'Performance Counts' and other billionaires' bullshit... Even The New York Times has found that so-called 'value-added' teacher rankings are based on what amounts to voodoo science

After the State of Illinois was treated to a couple of virtually secret hearings on December 16 and December 17, 2010, to rush the so-called "Performance Counts" legislation through the Illinois General Assembly by January 11, to the few people who actually listened to every word given as testimony at the hearings the question was simple: How can anyone believe this bullshit?

Advance Illinois director Robin Steans (above right) testified on December 16, 2010, before the "School Reform" hearing of the Illinois House of Representatives without any member of the committee challenging her qualifications to speak about complex teacher evaluation procedures that her group was proposing through the "Performance Counts" bill now moving into law in Illinois. Steans's testimony was not made public and she did not provide it to Substance despite a request, possibly because many of the claims made it it have been disproven by actual research. With Steans above are two representatives who spoke on behalf of a group called "Stand for Children", which didn't even have an office in Illinois when it contributed more than $600,000 to candidates (including two members of the "School Reform Committee", Keith Farnham — $50,000 — and Jehan Gordon — $100,000) during the five weeks before the November 2, 2010 elections. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.While virtually every professional educator and experienced community organizer devoted hours trying to remind the eight members of the hastily appointed "School Reform Committee" of the Illinois House of Representatives that it was not possible to do "Performance" evaluations of teachers based on dubious test score data, a handful of highly paid staff members with almost no teaching or training in education or research was allowed to parade unchallenged before the committee and peddle what would be recognized as statistical and scientific nonsense were it not for the fact that the two groups providing the support of the "Performance Counts" legislation are bankrolled to the tune of several million dollars by some of the wealthiest people in the Chicago area and the USA, and they have already shoveled an unprecedented amount of money into Illinois politics.

During the testimony of witnesses on "School Reform" from groups called "Advance Illinois" and "Stand for Children," the members of the "School Reform" committee virtually purred in agreement with the wealthy speakers. Virtually no critical questions were asked either about the qualifications of the Advance Illinois and Stand for Children crowd or the validity of the supposed "data" that they and their few supporters from elsewhere sprayed around during their talks.

The assumption from the beginning was that "Performance Counts" was a done deal for Illinois, and everyone who was skeptical about it was supposed to sit down and cow because the committee — and the promise to railroad through the legislation — were the darlings of House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Chicago Democrat who has been bashing the Chicago Teachers Union since he helped get the 1995 Amendatory Act passed and bashing public education since long before that.

Above, three of the members of the Illinois House "School Reform Committee". Left to right, Keith Farnham, who received a $50,000 campaign contribution from "Stand for Children" a month before the November election, Democratic Representative Linda Chapa La Via, and Republican Representative Roger Eddy. In order to maintain the claim that corporate "school reform" in Illinois is "bipartisan," Chapa La Via and Eddy are co-chairs of the "School Reform Committee" established following the Stand for Children contributions by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Not that it matters in Illinois whether a particularly bad set of ideas has any good reasons behind it. The voters will never get to find out what was said at the hearings, because the House School Reform Committee is not making available a transcript of its hearings, and the only way to get the video is to pay a privatized group called Blueroom for the privilege. Only those who privately taped, transcribed, and studied what was actually said by whom during the hearings would have access to the important activities. The public does not.

On December 27, 2010, however, the venerable New York Times, often a fan of the latest fads in corporate "school reform", shocked many of its readers by completely debunking the claims upon which so-called "value added" rankings of teachers are based. And the Times is simply catching up with all the credible research on the same topic. Conclusion, for anyone paying attention to both the fine print and the large-scale details: Value added is bullshit as a way of measuring schools, classrooms, and the teachers in them.

NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE OF DECEMBER 27, 2010, On Line posted December 26, 2010, published on Page One of the national edition of The New York Times December 27, 2010. Hurdles Emerge in Rising Effort to Rate Teachers, By SHARON OTTERMAN

For the past three years, Katie Ward and Melanie McIver have worked as a team at Public School 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, teaching a fourth-grade class. But on the reports that rank the city's teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores, Ms. Ward’s name is nowhere to be found.

“I feel as though I don’t exist,” she said last Monday, looking up from playing a vocabulary game with her students.

Down the hall, Deirdre Corcoran, a fifth-grade teacher, received a ranking for a year when she was out on child-care leave. In three other classrooms at this highly ranked school, fourth-grade teachers were ranked among the worst in the city at teaching math, even though their students’ average score on the state math exam was close to four, the highest score.

“If I thought they gave accurate information, I would take them more seriously,” the principal of P.S. 321, Elizabeth Phillips, said about the rankings. “But some of my best teachers have the absolute worst scores,” she said, adding that she had based her assessment of those teachers on “classroom observations, talking to the children and the number of parents begging me to put their kids in their classes.”

It is becoming common practice nationally to rank teachers for their effectiveness, or value added, a measure that is defined as how much a teacher contributes to student progress on standardized tests. The practice was strongly supported by President Obama’s education grant competition, Race to the Top, and large school districts, including those in Houston, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, have begun to use a form of it.

But the experience in New York City shows just how difficult it can be to come up with a system that gains acceptance as being fair and accurate. The rankings are based on an algorithm that few other than statisticians can understand, and on tests that the state has said were too narrow and predictable. Most teachers’ scores fall somewhere in a wide range, with perfection statistically impossible. And the system has also suffered from the everyday problems inherent in managing busy urban schools, like the challenge of using old files and computer databases to ensure that the right teachers are matched to the right students.

All of this was not as important when the teacher rankings were an internal matter that principals could choose to heed or ignore. City officials had pledged to the teachers’ union that the rankings would not be used in the evaluation of teachers and that they would resist releasing them to the public.

But over the past several months, the system of teacher rankings has been catapulted to one of the most contentious issues facing the city’s 80,000-member teaching force. A new state law, passed this year to help New York win Race to the Top money, pledges that by 2013, 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on a value-added system. The city has begun urging principals to consider rankings when deciding whether to grant tenure. And the city now supports the release of the data to the 12 media organizations, including The New York Times, that have requested it.

The departing schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, defended the release of the rankings in an e-mail to school staff members, acknowledging that they had limitations but calling them “the fairest systemwide way we have to assess the real impact of teachers on student learning.”

“For too long,” Mr. Klein wrote, “parents have been left out of the equation, left to pray each year that the teacher greeting their children on the first day of school is truly great, but with no real knowledge of whether that is the case, and with no recourse if it’s not.”

But the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, has sued to keep names in the rankings private, arguing that the data is flawed and would result in unnecessary harm to the reputation of teachers. The matter is now before Justice Cynthia Kern of State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

New York City began ranking teachers in the 2007-8 school year as part of a pilot project intended to improve classroom instruction. The project, which cost $1.3 million, with an additional $2.3 million budgeted over the next 18 months, was expanded in the 2008-9 school year to give rankings to more than 12,000 fourth- through eighth-grade teachers.

On the second day of the hearings, Robin Steans was joined by Chicago's R. Eden Martin (center), who chairs the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. Martin, who authored the disastrous "Renaissance 2010" privatization plan for Mayor Richard M. Daley, insisted that by this year "Performance" of individual teachers and the ban on teacher strikes in Illinois was the best way to implement the latest iteration of what he calls "school reform." Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.In New York City, a curve dictates that each year 50 percent of teachers will receive “average” rankings, 20 percent each “above average” and “below average,” and 5 percent each “high” and “low.” Teachers get separate rankings for math and English.

In support of the model, Douglas Staiger, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, cites research showing that if a teacher receives a high-performing score one year, there is a modest likelihood that he or she will receive a high-performing score the following year. The correlation is about 0.3, he said, with 1 being perfect, and 0 being no correlation. This means that about one-third of teachers ranked in the top 25 percent would appear among the top quarter of teachers the next year.

While that year-to-year link may seem low, in the budding and messy exercise of trying to quantify what makes students learn, it is one of the strongest predictors of future student performance, along with the reduction of class size. That means that, on average, students placed for a year with a high-value-added teacher will do better than those placed with a low-value-added teacher. Dr. Staiger placed the improvement at about three percentile points on a typical standardized test.

“This information is useful but has to be used with caution,” he said. “It’s that middle ground. It’s not useless, but it’s not perfect.”

Yet a promising correlation for groups of teachers on the average may be of little help to the individual teacher, who faces, at least for the near future, a notable chance of being misjudged by the ranking system, particularly when it is based on only a few years of scores. One national study published in July by Mathematica Policy Research, conducted for the Department of Education, found that with one year of data, a teacher was likely to be misclassified 35 percent of the time. With three years of data, the error rate was 25 percent. With 10 years of data, the error rate dropped to 12 percent. The city has four years of data.

The most extensive independent study of New York’s teacher rankings found similar variability. In math, about a quarter of the lowest-ranking teachers in 2007 ended up among the highest-ranking teachers in 2008. In English, most low performers in 2007 did not remain low performers the next year, said Sean P. Corcoran, the author of the study for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, who is an assistant professor of educational economics at New York University.

The high margin of error for most scores, something the city refers to as the confidence interval, is another source of uncertainty, Dr. Corcoran said. In math, judging a teacher over three years, the average confidence interval was 34 points, meaning a city teacher who was ranked in the 63rd percentile actually had a score anywhere between the 46th and 80th percentiles, with the 63rd percentile as the most likely score. Even then, the ranking is only 95 percent certain. The result is that half of the city’s ranked teachers were statistically indistinguishable.

Not all of the outrageous claims against public schools were made by millionaire members of corporate school reform groups. On the first day of the hearing, Chicago's "Chief Human Capital Officer" Alicia Winckler read from a script that included the claim that only six our of one hundred Chicago 9th graders completes a "four-year college" by age 25. The statement made by Winckler was typical of the Chicago bashing that was taking place during the hearings, but nobody on the "School Reform Committee" asked Winckler her qualifications to speak about public education. At the time of her December 16, 2010 testimony, Winckler had been in office in Chicago precisely one year. Her previous experience had been in corporate America, her most recent job at Sears Holdings. Her qualifications to testify about complex educational questions are nil, but no member of the "School Reform Committee" challenged her credentials or the stories she was repeating. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.“The issue is when you try to take this down to the level of the individual teacher, you get very little information,” Dr. Corcoran said. The only rankings that people can put any stock in, he said, are those that are “consistently high or low,” but even those are imperfect.

“So if you have a teacher consistently in the top 10 percent,” he said, “the chances are she is doing something right, and a teacher in the bottom 10 percent needs some attention. Everything in between, you really know nothing.”

In New York, the rankings face an additional set of issues. The state tests on which they were based became, over time, too predictable and easy to pass, and this summer the state began to toughen standards. Daniel Koretz, a Harvard professor whose research helped persuade the state to toughen standards, said that as a result it was impossible to know whether rising scores in a classroom were due to inappropriate test preparation or gains in real learning. Rankings that include the tougher standards will not be available until the next academic year.

“It would make sense to wait until the problems with the state test are sorted out, because we are going to get it wrong a lot of the time,” Dr. Koretz said.

City officials defended using the state tests as a basis for the rankings, saying that they remained predictive of other outcomes, like graduation rates. Echoing Dr. Corcoran, the officials said they were most interested in identifying teachers at the extremes. “We have read the studies on it, and it is the best quantitative method that we have,” said John White, a deputy chancellor. “When used in concert with other pieces of information, it can help us judge teacher effectiveness.”

Beyond the formulas and tests, individual errors — like the one that led Ms. Ward to be left out altogether — have generated controversy. The teachers’ union claims that it has found at least 200 such errors, including teachers’ getting rankings for subjects they did not teach (sometimes they did well, sometimes poorly). Mr. White would not provide an estimate for the error rate, but noted that principals had 18 months to correct mistakes in class lists, starting from when the scores were first distributed.

Mr. White said on Tuesday that before the next round of rankings was released, teachers would be able to review class lists to verify which students they taught, a practice that generally did not happen in the past. Douglas N. Harris, an economist affiliated with the center at the University of Wisconsin that produces the city’s rankings, called the science behind them promising, and said that they had jump-started a wider effort to come up with better measures of teacher performance, which was long overdue.

But Dr. Harris urged caution in reading too much into the early crop of rankings, and added, “As a general rule, you should be worried when the people who are producing something are the ones who are most worried about using it.”


December 27, 2010 at 4:40 PM

By: Kathy Jacobs

It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business.

In an NPR article by Larry Abramson about cookie cutting great teachers (“Watch Again: Helping Teachers Improve Via Video”) the Gates Foundation is once more purporting to philanthropically assist teachers. In Memphis teachers have volunteered to be videotaped as part of the foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) program. Supposedly, this clinical approach to improving teaching is the solution we’ve been waiting for. “The video is sent to researchers off-site who will never speak with the teachers they are watching. Those analysts will scientifically code the steps that teachers like Davis [one of the teachers participating in the videotaping] use to reach their students.”

After one finishes singing kum ba yah, one has to continue reading the article where one will find a quote by the District Coordinator of the MET program: “Monica Jordan, who is coordinating the project for the district, says the district sees MET as a pathway to get away from subjective measures of teaching used in the past. She says it could lead to frank advice and a conversation like this for those who don't measure up: ‘Because we've measured you and then we've tried to coach you in these ways to get you up that teacher effectiveness continuum, and you haven't shown progress, we need to have a serious conversation about WHETHER THIS PROFESSION IS A GOOD FIT FOR YOU (caps added).’”

Not a “good fit” is code for “get the hell out.” It is used by principals who want to bully teachers out of their buildings rather than stand in the dock and spout the idiotic assertions they make on paper to an uncaring Human Resources Department.

Great teaching is an art. It is not test prep. Its qualities are as unquantifiable as those that make great actors, great surgeons, great mothers, great people. Bill Gates ought to stick to computers and quit trying to build himself a school district.

December 28, 2010 at 7:54 PM

By: Sign the petition

The Illinois General Assembly

is currently considering rushing through a radical new law that will eliminate educational employees rights to negotiate a contract and have a fair dismissal process.

Tell the Illinois General Assembly to work together with parents and teachers before passing new laws that affect our children and our schools.

Sign the Illinois Kids First petition.

As you know, parents, teachers and education professionals want the very best for their kids. Together, we can create learning environments where excellence not only is demanded but also is achieved, where young minds are nurtured and goals surpassed. So, who better to be a part of shaping policies to improve Illinois schools?

But some out-of-state special interest groups are trying to silence Illinois parents and teachers and are encouraging the General Assembly to rush through a radical new law.

Sign the Illinois Kids First online petition today and tell our elected officials that progress can’t be made unless educators and parents have a seat at the table.

As noted education historian Diane Ravitch said, “This is not what successful nations do. … They seek teamwork, not punishment” when it comes to public education.

We need to work together, explore the best possible solutions and embrace results-proven classroom reforms. That’s the only way we can give our kids the education they deserve. In the end, their success is all that matters. We need to put Illinois Kids First.

P.S. Join Illinois Kids First on Facebook at and share with your friends.

December 31, 2010 at 4:00 PM

By: Yvonne R. Mullen

The selection of the committee

What credential do the persons on the committe have to make decisions about teaching. I think more infomation should be made public about contributions to their office and how they may have a hidden agenda on this subject.

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

2 + 3 =