On Test Scores in Evals and Changing My Mind

Disclaimer: The following is solely my own writing and thinking and should not be considered a policy statement of or by Teachers United or any organization/entity with which I am associated.

I have always been obsessed with how and when people are willing to change their minds. In my mid 20s I was fascinated by the the book Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. Well, that's not really true. I was obsessed by what Cleaver did after the book. After seven years in exile in Cuba, Algeria, and France, Cleaver went on to become a Republican. I was fascinated: how did a founding member of the Black Panther Party become a Reagan Republican? That is a Tarzan swing across the political spectrum in the US. How does one change their mind so much on so much?

All that said, in regards to education policy when confronted with compelling evidence, if we are being true to our calling as teachers we have an obligation to evolve. Or put differently, people who are too stubborn to change their minds when confronted with overwhelming evidence aren't worth listening to and I want you to listen to me in the future.

“That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking" Malcolm Gladwell.

Throughout the last year the loss and quest for restoration of Washington State's NCLB waiver has been one of the top ed policy issues in Olympia. It is still in my opinion one of the major reasons we still don't have a final state budget. At the beginning of the current legislative session I tweeted out something like: "The restoration of the waiver is a #1 priority for the legislature, teachers need to be proactively involved in the process to ensure a non-stupid outcome" (obviously paraphrased). A more thorough, non-Twitter statement might have included some of the following:

  • I work with a high poverty population and  my students score well on my AP exams I would have no personal problem with my students test performance being a factor in my evaluation.  

  • Buried somewhere in my lizard brain I think some of the most vociferous opponents of "testing" are more concerned about the light of data shining on their practice than the impact testing has on kids.

  • Existing Washington State law says standardized test scores "may" be a factor, this legislation turned can to "shall"--not a revolutionary change.

  • We have this ample test data coming from the various assessments and they can give us apples to apples snapshots of what's happening in classrooms, especially within buildings.  

  • Although we know that poverty has an impact student achievement (that's not strong enough language, but I have digressed enough) some people are able to cultivate tremendous amounts of growth in students while in other classrooms students in poverty actually regress. Grades and in class assessments alone simply don't tell us what's happening systemwide.

  • We still have great strides to make in regards to teacher quality: communities of poverty, students of color and especially students for whom those Venn Diagrams overlap and these exams can help us better identify people who are exceptional at helping those students grow academically.

Based on the above (all of which I still believe to varying levels) I advocated for the waiver, particularly because the language of SB5478 left how and how much the scores would be a factor up to local control through collective bargaining. It was a practical political calculation based on what I saw in the political tea leaves.

That changed on Saturday April 25 when I listened to Kim Larson a teacher leader from Spokane speak at the Washington State Capitol about how the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations was shaking her faith in our entire evaluation model. She shared that her entire department, all nine teachers are preparing to leave before the 2015-16 school year. I am passionate about retaining high quality educators. Kim's reputation in my teaching network is spotless and she's served as a TPEP trainer throughout the state. If someone who has invested so much in our evaluation model is so vehemently opposed to the inclusion of testing data in evaluations, if her colleagues are defecting in droves, if dedicated pedagogues like Kim aren't on board and moved so much to soulfully address a crowd of thousands then I realized I needed to reevaluate my stance.

I say often there is no magic teacher tree and that if we're going to improve the quality of schools in Washington it's going to be through a. identifying and retaining high quality teachers and b. further developing the current crop of teachers through high quality professional development (HB1345). That said, if a practice is so loathed by excellent educators, if a practice is so divisive, if a practice is so hated that excellent, solutions oriented teachers are saying it makes them want out of the career field and distrust the TPEP model, then in good conscious I can not support it.

Put plainly: retaining our best teachers is more valuable and more important to our students than $40 million in federal funds.

I was wrong. I have evolved (but I reserve the right to change my mind back later).