Charting the Stages of Teacher Data Report Grief

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Tim Clifford

The feeling when your teacher data report arrives by e-mail is akin to going over the crest of a roller coaster, realizing you’ve lost your wallet, and stepping where the last stair ought to have been, all rolled into one nauseating package. It’s an event that you know may have drastic implications for your career, but you also know the result is as random as a scratch-off lottery ticket.

I’ll never forget opening my T.D.R. e-mail for the 2008-09 school year. Although I was a 20-year veteran at the time, I had been in my current school for only two years, having transferred from a much more challenging environment.

Then, as now, I loved my new school. The students were great, my colleagues were superb and my administrators were top notch. It was as close to paradise as a New York City school could get. So, of course, something had to go wrong.

With a nervous click of the mouse, I opened the e-mail, and there it was. Bad news squared. I had scored in the 6th percentile.

As many of my colleagues can testify, a poor score is a gut punch to one’s sense of professional pride. I immediately went though a number Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, teacher-style:

● Denial: "This has to be some kind of mistake!”

● Anger: "This is unfair. What kind of idiot came up with this formula?”

● Depression: "If this is what the state thinks of me, I may as well stay home and bury my head in the pillows."

● Acceptance: Truthfully, I’m still waiting for this stage to kick in.

There are a number of factors that I believe went into my awful score, but I won’t offer them here, as they would sound like excuses. In retrospect, I know my dreadful score was the result of a convoluted evaluation system -- namely, value-added methodology.

The facts back me up. The Department of Education itself has pegged the margin of error at 35 percent for math and 53 percent for English Language Arts. Some sources believe the number is much higher -- as high as 87 percent for E.L.A.

I can top that.

You can imagine my trepidation the next year when my 2009-10 T.D.R. e-mail arrived. I clicked on it as gingerly as if it were a live grenade. This could be another 6 percent, potentially jeopardizing my reputation at my new school and possibly placing a target on my back.

Or, I thought, it might be worse. A 2, or a 1! Maybe I would be the first teacher in New York State history to receive a negative number for a rating!

It was none of those. I received a 96. Yes, you can look me up and see for yourself if you don’t believe me. (Full disclosure: I also received a 56 for a Collaborative Teach Teaching class I co-taught. My previous T.D.R. did not mention my C.T.T. class)

I went from being 1 point away from being ranked “low” to 1 point above the highest ranking there is.

What occurred was Kübler-Ross in reverse. Acceptance! Joy! Celebration! I seem to recall even a few tap dance steps. And then ...

Reality set in. If my first grade of 6 percent was bogus, so was this one. I had taught the same grade, in the same school, to the same types of students, using the same curriculum and many of the same lessons. And my score jumped 90 points year over year. If the value-added model were even close to being reliable, that couldn’t happen.

Therein lies the problem with value-added rankings. Not only are they unreliable, but they fail to do what they are intended to do: to help teachers reflect on their practice and identify weaknesses.

All they really accomplish is to make hard-working teachers like myself and the vast majority of my 75,000 colleagues feel as if we are constantly under the gun and subject to humiliation if our mouse click on those T.D.R. scores comes up snake eyes.

It is incumbent upon state officials to undo this public shaming of teachers when the new state evaluations are implemented. They must pass a law preventing evaluations from being subject to Freedom of Information Laws and publication in the papers, just as police officers, firefighters and other public workers are shielded by law.

Unless that happens, you can expect teachers to leave in droves rather than face eventual humiliation, and for college students to steer clear of education as a career choice. There will be no one left to teach.

Then you’ll be able to chart Kübler-Ross as you grieve the slow and inevitable death of public education.