The Star had a worthwhile idea for an education story. Two writers decided to look at how districts in the Tucson area handle teacher evaluations
. The interactive map on the website and the chart in the newsprint version show that some districts are more generous than others in awarding high ratings to their teachers. Interesting. Definitely worth analyzing and discussing. Unfortunately, the article loses credibility with its opening which implies that you can correlate teachers' effectiveness with their students' achievement scores. Later in the story, a more nuanced picture is presented, but the damage done in the opening paragraphs can't be undone.
And the article quotes one out-of-state "expert" to corroborate its basic thesis, Sandi Jacobs of the National Council for Teacher Quality. In the article, she's portrayed as an objective observer who is commenting from on high. And a group whose title says it's all about Teacher Quality — who can argue with that? Apparently not the authors of the article who, I'm guessing, didn't look very far into the history and conservative biases of Jacobs or the NCTQ.
Look at the opening paragraph of the article:
Nine in 10 Pima County teachers are rated good or great — but that is not always evident in their students’ achievement scores.
That's a real grabber. It pulls you right into the story. But it also perpetuates a dangerous misconception: that teachers can't be effective if their students have low scores on state tests. I guess that means the ability of teachers at schools with students from low income households, sometimes households where English isn't the primary language, should be suspect since their students don't do well on state tests. How can they possibly be as good as teachers up in the Foothills and Marana and Oro Valley where the students do so well on the same tests? Unfortunately, that's an attitude that our anti-public education Republican legislators and their compatriots in the "education reform"/privatization movement would like to perpetuate, and the Star article helps them in their mission.
In the next paragraph, the point is hammered home.
Some districts reported nearly unanimous high ratings for teachers even though their schools received low grades for student achievement and other standards.
I guess that means, logically, that a district with with an A grade from the state would have more reason to rate its teachers highly than a district with a low grade.
Didn't get the point? Then read the next paragraph.
Tucson’s two largest school districts — Tucson Unified School District and Sunnyside — rated almost all their teachers good or great despite being among Pima County’s lowest-scoring districts on the state’s math, reading and writing assessments.
In the newsprint edition, those opening paragraphs, along with a quote from Sandi Jacobs of the National Council for Teacher Quality, are front page news. The rest of the article, which has a more subtle analysis of the relationship between student scores and teacher quality, is continued inside the paper. As anyone in journalism knows, most readers don't get much farther than the first few paragraphs of a story, and if they do, their reading of the rest is influenced by the way the beginning presents the issue. The misleading tone of the article is set in the first few paragraphs.
Journalists also know the way readers perceive the opening paragraphs is shaped by the story's headline. Here's the head in the newsprint edition:
In ratings, teachers pass even if kids don't
Ouch! How can you "pass" a teacher whose students "fail"? If the students "fail," doesn't that mean the teacher is a "failure" too? The online headline is just as bad.
Rankings for local teachers, students out of whack
The authors of the article most likely didn't write the headlines, but they deserve the credit and the blame regardless, since the heads accurately reflect the tone of the article's opening. By framing the beginning of the article with a false correlation between student achievement and teacher effectiveness, they've done a serious disservice to teachers who work in schools where student achievement is low, teachers who deserve our utmost respect and admiration for the hard work they do, not disparagement and scorn.
I don't know how the authors of the story landed on the National Council for Teacher Quality as its one and only out-of-state, "objective" source of commentary. Maybe they did some googling and found that the organization talks about teacher evaluations, or maybe they got a news release or a phone call from the organization or one of its supporters suggesting that teacher evaluations would be a good topic for an article. Either way, there's no indication in the article that the authors did any digging into the nature of the organization. If they did, they should have included a paragraph like this after they first quoted the NCTQ's vice president, Sandi Jacobs: "The NCTQ is an organization that advocates for merit pay for teachers and alternative forms of teacher certification that don't involve lengthy college work or training, and it speaks out against teacher tenure." In other words, the NCTQ has a conservative-learning agenda. Knowing that, readers have the information they need to decide whether to accept Sandi Jacobs' pronouncements as truth or opinion based on her organization's biases.
And Sandi Jacobs? She's got reasonably solid conservative credentials, like the NCTQ. Her highest ranking position was when she worked for the U.S. Department of Education during the George W. Bush administration as Senior Education Program Specialist for the Reading First and Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration programs. Reading First? Sounds like a great idea, putting federal funds into programs to improve students' reading. The problem was, the $6 billion program was rife with favoritism, a virtual giveaway to publishers who were friendly with the Bush administration and pushed reading programs that were considered "scientifically-based," which meant that they were the phonics-heavy, drill-and-kill programs that went along with the Bush administration's view of what worked, even though there was no scientific evidence that they were the most effective approach. After the program had been in effect for years, a study done by the same U.S. Department of Education concluded that it didn't work. The Reading First materials didn't improve students' reading skills any more than non-approved materials used in other classrooms.
For me, Jocobs' tenure in and defense of the Reading First program puts her expertise and objectivity in question.
One of the most important fights against teacher tenure happened in California recently in the Vergara v. California lawsuit. One of the two "expert witnesses" that spoke against California's tenure laws was Sandi Jacobs. Whether she's right or wrong on the tenure issue is a matter of opinion. The important thing is that she's a strong partisan on the issue, as is the NCTQ which she represents, something the article doesn't make clear.
One more quote from the end of the Star article shows the extent to which the writers absorbed the pro-merit pay, anti-tenure bias of Jacobs and the NCTQ. Here's one of the last paragraphs in the article which vaguely refers back to an earlier paragraph about the Arizona Board of Education's task force working on teacher evaluation.
If teacher evaluations are to be taken seriously, they must become a factor in issues like compensation, layoffs and other areas. While a 2013 National Council on Teacher Quality report found that no state had developed those kinds of comprehensive policies, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee and District of Columbia public schools were said to be close.
In the paragraph, the authors assume that it makes sense to tie salaries to evaluations — in other words, to promote merit pay, which rewards "good teachers" with higher pay — even though there's no evidence that merit pay improves teacher performance and a fair amount of evidence that it doesn't. Though tying evaluations to layoffs isn't necessarily against tenure, it's close, especially when the next paragraph praised Louisiana because it "connected teacher effectiveness to decisions on tenure."
This is a deeply flawed article that furthers the mission of Arizona's conservative "education reform"/privatization agenda pushed by Governor Ducey, Republican legislators and the state Board of Education. If that was the purpose of the article, then the authors did a creditable job. But if the article was meant to point out some of the problems with teacher evaluations in the Tucson area without promoting a specific agenda, it failed badly.