Teaching Tests

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Can an individual teacher help an individual student? The teachers’ union head says there is no way to measure whether that's true, or not. Michael Mulgrew, a United Federation of Teachers vice president, argues teachers' impact on test scores can't be isolated and they should not figure in to tenure decisions.

What do you think? Comment below.


Michael Mulgrew

Comments [33]

Alexis from Brooklyn

Exactly math and science don't exactly depict a students knowledge. And as a seventh grader I fully agree that these tests shouldn't depict if a student should exceed to the next grade or not. Not everyone gets a good grade. (tRUST me)

Feb. 13 2009 12:26 PM
Kevin Ly from Brooklyn

Mulgrew should step down from his position and retire. That's a terrible statement and I don't know if he understands the consequences. He's helping to protect teachers tenure but he's basically calling to question if teachers have an impact on their students. If I were a teacher, I would be very offended by this statement. It's saying that I don't matter. It's statements like that which is why our education systems is in the condition that it is. Filled with bureaucracy and no results.

Apr. 10 2008 09:41 PM
MCH from Brooklyn

Alexander Hoffman:

Thank you for those posts. I hope I'm not the only one reading them. One reason we may have a shortage of good principals in that tenure was eliminated in their last contract. Since you say that tenure is not part of a collective bargaining agreement, I have to say I don't understand how that happened, but the news accounts were that tenure no longer exists for principals, however they are more directly accountable than ever for the performance of their schools.

Apr. 10 2008 01:11 PM
Alexander Hoffman from Brooklyn

I do not suggest that there are not problems with our tenure system. A lot falls to principals, perhaps too much. Teacher observation and evaluation is not easy, and the tenure process in dependent on principals making good decisions about teachers during those first three years. Principals, coming from the teacher ranks, know far more about how to teach or have difficult conversations with children than with adults, and yet they are expected to do these thing in the process of trying to remove a tenured teacher. Principals need support and training that they rarely receive.

And that is why we still need tenure. It takes a series of bad decisions over a number of years for a poor teacher to get tenure. But without tenure, it only takes one bad decision for a good to be dismissed

Apr. 10 2008 12:35 PM
Alexander Hoffman from Brooklyn

Another principal might be an old school traditionalist and insist that English classes only be about books. He might not approve of using film or video to teach about theme, plot, symbolism, character development, story arcs, allegory and any of the rest. But a teacher might feel that this would be the best way for students to learn these lessons. I never had this experience, but I have spoken to those who have. Quite simply, teachers who insist on doing something different than what has been done before can face blowback from administrators and from parents (i.e. "if it was good enough for me...").


No, we don't need tenure if principals can be counted on to make good decisions in the best interests of children. But they are human, and therefore often make decisions in their own interests. Moreover, we have a real shortage of high quality principals, even as we are breaking up large schools into multiple small schools and opening up charter schools.

Which brings me to something that Richard Rothstein talks about. We have regulations not to ensure the highest quality of anything, rather to prevent the lowest quality. Once a teacher proves him/herself over three years, tenure ensures that s/he will only be dismissed for a valid reason after s/he -- who has already demonstrated that s/he can do the job well -- has been given a chance to correct the situation.

Apr. 10 2008 12:35 PM
Alexander Hoffman from Brooklyn

Obviously, union activists are already protected by other labor laws.

C) Academic freedom in K12 is not like in higher education, that's true. But it is still an issue.

A teacher who tries to raise the bar in his/her classes can create no end of problems for a principal. If standards in school have been too low, and a teacher demands more than students are accustomed to, students and their parents can demand enormous amounts of principal's time. This is a different form of rocking the boat, but can still be enough for a principal to wish to be rid of the teacher.

Principals cannot be experts on everything. Once, when teaching high school English, my principal as a former middle school math teacher. He insisted that I as an English teacher, "not worry about critical and analytical thinking" and "just teach English." Though he had no training or experience with high school English, he had ideas about what it meant. He did not approve of the fact that I was spending as much time on teaching my student how to reason as on the mechanics of writing. His assistant principal insisted that we not teach students to write essays at all any more, and instead focus on other forms of non-narrative writing.

Apr. 10 2008 12:34 PM
Alexander Hoffman from Brooklyn

So, why do we still need tenure? Patronage is not the problem it once was, certainly not with a teacher shortage and licensure requirements. And what kind of academic freedom do K12 teachers need?

A) The teacher shortage is not evenly distributed. High performing schools don't have the same problems attracting teacher. High paying district don't have the same problems attracting teachers. English, social studies and art teachers are in good supply for most schools. Low performing schools, lower paying districts, math and science positions, these are the areas of teacher shortages. So, the shortage issue is not a factor for most teachers.

B) This really comes down to the question of why principals might want to be rid of a teacher. I would suggest that any manager would want to be rid of any employee who makes his/her job or life harder. Ideally, this would only be low performing teachers, but that is a fantasy view.

Any kind of rabble rouser can make a principal's job harder. Encouraging parents to express their concerns to a principal ends up costing principals a lot of time. Encouraging parents to go high up in the organization of the principal does not give them fair hearing can cost a principal far more. Encouraging students to organize and express their concerns to administrators is not always taken well, either. And yet, teachers who feel a strong drive to teach for social justice commonly do both of these things.

Apr. 10 2008 12:34 PM
Alexander Hoffman from Brooklyn

First, a little history. Tenure is not a product of collective bargaining. It is not in teacher union contracts. It is a matter of state law, and goes much further back than when teachers unions gained collective bargaining rights. Though in higher ed it has been about academic freedom, in K12 education it has equally been about patronage (i.e. new administrators replacing existing teachers with their cronies).

Second, a point of clarification. Tenure for K12 teachers is not guaranteed lifetime employment. Rather, after three years of teaching with good evaluations, tenured teachers cannot be fired at the drop of a hat or at the whim of an administrator. Rather, the principal must document the teacher's problems, let him/her know about them, given him/her a opportunity to correct them, and then check to see whether they were corrected. If all of these steps are documented, the teacher can be dismissed. For an employee who has already proven him/herself over years of employment, it's just good management practice.

Apr. 10 2008 12:34 PM
arthur from ny

I wish Brian would be interested in presenting an in depth view of teaching instead of just looking at hysterics. I have represented teacher facing disciplinary action and I can tell you that it is almost impossible to win. Perhaps in Long Island there is more room because os specific contractual clauses and or because districts have a process that incorporates Due Process. I will tell you that in NYC, teachers have almost no chance of winning (even tenured teachers) For the most part I will not take any cases in NYC, because unless we do an article 78, their union has stripped them in the last contract of basic protections that most tecahers in NYS have.
Of 10 cases where tenure teachers have been brought on charges, only 2 were able to win and by winning I mean going to the commissioner because going to court is a waste of time.

Apr. 10 2008 11:56 AM
Mark from Manhattan

An earlier speaker stated part of the problem in his statement to the effect that only a few teachers -- math and English -- are related to these tests. I was lucky enough to attend a Catholic grade school where math and English were pervasive throughout the education. If a student presented a science project that contained misspellings, bad grammar, or even poor penmanship, he/she had to redo it even if the science was correct. If one presented a geography report with faulty calculations of percentages or distances, that report had to be redone even though mathematics wasn't the main reason for writing the report. Perhaps if ALL teachers took and interest in making sure that students mastered English and math, the test scores would improve and our society would be better for it. Finally, as for the absurd notion that we don't want teachers "teaching to the test," what is wrong with spending the day teaching correct noun-verb agreement because it will appear on the test, or multiplication tables because they will appear on the test, or lists of words with their correct spelling and definition because they will appear on the test.

Apr. 10 2008 11:42 AM
MCH from Brooklyn

Hi arthur (#21)

That is what I had suspected. Most people seem to be under the impression that tenure is and entitlement and means that you can never be fired.

Apr. 10 2008 11:42 AM
Deb from Larchmont, NY

I can't help but be struck by the degree of fear I'm hearing in today's discussion. I don't blame teachers for being afraid of test scores being used in tenure decisions as I suspect that there is precious little professional development offered to them to help them improve their teaching so that they can be more effective in helping their individual students. My sense is that what new teachers have learned in grad school is only a part of what they need to know to be successful for our kids in the classroom. I also suspect that if teachers whose students were not progressing appropriately were offered support and training to improve their teaching, they would gladly take advantage of it.
My son attends the Windward School, a private school in Westchester for students with language-based learning disabilities. School is over for the kids at 1:30 every Friday so that teachers can spend the rest of the school day on their own professional development - part of their job is to continuously improve their own teaching. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a similar mindset could exist in public schools as well?

Apr. 10 2008 11:37 AM
arthur from ny

The amount of ignorance is incredible!
While NYS allows any employer to fire an employee for any cause (except discrimination) most PRIVATE companies have POLICIES that set up a system of reviews, evaluation and yes compensation. So the fact is that most employees in NY are protected by a DUE PROCESS clause. Companies do this to bring stability, consistency in their employment base. More over, in mostr of these PRIVATE companies there is a 360 review process that prevents personnal vendettas. (read Goldman Sachs process for evaulating and terminating employees). TEACHERS, because they are in the public sector have less protection. The only way that they can receive DUE PROCESS is by acquiring TENURE. This DOES NOT GUARANTEE A JOB FOR LIFE. Even further, an employee at Goldman has rights as a private person to use defamation laws to sue. A TEACHER DOES NOT.

Apr. 10 2008 11:36 AM
MCH from Brooklyn

Hi Joan: (#14)

I have no problem at all believing it. Starting out teaching in NYC is an exercise in frustration. Day long lines at the hiring center in downtown Brooklyn, paying $150 for fingerprints which take five months to come back, meanwhile you don't get paid for those five months, and that's just in the first six months. There needs to be a better way to screen and evaluate teachers and to pay them enough for their trouble.

Apr. 10 2008 11:31 AM
J from NJ

My child was a good student and well behaved. Somehow she always got placed in with the best teachers in the elementary grades--and the ones with clout--coincidence? Teachers should be held accountable, but I think teachers will fight over the best students if testing is the measure by which they are judged. The poor students will "somehow" end up with the newer teachers.

Apr. 10 2008 11:26 AM
Norton from Lyndhurst, NJ

How about we rate the politicians as well as the teachers. I'm sure if we all put our heads together we could come up with a good rating system. If the individuals aren't "making the grade" than they get the boot!!!!!

Apr. 10 2008 11:25 AM
judy from NYC

The ELA tests are given at mid year. The scores are often more influenced by the previous year's teacher.

Apr. 10 2008 11:25 AM
MCH from Brooklyn

Hi Rose (#10)

I could be wrong about this but my understanding of tenure is that it offers the protection of only being dismissed for due cause. Which means the employer has to demostrate that there is a justifiable reason for the dismissal. A teacher in his/her first three years can be dismissed for any reason at all. All the principal has to do is write "unsatisfacory" and it is almost never questioned. On the other hand, the city does a lousy job of handling the problems that arise with tenured teachers - to wit: the Rubber Room.

Apr. 10 2008 11:25 AM
Jemal Graham from Ft. Greene, Brooklyn

I entered the teaching profession after leaving finance, so I bring a real sense of acountability and rewarding success. I think that it is possible to keep teachers accountable, but it cannot depend solely on a single test given once a year. Many schools, including mine have already adopted interim assessments - 3 or 4 assessments given throughout the year that not only measure understanding, but also growth through the year. Certainly, if a student moves from a 70 to a 90 in math, that progress can be at least partially attributed to the math teacher. There is nothing wrong with assessing student learning and holding teachers accountable for it, but we need to make sure that we are assessing the right standards in the right way.

Apr. 10 2008 11:23 AM
Tejas Gosai from Philadelphia

lets not forget how large of a role parent, family up bringing, and so on come into play. I did well in school, not because of my teachers so much as it was my parents and family pushing me forward. Don't have the teachers raise us, have our society as a whole. stop pointing the finger.

Apr. 10 2008 11:22 AM
Joan from Brooklyn

I balked at the high number of teachers who don't make tenure. It is not that the job is particularly difficult for those who are qualified - It's the fact that NYC does not hire qualified people. They are so desperate for people to teach they will take anybody.

Apr. 10 2008 11:22 AM
arthur from ny

You are confusing the issue. The issue as I read it is whether tests results can be used to grant tenure to a probationary teacher.
UNDER NY STAE LAW, school districts CAN DENY TENURE FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER, as long as it is not CAPRICIOUS AND ARBITRATRY or violates mandated laws of antidiscrimination. Read commissioner decisions on tenure and you will see that districts do dismiss teachers at will.
This is a NYC issue. Districts outside of NYc have always made their own criteria for dismissing a teacher. The commissioner has stated that he will not suplant his judgement (even if he thinks the district did not take the best decision) over the school district decision.
This is a political issue, in Bloombergs quest to totally dominate city teachers, unfortunetely you can not separate city teachers from state teachers in terms of the law.

Apr. 10 2008 11:21 AM
dale from park slope

While tenure is an essential part of the higher education community (i.e., university level) , I do not understand why it should be a part of primary or secondary education where the focus should be on teaching fundamental skills.

Apr. 10 2008 11:20 AM
Richard Cutler from New York City

My son is a teacher in the New York City system, and he is constantly frustrated because his job has fundamentally become one oftest preparation rather than real teaching. It is conceivable that at some point tests could provide a portion of a measure of a teacher, but test scores can never serve as the only measure of the student, the teacher, and the school. If the members of Joel Klein's bureaucracy had been better educated themselves, they would not put their faith in mathematical fantasies.

Apr. 10 2008 11:19 AM
Rose from Connecticut

Why do we even have tenure? Other industries are on a merit basis and tenure keeps the less than adequate teachers without a chance to releave them of their positions.

Apr. 10 2008 11:19 AM
Erin from Manhattan

Why shouldn't it include test scores? No one's saying it should be the ONLY method of measurement, but why leave it out if it can contribute some level of information? No single measure of teacher influence will be definitive. Like anything else, it must be a combination of factors. Why are the arguments always exaggerated to the point of ONLY test scores or NONE AT ALL?

Apr. 10 2008 11:18 AM

You can't test a student on grades k-3 in the 3rd grade and hold the 3rd grade teacher accountable.

But your guest is wrong, (see there are many other test in elementary, the city has tons of forced interim test.

Lastly, would you ask your guest if he would support a comprehensive studies that would measure the affect of teachers on standardized test scores?

Apr. 10 2008 11:17 AM

I agree with #1 above...tests are all reading and math and tests are only a very limited way to measure real learning. Real learning is understanding application and concepts,etc But you can do well on a test by studying for the specific material on that test and then essentially forgetting the material after the test.

REAL education covers a broad spectrum including the arts. Kids need to not be treated as human calculators...that's not true education for the sake of knowledge...rather it is just teaching for the sake of test results.

Apr. 10 2008 11:17 AM
Liz from brooklyn

The key is that teacher's have no control over many factors that affect the score. From whether they eat breakfast to how much homework they do.

Do doctors get measured by how many patients survive? Do lawyers get judged by how many get convicted? Of course not.

Apr. 10 2008 11:16 AM

personal anecdotes should not make public policy. Your one childs experience does not make a scientific study.

Apr. 10 2008 11:15 AM
ashley from montclair

I think it's important here to realize both the impact teachers can have on students AND students can have on teachers. I see students learn in varying and unbelievable ways and am frustrated at the belief that standardized tests can "measure" their success. Their success is in their ability to critically analyze and understand the subjects as well as the world around them. My job is to build in them the tools to think critically about the topics. For me, success is not in memorizing information that is irrelevant to their lives that they'll never use again.

Apr. 10 2008 11:13 AM
Maureen from Staten island Teacher

Use a three year average where the teacher is assigned different tracks of students.

Apr. 10 2008 11:10 AM
MCH from Brooklyn

Student test scores are arguably not a very good measure of a student's performance. How can they measure teachers? What about library, art or music teachers? The tests are all reading and math.

Apr. 10 2008 11:10 AM

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