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Unintended Consequences

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Unintended Consequences

A recent article in Time Magazine describes the inexplicable loss of honeybee colonies in the U.S., along with the dire implications for farming and human life itself.  The cause of the massive loss of bee colonies is unknown, but the main concern has to do with unintended consequences--like using pesticides that are intended to kill harmful insects, but may end up killing the bees, too.

What does this have to do with education?  In reading this article, I was reminded about a situation faced by a colleague recently.  This STOY teaches in a state that has adopted an evaluation system that uses multiple measures.  One of these is a measure based on student scores; teachers in core subjects are held accountable to the scores of their own students on the state’s standardized tests, while teachers in non-core subjects are held accountable to an average of the scores of all students in the school on these tests.

This teacher does not teach a core subject and teaches children with special needs, so falls into that latter category.  In this particular state, the multiple measures were compiled so that student test scores comprise 50% of the total of the individual teacher’s evaluation score.  These scores are used to determine teacher effectiveness.

The teacher in question has chosen to teach in a high-needs, urban school district; in a school that is not well-resourced, with a very high percentage of students who live in poverty, who did not perform well on the state tests.  As a result, this teacher was not classified as an effective teacher.

Because of this status, the teacher is ineligible to serve as a coach or mentor for other teachers.  S/he is also ineligible to participate in teacher leadership programs, sharing expertise with others.  By the way – this teacher is not only an individual selected to represent his/her state as a STOY, but was a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in his/her year of recognition.

I know some of the people in the State Education Agency in this state; they are good people who truly want is best for all children – and their teachers.  They did involve teachers in the development of the evaluation system that was adopted.  I do not know if the percentage of the evaluation that was determined by student test scores was set by the state, or by the committee that developed the system.

In describing this situation, this teacher recently asked the question, “What should I do?”  I am now paraphrasing – s/he said, “I can leave my school and go to teach in a better-resourced school, with students who are better prepared for learning, and who score better on the tests.  Then, I would be classified an effective teacher, would be able to coach/mentor others, and would be able to participate in teacher leader activities.  But, the school that I am in is the school that needs me.  These children need me. I can’t leave them simply to benefit myself.”

Another of our STOYs, a National as well as State Teacher of the Year has requested this year to be moved out of his/her rather well-resourced school and into the neediest school in the State where teaching.  This was a difficult decision, but one that was made in order to do what is truly best for the students in most need of an excellent teacher.  Will this teacher face the same dilemma at the beginning of next year?

Evaluation systems in industry are designed in order to provide employees with actionable feedback, feedback that is used to identify areas of strength so that these staff can help others; and feedback to determine areas in which the employee needs to develop and grow.  Evaluation is used to determine the kinds of professional learning experiences with which to provide staff, to identify potential leaders, to make decisions about promotion and remediation, and compensation.  In extreme cases, it can be used to notify staff that they are not performing well and to place them on improvement plans; if improvement is not shown, they then should be let go.  These systems were not designed to take great employees and tell them that they are not performing well.

By all measures except the evaluation system used, our teacher was a high-performer. To be selected as STOY is an arduous process in most states and is one that validates great teachers.  How was this individual a high-performer at the beginning of the school year and not effective at its end?

This is a perfect example of why teacher voices are needed when policy decisions are made.  Teachers could have pointed out that, as we are increasing rigor on standardized tests by implementing Common Core State Standards, putting such a large emphasis on the results of these tests – tests that will change in the near future - may not be wise.

This is particularly true in the case of teachers for whom student performance is measured by whole-school performance rather than by students they directly touch.  Teachers could have pointed out that other measures might be more valid and reliable in this era of change – measures like observation, student survey data, parent survey data, or others.

No one in this state set out to develop a system that would produce false negatives, as was the case here.  This was an unintended consequence of an evaluation system developed with good intentions, but perhaps insufficient thought given to impact on good teachers.

Most states developed evaluation systems not to fire teachers, but to help strengthen teaching forces.  No state developed them to get rid of excellent teachers. This is an unintended consequence.

We saw another example of this in New York State recently, where standardized tests tied to the CCSS were introduced before teachers were given adequate training or time to prepare their students for these more rigorous tests.  The result?  Demoralized teachers and significantly lower test scores without sufficient preparation or understanding as to why the drop occurred.  This was the opposite result from that in Kentucky, a state where leadership took steps to educate teachers, parents, and the business community about the likely drop in test scores, why the drop would occur, and how the state would help teachers remedy it in future.

NNSTOY believes that all teachers want to be held accountable, that we want to be held to rigorous standards, and that we know that valid measure of our own performance is that of our students.  We also know that if our voices – teacher voices – are not part of the conversations, and the decision-making processes in designing these systems, we will continue to see unintended consequences.

As millions of teachers head back to school in the next few weeks, the teacher I’ve spoken of here will not be returning to the same classroom as the school was deemed failing and is undergoing restructuring.  This teacher is now working with new teachers in a different setting. The teacher will touch the lives of even more children through these new teachers, but transitioning from working directly with children is painful for this excellent teacher.

Unfortunately, at least eleven STOYs will also not be returning to their classrooms this Fall; the lack of leadership opportunities while staying in the classroom has forced them to find other avenues through which to lead – another story and another unintended consequence – when we empower teachers and fail to value them as leaders, we will lose them.

This is a travesty for the teachers; it is a tragedy for the students these teachers would have taught and the colleagues these teachers might have helped to grow.

The Time article tells us that if we continue to lose our bees, in four years, there may be no humans.  We should wonder what the impact will be if we continue to lose our excellent teachers.




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