Friday, February 24, 2012

Chapter 29: Kamikaze Teacher, Part 3

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Kamikaze, Part 3:

Why Teacher Evaluations Cannot Be Based on Student Performance:
Exhibit B

This is officially “Exhibit B” only because I have other names for most of the chapters in this “memoir”.  Most of them, however, are exhibits of one sort or another or contain exhibits for the defense.  You cannot evaluate NYC teachers based on student performance.
It would seem self-evident that you cannot base anyone’s performance on the performance of someone else.  It’s a testament to the power of the media that such an idea can even be floated, let alone taken seriously by serious people.  If kids were hubcaps, maybe objective data could be collected.  Maybe objective would exist.  Kids are not hubcaps.
In chapter 8 I described a class in which I failed 48% of my students.  If you want to call that an objective number and fail me, here’s more objective evidence of my failure as a teacher.  There were 32 students on the final roster of this class.  I say “final” roster because administrators are forced to play the missing student game all the time.  [See chapter: Teaching the Present and Unaccounted for.]  Since the school budget is based on enrollment, it is in the interest of the school to keep as many students on the books as possible whether they are physically attending class or not.
The official roster for the class I’m about to describe includes 5 students whose names were occasionally on my weekly attendance sheets and occasionally not.  When it came time to put in the final grade, those 5 names did not appear.  As far as I know, I gave them no grade at all.  However, their names were still in the system at the end of the semester and objective data usually calls for some sort of accounting whether realistic or fanciful.  Since I had given some of them a “z”, which is the “grade” given to a student who never showed up in class at all, on earlier report cards, some of them may have received that.  Or maybe some of them got the failing 55 that I’d given them on earlier report cards.  If they show up even once, teachers are supposed to give the student a 55, the lowest passing grade.  This is phantom data that is no doubt collected by eggheads somewhere and which might be used in a future evaluation of my performance but which had nothing to do with my teaching.  Is it any wonder that teachers object to the very term “objective data”, let alone the claim that it can be used to reflect on our performance?
The official roster is found on ARIS.  This is the DOE on line site that contains the scholastic history of every student in the NYC public school system.  Teachers are directed to ARIS to find out how a student fared on the middle school exams, for instance.  Personal information is also there so we can find out which of our students are overage, which have been labeled “English language learner” and which have I.E.P.’s (for special services).  Phone numbers are found on ARIS but ARIS phone numbers are no more reliable than any others floating around the building.  Like the drop-out rate, the percentage of non-working phone numbers in schools like the ones I’ve worked in ranges from 30% to 70%.  Nevertheless, teachers are held responsible for making phone calls to these often phantom numbers.  Kamikaze.
One colleague of mine who was always very diligent in attempting to contact families told me of a call he made to one of these ARIS numbers.  The number turned out not to be the number of the student he was looking for.  However, an adult male did answer the phone.  This adult male was not happy about answering this errant call and expressed his unhappiness perhaps in the only way he could.  “If you call this number again,” my colleague was informed, “I’m coming to that school and looking for you.” Teachers are directed to clearly identify themselves when making these calls.  In this instance this conscientious teacher could only hope that his was indeed the wrong number.
In any case although there were 37 students on my official ARIS roster, there were only 32 on the list for final semester grades.  This may seem inconsequential until you consider who is compiling the objective data on teachers and how they are compiling it.  These 5 missing students were all overage.  Two of them were 16 years old; three were 17 – this on the register for a 9th grade class where 14 was “on age”.  I knew all five from previous years and knew that they had failed most or all of the classes they had ever taken.  It could be that they failed my class as well.  They weren’t on my final grade roster but they were on the official DOE roster.  Who gave them a grade and what grade that might have been I never knew.  If their data was integrated into my evaluation data, I also never knew.  As of Feb. 2012 high school teachers have not yet been subjected to these “objective” evaluations although Cuomo has now written legislation that requires it no later than Jan. 2013.  I can only wonder how these 5 “objective students” will come back to haunt me.  Kamikaze.
But this chapter is about the 32 students in that class who did receive a final grade from me.  I failed exactly half of them – 16 out of the 32.  I could have failed three more but didn’t based on my projection that within a year or two they would have matured into higher-functioning students.  If that sounds like social promotion, see my chapter on the necessity for social promotion.  Of course, it was social promotion, unless you want to call it social projection.  I was making an educated guess on how they were going to do based on 4 months of working with them in the classroom.  These three came to class regularly and showed signs of improving.  I’m talking about improving their behavior because poor behavior is the only thing holding most failing students back.

Of the sixteen I failed, eleven were overage.  Five were 15 years old; four were 16 years old; one was 17 years old; one was 18 years old.  The other five were on age (14 years old). [1]
Of the sixteen I passed, seven were on age (14).  Five were 15 years old; four were 16 years old.  None was older than that.
As you might have noticed only 12 of these 32 students were on age and had never been held back.  20 of 32 were overage, meaning they had failed at least once at some point before this ninth grade year.  Seven of the 12 on age students passed.  Eleven of the 20 overage students failed.

Of the sixteen I passed, 14 had attendance rates of 80% or higher.
Of the sixteen I failed, 13 had attendance rates of less than 75%.  Nine of them had an attendance rate lower than 50%.

Of the sixteen I passed, none had been suspended.
Of the sixteen I failed, 12 had been suspended at least once.

Of the sixteen I passed, 9 were girls; 7 were boys although 5 of the boys received the lowest possible passing grade (65).
Of the sixteen I failed, 9 were boys; 7 were girls.

I gave out 4 grades of 90 or more (all girls).  Three of these four students were 14; the other was 15.  All had attendance rates higher than 90%.
I gave out 4 grades of 80 / 85 – two boys and two girls.  [Note that for grades below 90 only multiples of 5 are allowed to be entered.]  Their ages were 14, 15, 16 and 16.  Three of the four had attendance rates above 90%; the other had documented health issues.
I gave out 2 grades of 70 / 75 (both girls).  Both were 14 years old and had attendance rates of 75% or better.  (One had near perfect attendance.)
I gave out 6 grades of 65, the lowest passing mark (five boys, one girl).  All had attendance rates of 80% or higher.  The three that passed only based on my projection of improved behavior were, of course, in this group (three boys).
Of the sixteen who received a 55, the only failing grade allowed, only one was both on age and had attendance of 80%.  This girl simply refused to do any work.  The other 15 were either over age or had poor attendance – eight fit both categories.

Half of my class failed.  Did I fail?  I don’t consider myself a failure.  I presented a good lesson every day and did everything I could do to get students to read, write, listen and talk on task.  I received a “satisfactory” evaluation during the semester’s observation by my supervisors although that observation took place not in this typically low-performing 9th grade class but in a high-performing 11th grade class in which 93% passed.
One of the students in this class just described had a question for me one day.  This was near the middle of the semester.  By then it was clear that as many as half of the students in the class were not going to pass and that their behavior in the classroom was such as to make it very difficult for the working kids to learn.  The poor behavior on the part of most of the failing and 65-rated students wasted between 30% and 60% of valuable class time.  The students who wanted to work often found themselves waiting for deans to arrive or for other disciplinary actions to take place.
You might be inclined to blame me for not managing classroom behavior better.  If you do, however, I invite you to spend a semester teaching such a class.  I would assume that you’ve never done it because anyone who has taught such a class knows very well that much of the behavior is so outrageous as to be beyond the reach of classroom management tools, many of which I use and often to good effect but many of which are actually counterproductive with students who are prepared to walk out of the room and out of the building for good rather than conform to even the simplest rule.  [Look for a chapter on the Charlotte Danielson rubric for “effective classroom management”, the most absurd document to emanate from the Common Core movement that I’ve seen yet.]
Anyway this girl, one of the four who received a grade of higher than 90 for the semester, asked me one day if she were going to be seeing different people in future semesters.  This was not merely a logical question, given that she was shut up in a room with the same 32 or 34 or 37 – whatever it happened to be in a given week – all day long and had seen how much of her time was being wasted.  It was not merely a logical question, I say, it was a heart-breaking one.  As I’ve said, this memoir isn’t about me.  It’s about the good students who have been robbed of most of the things that once made high school education worthwhile – robbed by the Bloomberg reform schools and now the national common core movement whose intentions (at best) are to show improved graduation statistics at whatever cost and however dubious.  I’m not talking merely about the loss of most electives and extra-curricular activities in the reform schools.  I’m also talking about the placement of high-functioning students with low-functioning students in the hope that the bad kids will be dragged up in something academically called “heterogeneous grouping”.  Too often the good ones are dragged down.  Always, however, their time is not put to best use and the resources in the system are not directed at those who would make best use of them.
“Am I going to be seeing different people?” she asked.
I could only look back at her and say, “Half of these kid are never getting out of 9th grade.  You will see other people but not until next year.”  It wasn’t much of an answer but the truth of it was self-evident.  Fortunately this was a student with a great deal of patience – learned perhaps from coexisting for 9 years already with students unable to function in a classroom setting.  All I did was confirm what she already knew.
She smiled and went back to her book.
In other words, the best I could offer her was the pathetic admission that next year might not be as wasted as this year.  Perhaps unfortunately, it was enough for her.

NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

[1] There was a 20-year-old senior whose name occasionally appeared on my weekly attendance sheets that semester.  He was vainly trying to make up lost credits at that late date and I knew him well, having failed him a number of times over his lengthy high school career.  However, his name appeared neither on my final grade roster nor on the final ARIS roster.  I don’t know how he washed out or what objective effect his name on my roster – even though sporadically – might have on my designation as “effective” or “ineffective”.

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