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Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie

Ohanian Comment: Here's a close-up view of value added evaluation by a master journalist. And don't miss the corporate formula heading up this column. It is a must-see object.

By Michael Winerip

No one at the Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies works harder than Stacey Isaacson, a seventh-grade English and social studies teacher. She is out the door of her Queens home by 6:15 a.m., takes the E train into Manhattan and is standing out front when the school doors are unlocked, at 7. Nights, she leaves her classroom at 5:30.

âSheâs very dedicated,â said Tejal Bahtt, a fellow teacher. âShe works way harder than I work. Yesterday I punched in at 7:10 and her time card was already there.â

Last year, when Ms. Isaacson was on maternity leave, she came in one full day a week for the entire school year for no pay and taught a peer leadership class.

Her principal, Megan Adams, has given her terrific reviews during the two and a half years Ms. Isaacson has been a teacher. âI know that this year had its moments of challenge â you always handled it with grace and presence,â the principal wrote on May 4, 2009. âYou are a wonderful teacher.â

On the first day of this school year, the principal wrote, âI look forward to being in your classroom and seeing all the great work you do with your students,â and signed it with a smiley face.

The Lab School has selective admissions, and Ms. Isaacsonâs students have excelled. Her first year teaching, 65 of 66 scored proficient on the state language arts test, meaning they got 3âs or 4âs; only one scored below grade level with a 2. More than two dozen students from her first two years teaching have gone on to Stuyvesant High School or Bronx High School of Science, the cityâs most competitive high schools.

âDefinitely one of a kind,â said Isabelle St. Clair, now a sophomore at Bard, another selective high school. âIâve had lots of good teachers, but she stood out â I learned so much from her.â

You would think the Department of Education would want to replicate Ms. Isaacson â who has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia â and sprinkle Ms. Isaacsons all over town. Instead, the departmentâs accountability experts have developed a complex formula to calculate how much academic progress a teacherâs students make in a year â the teacherâs value-added score â and that formula indicates that Ms. Isaacson is one of the cityâs worst teachers.

According to the formula, Ms. Isaacson ranks in the 7th percentile among her teaching peers â meaning 93 per cent are better.

This may seem disconnected from reality, but it has real ramifications. Because of her 7th percentile, Ms. Isaacson was told in February that it was virtually certain that she would not be getting tenure this year. âMy principal said that given the opportunity, she would advocate for me,â Ms. Isaacson said. âBut she said donât get your hopes up, with a 7th percentile, there wasnât much she could do.â

Thatâs not the only problem Ms. Isaacsonâs 7th percentile has caused. If the mayor and governor have their way, and layoffs are no longer based on seniority but instead are based on the cityâs formulas that scientifically identify good teachers, Ms. Isaacson is pretty sure sheâd be cooked.

She may leave anyway. She is 33 and had a successful career in advertising and finance before taking the teaching job, at half the pay.

âI love teaching,â she said. âI love my principal, I feel so lucky to work for her. But the people at the Department of Education â you feel demoralized.â

How could this happen to Ms. Isaacson? It took a lot of hard work by the accountability experts.

Everyone who teaches math or English has received a teacher data report. On the surface the report seems straightforward. Ms. Isaacsonâs students had a prior proficiency score of 3.57. Her students were predicted to get a 3.69 â based on the scores of comparable students around the city. Her students actually scored 3.63. So Ms. Isaacsonâs value added is 3.63-3.69.

What you would think this means is that Ms. Isaacsonâs students averaged 3.57 on the test the year before; they were predicted to average 3.69 this year; they actually averaged 3.63, giving her a value added of 0.06 below zero.


These are not averages. For example, the department defines Ms. Isaacsonâs 3.57 prior proficiency as âthe average prior year proficiency rating of the students who contribute to a teacherâs value added score.â


The calculation for Ms. Isaacsonâs 3.69 predicted score is even more daunting. It is based on 32 variables â including whether a student was âretained in grade before pretest yearâ and whether a student is ânew to city in pretest or post-test year.â

Those 32 variables are plugged into a statistical model that looks like one of those equations that in âGood Will Huntingâ only Matt Damon was capable of solving.

The process appears transparent, but it is clear as mud, even for smart lay people like teachers, principals and â I hesitate to say this â journalists.

Ms. Isaacson may have two Ivy League degrees, but she is lost. âI find this impossible to understand,â she said.

In plain English, Ms. Isaacsonâs best guess about what the department is trying to tell her is: Even though 65 of her 66 students scored proficient on the state test, more of her 3s should have been 4s.

But that is only a guess.

Moreover, as the city indicates on the data reports, there is a large margin of error. So Ms. Isaacsonâs 7th percentile could actually be as low as zero or as high as the 52nd percentile â a score that could have earned her tenure.

Teachers are eligible for tenure in their third year. To qualify, a teacher must be rated âeffectiveâ in three categories: instructional practices, including observations by the principal; contribution to the school community; and student achievement, including the teacher data report. Ms. Isaacson was rated effective on the first two.

The past chancellor, Joel I. Klein, imposed new policies to make tenure harder to earn.

In an e-mail, Matthew Mittenthal, a department spokesman said: âWe are saying that a teacherâs tenure decision should simply be delayed (not denied) until that teacher has demonstrated effective practice for consecutive years in all three categories. The alternative is what weâve had in the past â 90-plus percent of teachers who are up for tenure receive it. Do you think journalists deserve lifetime jobs after their third year in the business?â

The view seems to be gaining support.

However, the number of years that it should take to earn tenure does not get to the heart of the problem.

The tougher question, says Ms. Isaacson, is how to create a system that will fairly evaluate teachers, whether it is used to grant tenure or lay off teachers. âI donât have a problem looking at teachers based on merit,â she said. âEvery job I had, I was evaluated based on merit.â

Marya Friedman, a sophomore at Bronx Science, describes Ms. Isaacson as brimming over with merit. âI really liked how sheâd incorporate what we were doing in history with what we did in English,â Marya said. âIt was much easier to learnâ â which, of course, is what great teachers strive for.

— Michael Winerip
New York Times


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