Should a teacher stay or should a teacher go? Help HISD decide how to answer this question.

Getting little attention this week but certainly one of the most important decisions up for a vote by the Houston ISD School Board is the matter of how to evaluate every teacher in the district. Very few parents know much about this system. At best, a preceptive parent will know the significant stress their teachers have about STAAR scores, but I’ll explain why all of us should care about the details.

This Thursday, after just recently voting to cut funding to classrooms by millions, the HISD School Board will vote to renew a contract worth close to $700,000 for a 3rd party to evaluate teachers (Agenda Page 76). A contract to a company who is the only bidder. A contract in which bids weren’t even taken — pretty bold for a district that has been rife with procurement scandals.

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All in the name of accountability.

Prior to 2011 in HISD, teachers were evaluated in a traditional manner — through occasional observations by their principals. In 2011, in an effort to improve upon the system and doing so at a time when Terry Grier’s HISD was looking to be more “data-driven,” the district decided to adopt a completely new evaluation system. The new system would utilize STAAR scores as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation (later changed to 30%) for all teachers in STAAR grades and subjects (majority). The rest of the evaluation came from a complex rubric with inputs from principals or other administrators. However, since 50% of principal evaluations are based STAAR scores and the annual superintendent bonuses were determined by metrics 100% derived from STAAR scores, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand what mattered most. STAAR.

And it gets worse.

Houston ISD doesn’t merely track scores and rank its teachers. To counter concerns about the fairness of judging different teachers with different kids by a single standard, HISD outsources the process to data analytics giant SAS. While being cash-strapped and cutting millions from classroom budgets, HISD has paid millions of dollars for a proprietary formula from SAS — a secret formula — parts of which have been determined invalid by statistical experts.

Underlying it all though is the flawed STAAR assessment itself. There are ALL kinds of reasons why a child might perform poorly on this single assessment given on a single day of the year. Those reasons include anxiety, depression, domestic issues, not eating breakfast, presence of a disability, language barriers, among others, and many of which are correlated to poverty.  Research has been conducted that demonstrates that these tests are correlated with socioeconomic status and are NOT sensitive to instruction. Let that sink in. The tests are NOT sensitive to instruction

Now, I ask you:

Is poverty the teacher’s fault? No. Poverty isn’t the teacher’s fault.

Can we hold teachers accountable based on a measure that doesn’t measure a teacher’s effectiveness? No. We cannot.

The results of this policy are disastrous. Teachers say they teach the same way every year yet one year they get high ratings on their evaluation and the next year they’re placed on a growth plan. Additionally, because this model is ineffective, our very best teachers don’t put up with being evaluated by it and leave. And the good teachers that do stay are incented to move out of schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Each year, rather than finding and rewarding great teachers for doing hard work and staying in the district, HISD pays large recruiting bonuses to bring teachers to tough schools or pays Teach for America significant finders fees to fill its roster with novice teachers direct from being students themselves.

Another terrible side effect is that your child feels the stress.

Some teachers, under extraordinary pressure, end up conveying to their students that their job depends on student STAAR performance. An easy thing to communicate when teachers are already telling their students being promoted at the end of the year is determined by passing STAAR as well. Teachers and students in the same high stakes boat. A boat they get into starting in 3rd grade.

Over the years since this change in HISD, we’ve arrived a place where the majority of teachers in HISD have less than 5 years experience and STAAR scores directly determine a teacher’s livelihood. When opt-out parents say they’re protesting “high stakes” assessments, this is at the top of the list. Because why should a questionable assessment given on a single day of the year determine the outcome of whether a teacher stays or whether a teacher goes?

So this is where you come in. Our school board has a weak stomach. They don’t like to be the center of controversy. They like their pictures in the paper handing out awards and being admired by their communities. They do not like being blamed for unhappy teachers or unhappy parents. And they certainly don’t like the appearance they are wasting “hard earned tax dollars.”

We must speak up.

Call or email the board, but calling is a lot harder to ignore.

Dial HISD Board Services at 713.556.6121 and leave a message for all trustees to “Vote No on EVAAS Contract Extension.”

If we ring the phone off of the hook for two days straight ahead of this board meeting, we might just win this one back. We are likely 4 votes for, 4 votes against with 1 undecided. A large amount of calls and emails might just push us over the top and reverse this 5 year disaster of teacher management and culture.

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