principal’s time at our school?

2.  One additional administrator in the school – According to this study from New Jersey, administrative support does seem to have effects on student performance, but studies can be used to argue for both improved and diminished student performance.  When do you propose that my school make a determination about the effects of adding an administrative position, and once they report their findings, what model do you propose to use in value-added measurements that will be used in my evaluation?

3.  New class scheduling  – my school will, for the first time, use block schedules for four days per week (compared to prior use of block schedules two days per week).  According to C.W. Lewis, et. al., (NASSP Bulletin, Dec. 2005) block scheduling has a positive effect on student performance on standardized tests.  How will this change be factored into my score-based evaluation?  If some teachers at my school have more training and experience than others in relation to teaching in block schedules, would you propose that the test-score portion of teacher evaluations include different expectations for different teachers?

4.  Later start time – this year, our school day will begin at 8:15 a.m.  Last year, about 75% of our school days began at 7:50 a.m.  According to many studies, including this one reported in the Wall Street Journal, a later start time has a positive effect on adolescent learners.  How much of an effect will be expected in our test scores?

5.  My own teaching schedule – last year I taught two morning classes and two afternoon classes.  This year, all my classes are in the morning.  So, if you plan to use my students’ test scores for evaluation, please consider this report:  “Research indicates that many high school students do their best learning in the afternoon. One study found that afternoon reading instruction produced the greatest increase in reading scores as compared to morning instruction.”  Since half of my classes are now in the morning instead of the afternoon, please suggest a formula for the expected change in my effectiveness as measured on student tests.  Also, I am teaching one new course this year compared to last, and it’s a course that I haven’t taught in the past five years.  Am I expected to produce the same gains when teaching different courses?  Will my “value-added” be compared to other teachers of this grade level, or other teachers of this course?

6.  New tutorial period – our new school schedule will include sixty-five minutes per week for students to receive additional support.   Some schools and districts in our state (Whittier, Irvine, and many others,) are finding that tutorial periods provide valuable academic support that has a positive impact on student performance.  There is also some research support (PDF) for that idea.   However, students will be allowed to make their own choices from a wide variety of tutorial offerings each week.  Will the state fund any additional data analysis in order to see how my students used that extra tutorial time?  If they tend to spend that time with less effective teachers, or teachers of other subjects, will test scores be adjusted prior to their inclusion in my evaluation?  If students usually spend that time with me, will I need to produce even higher test scores, and if so, how much higher?  What if students need to use tutorial time in ways that won’t produce higher test scores?  Are you creating a conflict of interest between me and my students?

7.  New school data management system – we’ll be switching over to a new web-based program that should improve communication between school and home, regarding attendance and grades.  That changeover will take up many hours of teachers’ time, due in part to training, as well as a lag time as we adjust to the new system and transfer information from other systems.  Adequate planning time affects teacher performance (PDF), so this change will have a potentially negative effect on our staff.  However, we should end up with improved communication with parents and caregivers, and school-home communication has a positive effect on student performance.  So, this new system will potentially lower and raise test scores.  Will the state help us measure with effect is larger, and how should that effect be factored into test scores prior to my evaluation?

8.  New colleagues – according to a study published in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, “a teacher’s students have larger achievement gains in math and reading when she has more effective colleagues (based on estimated value-added from an out-of-sample pre-period). Spillovers are strongest for less experienced teachers and persist over time, and historical peer quality explains away about 20 percent of the own-teacher effect, results that suggest peer learning.”  This year, I will be teaching with a different combination of teachers.  Prior to my next evaluation, will the state help fund the data collection and analysis necessary to determine which teachers are having a “spillover effect” on the others?  It seems only fair.  I also know that teachers in other subject areas have been teaching some of “my” standards.  For example, I’m supposed to teach students how to understand and analyze non-fiction texts, and my colleagues in history and science courses are doing the same thing with my students all the time.  I’m supposed to teach grammatical concepts and my students are learning those same concepts in other languages at the same time.  My students have dozens of combinations of courses and teachers.  Please tell me how to separate the effects of each teacher on tests scores so that my evaluation will truly reflect my teaching.

9.  New construction – we are expecting to break ground on two new buildings this school year.  One of these buildings will go up within one-hundred feet of my classroom.  I could not find a study that examined the effects of campus construction on student performance, so I will defer to your judgment: to what extent do you think construction noise disrupts learning?  Should we keep data on the actual number of days of construction, and the decibel levels of the noise?  If we have the data, will there be any adjustment to value-added measurements prior to my evaluation?  Many of my colleagues teach on the opposite side of the building, away from the construction site, so I will advise them to measure the decibel levels in their classrooms for comparison.

10.  Furloughs – we don’t have any furlough days yet in my district, but if we do, will the state (prior to my next evaluation) devise a formula indicating how many furlough days can occur before test scores are affected, and the significance of the effects after crossing that threshold?

Looking over that list of changes for this school year, I have many, many questions about what the next ten months will be like on my campus.  I can say from past experience that this is an unprecedented amount of change.  So, as a final question for you, I would like to know: do you believe that the combined effects of this much change can be measured?  That is not just a rhetorical question, because I imagine this year’s data will be compared to other years, and if some people have their way, those scores will be part of my evaluation.  My future job security may be affected by your answers.

As you have certainly surmised, I am adamantly opposed to the idea of using state test scores in teacher evaluations.  I have argued that point repeatedly in various ways, in various publications, but in this letter, I have focused on the entirely real situation in which I find myself this year.

We may disagree about the issues.  I expect that if you disagree, you can support your position by answering my questions.  If you cannot, then I hope you intend to come up with the answers and share them before supporting or enacting policies that are sure to fail if we cannot answer those questions.

You have it in your power to exert great influence on students’ lives, through your influence on my work, and the work of hundreds of thousands of my fellow teachers.  You are also occupying an office entrusted to you to serve the common good.  You assumed that office more recently than I began teaching, and I will continue teaching when you have left that office.  As a professional with the utmost commitment to my students and community, and the utmost desire to teach well, I request a reply from you that will be of some practical guidance in our shared mission to serve students.  I trust that your reply will reflect your commitment to crafting and implementing wise policies that will actually work within complex realities of our schools.


David B. Cohen

[edit 7/24/11 – corrected numbering, added AERA link]

12 Comments leave one →
  1. David B. Cohen permalink*
    September 2, 2010 12:26 am

    I should just add for the record that I love my job, my colleagues, my school, and my district. I am not worried at all about how we will handle these changes. But our state and country are rushing into policy changes that rely on assumptions that do not hold up in this reality, and those who will actually change and implement the policy should have to answer these questions first.

  2. September 2, 2010 5:53 am

    Of all of the articles I have read about budget cuts and teacher evaluations and all the negativity going on around us, yours is the most rational. It is backed up with research and a clear sense that both successful and failing school are affected by these policies. I think, in fact, that the success of your current school gives you an unfortunate street cred in many respects because so many of us in struggling schools are seen as just complainers, struggling to swim like dogs in water, grasping at anything to save ourselves, our schools, and our students. Of course, we aren’t. Our concerns are legit, but we need more teachers from schools who are not under threat to be joining our cry.

    Thank you for your post. It is well-constructed, clear, well researched, and sensical. I hope it gets to those it should.

    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    aka Tweeteacher

  3. September 2, 2010 8:08 am

    Thank you, David. This is superb work.

  4. Ryan permalink
    September 2, 2010 3:50 pm

    Excellent work once again. It is impressive that you find/make the time to use your experience and knowledge to raise questions that many teachers are rightfully concerned about as they are assaulted by politicians and the media in their quest to privatize public education.

    I know I speak for lots of frustrated teachers when I say, thanks!

  5. David B. Cohen permalink*
    September 2, 2010 3:58 pm

    Heather, Dina, and Ryan – thanks for the kind words. Yes, Ryan, it’s quite time consuming. This particular post was a couple weeks in the making, cobbled together here and there. Overall, I couldn’t do all of this without the support of my wonderful family.

  6. Lillian Lovejoy permalink
    October 11, 2010 9:04 pm

    Nice job David your insight allows us all better understanding of our own needs.


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