Thursday, August 13, 2015

Careers on the Curve

God bless Sheri Lederman.

The New York teacher is in court this week, standing up for herself and for every teacher who suffers under New York's cockamamie evaluation system. If she wins, there will be shockwaves felt all across America where teachers are evaluated based on VAM-soaked idiocy.

There are plenty of folks covering the trial, though I recommend the blog of Alexandra Milleta, a teacher educator who went to high school with Lederman. Her coverage of the first day is a particularly clear view of how curves factor into all this mess.

Talking about the curve is the best way to help civilians understand why these teacher eval systems are giant heaps of baloney. If you're old enough, you remember curves because they suck-- get yourself in a class with the smart kids who all score 100% on a test and suddenly missed-one-question 95% is a C. Of course, younger civilians may not have such memories of the curve because over the past few decades most teachers have come to understand that curving is not a Best Practice.

Evaluating teachers on the curve means that even if the VAM-sauce score actually meant something, the teacher evaluation itself will not mean jack. In a system in which every single teacher is above the bar in excellence, those teachers who are the least above the bar will be labeled failures.

Let's be clear. This does not serve the interests of parents, students, schools or communities. In such a system the meaning of "excellence" changes every year, and teacher ratings have no connection to any absolute standard. This is like a measurement system in which, instead of clear measurements like 8 centimeters or 10 feet, items are measured "longer" or "shorter." It is meaningless and provides no useful information for parents, students, schools, communities, or the teachers themselves.

It serves the interests of one group, and one group only-- the group of policy makers who want to target some teachers for punishment. It is a particularly useful if that group doesn't really care which teachers it targets as long as it gets some of them.

As Milleta reports on the testimony of Professor Aaron Pallas of Teacher College, he makes several points about the capricious garbagosity of NY's system, including this:

Third, the model is not transparent on what “needs to be done to achieve effective or highly effective ratings” which is a requirement of the law. 

Actually, as with any norm-referenced test (particularly those in which the new norm is referenced freshly on the fly every time the test is given), we do know what needs to be done to get a better score or ranking-- in order for me to do better, my colleagues must do worse. Under such a ranking system, my colleagues and I are standing in a long line, and the closer to the head of the line I am, the better my score. So I need to get the people in front of me pushed back behind me somehow. At a minimum, I need to avoid helping them. If I'm a really nasty sumbitch, I can try to sabotage them.

At the very least, under this system, it is in my best interests to hope for the failure of my colleagues.

That's a career on the curve. Year to year uncertainty, knowing nothing for certain except that my colleagues and I can only succeed at the expense of each other, and that such success will ultimately be based on biased tilted twisted rankings that will shift from year to year for no rhyme nor reason.

Let's hope the court gets that. And even if it doesn't, let's hope that Sheri Lederman's suit will be an educational opportunity for the public.


  1. What a shame that almost all of us who are reading this already oppose VAM and that the public has been well-trained by the reformsters to write off any argument from lazy LIFO-lifer teachers as "defending failure".

  2. If we ever manage to get past this era of "accountability", it is my fondest hope that teachers will begin to apply some of these lessons to their students. If teachers (understandably) don't like to be graded and forced to compete for artificially scarce recognition and rewards and threatened with punishments, maybe kids don't either. Yes, getting rid of grading on a curve was a good thing. But maybe we need to get rid of grades altogether. And maybe competition too. Maybe all carrots and sticks.