Problems With Student/Teacher Performance Linkage

Linking student performance to teachers is a dubious undertaking. Sherman Dorn explains why:
Longitudinal data systems, good; unique teacher linkage, bad

Diane Ravitch's blog entry this morning seriously disparages the value of longitudinal data systems, including the linking of teachers to students, and John Thompson's entry discusses the abuse of data by administrators. Essentially, both Ravitch and Thompson fear the brain-dead or conscious abuse of data to judge teachers out of context. That's also the reason why NYSUT (the New York state joint NEA-AFT affiliate) worked hard to convince the legislature to put a moratorium on using test scores to make tenure decisions; Joel Klein was moving very quickly, and I think UFT and NYSUT had good reason to believe that without the moratorium, there would be substantial abuses of test data in NYC (and elsewhere) in tenure decisions.

My take: longitudinal data systems are a good thing, but linking teachers to students is a much more fragile undertaking.

Florida has a longitudinal data system that began in the early 1990s and has been used for 10 years to judge schools based on test data. Approximately ten years ago, I sat in a windowless room in Tallahassee as a Florida DOE member discussed the new A-plus system and a variety of technical decisions tied to it, and for which he had brought stakeholders and a few yahoos from around the state to give advice. I was one of the unpaid yahoos who had the great joy of flying in tiny airplanes several hundred miles a few times a year to give advice on the matters.

We had so many matters to discuss that one minor conversation was almost overlooked: a state mandate that required that the FDOE link each student to a teacher primarily responsible for reading and math. One state official showed us a draft form and then explained the concerns he had about it: in his view, the state that had tried that a few years earlier (Tennessee) had multiple conceptual difficulties connecting individual teachers to individual students. But they had run roughshod over those concerns, and he anticipated that Florida would do the same.

It wasn't a matter of letting teachers off the hook (this now-retired professional staffer is what I think of as an accountability hawk) but logic and sense. How many physics and chemistry teachers help students understand algebra better? How many history teachers help students with writing or reading? For students receiving special education services in a pull-out system, do you want only the special educator to be responsible for a subject, or do you want both the general-ed classroom teacher and the special educator to have responsibility? This spring, my wife (a math major and special educator) is tutoring a local child in math on weekends or evenings; so who should get credit for how he performed on testing in the last week, his teachers in school or my wife? Today, you can add NCLB supplemental educational services (or after-school tutoring) to the mix.

The larger point: even if you decide to wave away the concerns of Richard Rothstein and others, even if you focus entirely on what happens in academic environments, it is fallacious to link every student performance with a single teacher. If we are providing the appropriate supports for children, then the students with the lowest performance are the ones for whom such unique linkage assumptions are the least justifiable, because they may be receiving academic support from general education classroom teachers, from special educators, from after-school tutors, and maybe mentors or other providers in neighborhood support organizations (such as Geoffrey Canada's). Today, I do not think one can parcel out responsibility without making assumptions that have no basis in empirical research. Those who support individual teacher linkage have the burden to demonstrate otherwise.

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