Save up to 90% on a Hartford Courant subscription. Click here to sign up now!
CT Now

D.C. schools may hold lesson for L.A.

WASHINGTON -- Roxanne Brummell has thrived in what many consider the toughest new testing ground for teachers in the nation.

The fifth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C., earned a "highly effective" rating under the district's controversial system that rewards -- and sometimes fires -- teachers based in part on their students' progress on standardized tests. In just seven months, she helped boost her students' reading scores by an average of 24%.

Brummell's reward: a $20,000 bonus and recognition at district award ceremonies.

Brummell, a Guyana native, likes the acknowledgment and the data-driven feedback. But she frets that the district is relying too heavily on standardized tests and isn't doing enough to help teachers who are struggling.

As for the bonus, she almost didn't accept it. One condition was that she give up various rights if laid off in a budget crunch.

"I love it, but it has its flaws," she said of the district's evaluation system, as she recovered from a busy day of explaining improper fractions.

Her complex feelings reflect the nationwide ambivalence toward the growing movement to hold teachers more accountable for what their students actually learn.

Until now, evaluations typically have involved a school administrator making a quick, pre-announced visit to a teacher's classroom.

But in major districts including Washington's, New York's and Houston's -- and perhaps soon, Los Angeles' -- officials are using a method called "value-added" to bring a measure of objectivity to the process.

Value-added assesses a teacher's effectiveness at raising students' performance on standardized tests compared with how they did in previous years. Virtually no one endorses the method as the sole measure of an instructor.

For states to qualify for certain federal grants, the Obama administration is requiring that they link teacher evaluations to student performance. At least 27 states have passed or are considering legislation to meet that requirement.

"There is an absolute laser focus on teacher evaluation in this country now -- I've never seen anything like it," said Rob Weil of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 2,200 school districts.

But the trend has stirred opposition. Some educational experts and union leaders say that value-added is not reliable enough for high-stakes decisions on firing, tenure or pay; that it is a narrow gauge of teaching; and that it pressures instructors to "teach to the test."

Supporters say it is one important tool to be used in combination with others, perhaps including end-of-course tests or reviews of student work. How much weight to give it, what stakes to attach, how many years of data to consider and even how to calculate the scores are not settled questions, leaving much room for discussion and debate.

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is studying many of these questions, senior program officer Steve Cantrell said concerns that the method may inaccurately assess some teachers must be balanced against the likelihood that it will improve the chances for children to have an effective instructor. "If you shift the perspective from what is best for adults to what is best for students, then it's super clear that value-added can improve the system over time," he said.

In Los Angeles, the teachers union has adamantly opposed using value-added in teacher evaluations -- but a school district panel named by the superintendent has recommended that it go forward.

The debate erupted in August, when The Times published a database of the value-added scores of about 6,000 elementary school teachers based on seven years of testing data, prompting union protests and vows by the district to raise the issue during contract negotiations. It was the first time in the nation such information had been made public.

In New York, the city school district's recent announcement that it would release value-added scores to the media drew an immediate court challenge from the teachers union. Underscoring warring perspectives within the district, a Brooklyn public school on Friday sent a notice to parents urging them to protest the release, saying: "OUR STUDENTS AND TEACHERS ARE NOT TEST SCORES!!"

Perhaps nowhere has the approach drawn more attention -- and outrage -- than in Washington, which has probably taken value-added further than any other district in the country.

Former Chancellor Michelle Rhee said she came to the nation's capital three years ago knowing her changes would wreak political havoc. But she said she was willing to take on a system that was giving passing evaluations to 95% of teachers even as only 8% of students were performing at grade level in mathematics.

"How can you have a system where you're that misaligned?" Rhee asked in a recent interview. "For me, it's always about putting this in the lens of children and families ... as opposed to making this a fight between groups of adults."

She rolled out value-added analysis last year for a group of teachers in fourth through eighth grades. This year, administrators fired 75 of those teachers with poor appraisals and gave more than 700 others rated minimally effective one year to improve. The district also rewarded more than 630 "highly effective" educators with bonuses ranging from $3,000 to $25,000.

Value-added scores counted for half of a teacher's evaluation -- on the high end of what most other districts have endorsed -- and judgments were made on a year's worth of data, which some experts say is questionable. The rest of the review was based on five classroom observations and other measures.

Although Rhee was often favorably profiled in the national media as an outspoken reformer, her aggressive approach became an issue in the campaign for mayor, and she resigned after her ally, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the Democratic primary in September. Whether Washington retains the system now that Fenty and Rhee are out is an open question.

"Value-added is not ready for prime time," said George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union.

He said the system should have been tried first in a small number of schools. He also said Rhee did not adequately involve instructors in the planning after Congress gave administrators the right to impose it without collective bargaining. (Rhee and others said they involved more than 1,000 teachers through focus groups and feedback sessions.)

Vincent Gray, Washington's mayor-elect who defeated Fenty with strong backing from teachers, said he supports value-added but wanted to review the weight the test data have and "give people a chance to improve and rebut their evaluations."

Among teachers, the verdict was mixed.

Eric Bethel, who taught fifth-grade math and social studies until this year, when the district appointed him as a master educator to evaluate teachers, said he was initially wary. "I knew there was potential job loss if you were ineffective," he said.

But Bethel said he saw immediate advantages. By focusing on the individual progress of students year after year, value-added put aside factors that contribute to achievement disparities, such as family income, educational levels and English fluency, he said. His students, many of them poor children of immigrants, could not have matched the test scores of more privileged children but clearly improved their performance over last year, earning him a high value-added rating.

Bethel said he also liked another aspect of the new evaluation system: Teachers knew what was expected of them. A "blueprint" for teaching laid out specific teaching standards they would be judged on, such as providing positive reinforcement to students and using various instructional methods to accommodate different learning styles.

And then there were the rewards. Bethel received a $20,000 bonus -- a "game changer" that will provide the down payment for a home. He also won professional opportunities, such as his master educator job and a district fellowship to help shape teaching strategies.

"I don't think teachers need to be fearful about value-added," Bethel said. "They'll get more credit for what they're doing."

Brummell, however, remains perturbed that the fired teachers were not given enough help to improve. One was a friend.

"I believe in second chances," she said, noting that Rhee herself recounts her first year of teaching as a disaster.

She also said she wished other measures could be used besides standardized tests. Some of her students are weak test takers who break down in tears on testing day, she said.

As Los Angeles moves to revamp its own teacher evaluation system, Rhee offered two lessons gleaned from Washington's experience. First, effectively explain what value-added is to alleviate fears about it. Second, involve teachers early in the process.

On that point, union leaders agree. "Teachers must be included in the reform process to bring about lasting change. I have never seen successful reform imposed from the top down, with a my-way-or-the-highway approach," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Jason Kamras, a chief architect of the D.C. system, urged Los Angeles to "stick to your guns" in crafting a rigorous system in the face of political pressure.

"Kids' lives are at stake," he said.


Copyright © 2015, CT Now