New York Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has been downplaying the potential negative consequences of sweeping changes to teacher tenure and evaluation in the new state budget. On April 1st, she commented that the new system does not specifically say that test scores make up 50% of teacher evaluations and suggested that concerns over the weight given to tests was overblown. Dr. Tisch is technically correct which, as we all know, is the best kind of correct. The new evaluation law does not say scores are 50% and it leaves various weighting decisions to the Regents and the NYSED. However, the scoring matrix, which is in the law, has two axes, one of which is for test scores. I can count really well up to two, and it is fairly obvious the tests, as one axis out of two, are 50% of the evaluation (not to mention that both axes determine the outcome in the matrix roughly equally).
Dr. Tisch was back in the press this morning, suggesting that she thinks the new evaluation system should potentially be lifted from districts that have had strong records of student achievement. The upshot is that if a district has high graduation and college acceptance rates and strong “college readiness” (aka test scores), they could be freed from state regulations and allowed to craft their own evaluation and accountability systems within certain parameters. Dr. Tisch suggested that such changes could come from the Commissioner’s regulatory power, but she would also consider asking legislators to make amendments to the newly passed system allowing these changes. In her view, such changes in favor of high performing districts would “…give them the respect that they deserve for the job that they do, and let us turn our attention, our scarce resources and our capacity to the districts that really need us in terms of access and opportunity for students.”
It would also mean many fewer African American and Latino teachers would ever get tenure and many more of them would be fired.
Now I am not suggesting that Chancellor Tisch actually hopes to do this, but there are consequences to not thinking things through in policy. Exempting districts with records of high achievement from the new evaluation requirements would place a significantly heavier burden on teachers of color and result in their removal at disproportionate percentages. The reason for this is fairly simple: just as our communities and schools are segregated by race and income, so are our teachers. In New York State, 9.8% of teachers are Hispanic and 8.6% are African American. These numbers are not, however, even distributed across the state. In New York City, for example, African American teachers make up 19.6% of all teachers and Hispanic teachers are 14.4% of all teachers. The numbers shoot up when you are talking about schools with a high percentage of students in poverty:
Now we are talking about schools where 25.2% of the teachers are African American and 23.7% are Hispanic, while in schools that are low poverty, those numbers are only 12% and 8.2% respectively. That means of the roughly 21,000 African American teachers and the roughly 24,000 Hispanic teachers in the state of New York, 5,275 of the African American teachers and 4,961 of the Hispanic teachers work in high poverty schools in the city of New York alone.
Given the long known impact of poverty on school performance, it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science (or even a doctorate in education from Teachers College) to understand that schools with higher concentrations of poverty are going to be schools where more students struggle to demonstrate annual progress on standardized tests and that the teachers who teach them will have similar trouble demonstrating their “value added” to those test scores as required in the new evaluation. What percentage of new African American and Hispanic teachers in New York will struggle to and ultimately fail to reach “effective” for three out of four years in the new tenure process? What percentage of their more experienced colleagues will fluctuate between “ineffective” and “developing” because the lack of statistical validity given to one axis of the new evaluation matrix? How many schools with high concentrations of poor children and faculty who are disproportionately African American and Hispanic will be forced to sacrifice social studies, science, art, music, and health education in favor of mimicking the teaching practices of charter schools who emphasize test preparation for months of the school year?
Looking for a way to allow high income districts with good test scores to avoid the new evaluations might be a politically savvy move to allay growing discontent among outspoken parents. But it will also end up kicking teachers of color and their students right in the teeth as they, already hard pressed by test based accountability, will be the only ones to bear the full brunt of the new system.
The sad part is that Dr. Tisch is not entirely wrong, but her statement demonstrates only a minor understanding of how to use data to leverage system wide change. She suggests that relieving high performing districts would allow the NYSED to focus its efforts and resources on struggling districts, but she has not offered any insight into how that would work as a system that focuses on support and growth rather than on test and punish. It is possible to use system wide data to identify schools and school systems that can have greater autonomy, but the policy should be wedded to increasing resources and support within schools that struggle with the understanding that the vast majority of teachers want to do well by their students and that a great many are doing precisely that even if it is not captured on one test. Instituting a continuous improvement policy takes time and patience and resources — things for which Dr. Tisch has not recently demonstrated patience.
So I have to ask the Chancellor: If you uncouple wealthy districts from the new accountability system will you simultaneously implement a vastly different perspective for our struggling school districts with high levels of poverty? Will you embrace a support and growth model of system wide change and work to find ways to de-emphasize test and punish? Because if you do not, the end result of your suggestions will simply be to subject schools with a majority of poor students and high percentages of African American and Hispanic teachers to the kind of churn and burn faculty turnover that we tend to see in many urban charter schools while leaving teachers and students in the majority white suburbs largely untouched.
That cannot possibly be what you want — right, Dr. Tisch?