City official and biggest critic find slivers of common ground

Put the Department of Education’s Deputy Chancellor for Accountability Shael Polakow-Suransky in a room with Diane Ravitch, one of the city’s most outspoken critics, and you might reasonably expect sparks to fly.

But when NYU’s Wagner Education Policy Studies Association put them together on a panel earlier this week, where they agreed turned out to be notable.

The topic of the panel was how federal involvement shapes local education policy. (I moderated the panel; Evan Stone, the founder of Educators 4 Excellence, also spoke.)

Ravitch opened by sharply criticizing the move to hold teachers and schools accountable for their students’ scores on standardized tests. But when talk turned to how future standardized tests should be built, Ravitch and Suransky agreed with each other. Ravitch said:

I’m very supportive of the idea of developing new assessments, and I think it’s a very important thing. But it will take years.

Just as these common core standards were written in a little over a year — it took me three years working on the California history standards. I worked on history standards in other states, and it was never done in only a year. So I would like to think that it’s going to take a lot of time to do this well because anything that’s done hurriedly is not going to survive….

I’m very happy that there’s money out there to develop new tests, but don’t think that they’re going to be available next year or the year after. If they’re good tests, it could be three to five years. And then they have to be tried out….So this is not going to be in time for the next election.

Suransky, who is working with one of the groups of states using federal funds to design new tests, responded:

I would agree with that statement, and I think we might have actually some common ground on those points.

The one point I would like to emphasize, though, is at the same time that this work is underway — you can only get to good assessments through going through the deep process that you describe. That has to happen and that work has begun. And so I think that’s promising.

There’s no reason why we have to wait to begin working with teachers and kids on the kinds of skills and the kind of practices that they to engage in. And so I think that even though it will take time for the state to get its act together and for the national consortium to field test — and that’s why it’s going to take four years — there’s nothing that prevents schools and school districts from engaging deeply on this work now.

And I think that’s part of that intent, because ultimately the reason for assessment is to motivate what happens in the classroom. If it doesn’t actually lead to good practice in the classroom then it’s undermining practice in the classroom. And so this is an opportunity. This is a moment where there’s an opportunity to shift the direction of practice in the classroom and to push on the level of rigor and to actually figure out what is it that kids and teachers need in order to engage in that type of practice.

Ravitch and Suransky also weighed in on whether the city should release the names and performance ratings of thousands of city teachers. After several city news outlets requested the scores through freedom of information requests, the teachers union sued to stop the city from releasing the ratings. The city agreed to wait to release the scores until a hearing in court next month, but Chancellor Joel Klein has come out strongly in favor of publicizing the ratings.

Suransky explained why the city had been hesitant to release the scores with teachers’ names in the past, but why he thinks it should do so now:

We’ve had the scores for two and a half years and we haven’t made them public up until now because of two reasons. One, we don’t want an individual teacher to get called out in public in a way that is disrespectful and attacking them; and second, we know there is a tremendous amount of context that needs to be understood around the scores and we were still working on fine-tuning the tools. And they’ve gotten a lot better based on the feedback of principals like [P.S. 321's] Liz Phillips….

But if it does come out I think that what we will show when we release it is: we’ll show those confidence intervals, we’ll show what the error band is around each teacher’s scores, we’ll talk about how schools are using that data; and I think that it may have a value for many parents. Because honestly if I was a parent, I don’t know that I would feel good about the Department of Education deciding that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out the nuances of this data. And I think that a lot of parents would like to know it, and so we’ll need to work with the community to help them understand it. That isn’t the choice that we would have ultimately made, but it seems to be the choice that we’re bound to make under the law.

Ravitch responded that while she does think teachers’ value-added scores have some use, they should not be published in newspapers:

It’s the release of the names that I find objectionable. Because suppose you then have smart parents — and by the way, the DOE has never cared about what parents think about anything up to now, except to get the names and test score data for their teachers — but supposing parents are really smart, and 90 percent of the parents want 10 percent of the teachers. This seems to me it’s going to be a problem….

I think the supervisor should use these numbers to make judgments about tenure, to make judgments about who gets due process and who doesn’t, who should be fired and who shouldn’t — it seems appropriate to me, in the context of having sat in the persons class. But to make them public creates the kind o situation that the LA Times did, where — you may or may not know this — a teacher there committed suicide.  And he had been rated less effective by the Los Angeles Times, not by his supervisors. The deputy superintendent John Deasy said that his personnel files showed that he had very high ratings; he was considered one of the best teachers in the school. And he took it very seriously when there was a published database calling him a less effective teacher.

Now maybe he committed suicide for some other reason but his family and colleagues said this was incredibly depressing to him. He was working in a gang infested neighborhood, fifth grade teacher for 14 years, and his colleagues said he was the one who went after the toughest kids and brought them back. And he committed suicide. Was that because of publishing his score and humiliating him? I don’t know, but I think you have to think about all the consequences not just the ones you intend.

Source: Maura Walz