This story shows how, and why, NOT to improve teacher performance through standardised test links to merit pay. A very salutory story. Terrific story by a brave ex-teacher.
A teacher’s story: Why the DC Impact system Bloomberg wants NYC schools to emulate caused me to leave teaching
First published on, and well worth a visit to read comments.
There is huge pressure from all sides – the federal government, Governor Cuomo, and Mayor Bloomberg – on the UFT, the NYC teachers union, to agree to a test-based teacher evaluation and compensation system in NYC. Similar pressures are being exerted on teachers throughout the US, as a result of “Race to the Top” and the corporate reform agenda being promoted by the Gates Foundation and the other members of the Billionaire Boys Club. In his State of the City address, Bloomberg also proposed that teachers rated highly through such a system should get a salary increase of $20,000 a year.
Merit pay has been tried in many cities, including NYC, and has never worked to improve student outcomes. When challenged about the evidence for such a policy, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson tweeted a link to a recent NY Times puff piece about DC’s Impact system, in which a couple of teachers who had received bonuses after being rated “highly effective” were interviewed as saying that this extra pay might persuade them to stay teaching longer.
Stephanie Black is a former teacher in Washington DC. In both 2010 and 2011 she was rated “effective” by the DCPS evaluation system. She is now living in Chicago where she tutors math and coaches in an after school program. Here is her story.
From 2007 until 2011, I taught in the same DC Public School. My first year, like many teachers’ first years, was a stressful learning experience full of trial and error, but a disproportionate amount of error. In my second year, I believe I got fantastically lucky. Since I was picked to teach a newly formed fifth-sixth grade combination class, I was allowed to have a much smaller class than most – only about 17 students – as we figured out how the combination would work. My second year was wonderful. My students and I formed magnificent bonds, and since I was still relatively new to education and no test-based evaluations yet existed, I was blissfully ignorant of any sort of need to teach to the test.
That year, I planned standards-based lessons, but also incorporated time for projects, field trips and even journaling. Gasp – journaling. We actually called it “Freaky Friday Free-write,” but it was a 20-minute block for students to write about whatever they wanted to, after which, students who wanted to could share. Like many of the things we did that year, the students loved this time, and so did I. Thinking back, though, I can only laugh at how bold I was to take 30 minutes of my school day, even just once a week, for such an activity.
That was, without doubt, the year I realized how much I love teaching, and that I was actually pretty good at it; I realized I had a knack for helping kids learn and making them laugh at the same time, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Moreover, despite all the giggles coming from my classroom, I was never considered the easy or lax teacher, because I absolutely wasn’t. We learned many untested skills and concepts, but we also learned the tested ones; I just didn’t give much thought to which ones we were focusing more on.
Anyway, that year now seems like a distant memory, perhaps even a dream. The next year, DCPS implemented their new evaluation system, IMPACT. IMPACT is the (non-opt-in) evaluation system which is used to classify teachers as either ineffective (meaning you get let go at the end of the year); minimally effective (meaning your salary is frozen, and if you are minimally effective two years in a row you are let go); effective (meaning you get your step increase, but no recognition); and highly effective (meaning you get a step increase, the option of accepting a bonus in return for losing future job security, and a night of celebration called “The Standing Ovation”). The system is set up so that most teachers fall into the (non-recognized) effective category.
During IMPACT’s first year, I was pretty ignorant to all the changes. My school got a new principal; I started teaching a new grade; and, overall, I still didn’t really care that much about whether I was considered a good teacher or a great teacher. Furthermore, I welcomed a system of more accountability, as I didn’t really think I had that much to worry about – I was (pardon my confidence here) a good teacher who was willing to go above and beyond for my students and my school, I already had extremely high expectations for my students, and I was already borderline obsessed with figuring out how to become an even better teacher. At that point, I naively believed that a merit-based system would recognize that while perhaps I wasn’t yet a great teacher, I was on my way. So, I bumbled through that first year, pretty unaware of how the new system was about to change pretty much everything – how it was about to take NCLB and put it on steroids. I focused on my testing game that year, and I still continued to let my life get consumed by work, but I never felt defeated or like I was falling off the path towards becoming a great teacher.
The summer after that year, however, everything changed. Before the test scores were even back, the district sent out ranges to all the teachers that predicted what our final score would be (the range was based on all possible testing outcomes). In wide-eyed amazement, I looked at my predicted range to see that, depending on the test results, I could get rated anywhere from minimally effective to highly effective. Oh, yes; without the test scores that made up 55% of my final score, they had no idea whether I was one of their least valuable or most valuable teachers. Up until that point, I hadn’t “got it”; I had naively thought I could keep teaching well, with attention to the tests, but without a narrow and all-consuming focus on them, and that I would be fine. Apparently, as my predicted range showed me, that was not the case.
Then, the scores came back. Thankfully, they were good enough to secure me an “effective” rating, but they weren’t good enough to help my school make AYP, something that, as one of the two lead math teachers at my elementary school, I felt unduly responsible for.
Come the school year 2010-2011, I had a much better understanding of how the new evaluation system worked. I knew what I needed to do for both my school and myself to be considered a success – I needed to get those test scores up, and I needed to get them up a lot. My naivety about the system was gone, and I somehow, perhaps because I realized I had no other option, became willing to have my worth and value as a teacher judged by little more than my students’ test scores.
Students who had me in 2009 would hardly have recognized the teacher I was last year. The new teacher-me was a warped version of my former teacher-self; I still brought the rigor and expectations I had previously brought, but there was no Happy Birthday singing hamster, no Freaky Friday Free-write, and no partnerships with the American Ballet Theater. And it wasn’t that I stopped caring about these things, I just found myself so consumed with trying to survive within the new system that they fell by the wayside. I had to choose my priorities, and even though supporters of accountability systems based on test scores will try to convince you that this doesn’t have to be the case, I had little time or energy to think about anything other than test data and how to get my students’ scores higher.
By the end of last year, my students had made tremendous gains in math. Here are the graphs, straight from the DCPS site to prove it:
Before last school year, I had worked crazy hours and given up much of my life for work, but only because I loved my job and really believed in what I was doing. Last year, my mindset was completely different. I started doing everything I was doing because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t do those things. I was no longer motivated by a passion for teaching and learning, nor was I trying to develop myself into the great teacher I had once dreamed of becoming; I was motivated by a fear of being stigmatized a loser, and I was trying to do whatever it would take not to be considered one.
Not to give away the ending to my story, but in this process I burnt out and lost faith in what I was doing in teaching. I grew tired of caring so much about a test that I didn’t really care that much about. I became frustrated with having to pass up opportunities to teach skills and concepts that I really thought my students needed to learn in order to teach them things I knew they were going to be tested on. I couldn’t stand the taskmaster role I had to take on as a teacher. Basically, I became sick of caring too much about all of the wrong things, and not enough about the things that really mattered.
In my quest to prove my worth and value, I started to feel worthless and easily replaceable. Even worse, I felt like I was being told at every opportunity possible by the district to do this or that better. And they weren’t telling me to do the things I knew I should be doing – if anything, the system seemed to be encouraging my worst behaviors, and seemingly suggesting I might even want to do them more intensely. At every turn, I was presented with more data, more practice test scores, and more suggestions for how I might do things differently in order to get those test scores even further up.
And with each spreadsheet that came back to analyze, each one attached to an invisible memo that said, “Please, teach better,” my dreams of becoming the fun, loving, and rigorous teacher who could inspire her students to think critically and compassionately slipping further and further away. I often heard that great teachers didn’t need to worry about the tests – that if they just did their great teacher thing their students would do well. I knew this wasn’t true; if it were true, I would have tried it. There were just too many things to master, too little room for error; we couldn’t take our eye off the testing ball.
The thing is that while I still don’t think I know exactly what it means to be a great teacher, I do think I know a couple things. Great teachers teach many subjects – tested subjects and untested subjects. Great teachers don’t worry about whether or not their students can recognize question types; they worry about whether or not their students understand skills and concepts so thoroughly that they could apply them in multiple contexts. Great teachers don’t worry constantly about whether or not their students will master every single concept that is discussed within their classroom, because they know that at times students must get confused and seek out clarity in order to truly understand things. Great teachers understand the difference between holding their students to high expectations and undermining their confidence so that they believe they are dumb or that they will never be as good as other students. Great teachers realize that while their primary role in their students’ lives is to teach, it is also important for them to be mentors and sources of compassion and love.
Last year, as I ate up the data and strategically planned the path to success in a system based on test scores and quantifiable data, I realized that I couldn’t have my cake and eat it, too. The measures of success – for both my students and for me – were too narrow. There was no time to even think about trying to play the World Peace Game; there was no time to learn about programs like Scratch; and there was certainly no time to read The Lemonade War and plan our own lemonade wars. None of these things – international relations, computer programming, or entrepreneurial skills – would be tested, and every minute spent doing one of these things was a minute I could have been using to help lead my students through the laundry list of standards they were responsible for knowing come test time.
I had chosen to give the new system a try and play by its rules. Of course, the joke was on me. I gave up my life, and played the game as well as I knew how – I planned lessons that were IMPACT-friendly, and I got my students’ math scores to go up dramatically (at the end of third grade, only 23 percent of my fourth graders had been proficient, and by the end of fourth grade, 64 percent of them were proficient or advanced).
Unfortunately, since I had failed to factor into my quest for success the fact that I would be dealing with an imperfect evaluation system – as all teacher evaluation systems are right now – I failed to predict that even if I did everything I was seemingly being asked to do, I might still fall short of “success.” Come the end of the school year, one of the rubrics – the one used to score elementary math teachers – was so flawed (it didn’t account for student growth at all) that I somehow managed to barely squeeze into the “minimally effective” category (meaning I was very close to being considered “ineffective”). Imagine that – my students made some of the most dramatic math gains in the district, and, yet, somehow according to the rubric used to score math teachers, I was only slightly better than ineffective!
After giving this “merit”-based system of ranking and sorting a real chance, last spring I made the excruciating decision to hand in my resignation letter. I still loved the idea of teaching, and I absolutely adored my school community, but for all the reasons I describe above, I was frustrated, exhausted and felt beaten up by an evaluation system in which I couldn’t win for losing. And even though I decided not to return several months before our final evaluations came out, I knew that no matter what the results were, they wouldn’t make me proud. If I did manage to be considered highly effective, it would have been because I had figured out how to play the testing game, and had abandoned my dreams of becoming the teacher I wanted to be. If I wasn’t rated highly effective, I knew it would feel like I had been slapped in the face by a district I had given up so much for.
Now, as NYC considers implementing their own merit pay system similar to the one in DCPS, I warn parents, educators and community members not to let it happen. These systems set up perverse incentives for schools and teachers to stop considering what students really need or what really constitutes a great education, and start trying to do whatever it takes to be considered successful, which usually involves playing a test-score and data game that narrows the curricula and turns students into data points.
There are other ways to improve schools and create systems of accountability that don’t create these perverse incentives. These are usually systems that focus more on what and how students are learning, and less on ranking and sorting teachers. The goal of any education system should never be to set up a Where’s Waldo culture of seeking out and paying great teachers; it should be to create a system that is so powerful and supportive that almost all teachers can be considered great and where all students, rich and poor, are receiving educations that will allow them to flourish intellectually, emotionally and socially.