What’s REALLY Rotten in Our Schools: Poor Quality MOSL Assessments Used to Rate NYC Teachers

imgresThe cover of the 11/3/14 issue of TIME Magazine blasts so-called bad teachers for being “rotten apples” and suggests that tech millionaires have figured out a way to get rid of them.  However, what really stinks – among other ill-conceived corporate education reform initiatives – is the reliance on student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.  Once again, I wish to draw attention to the flaws of Advance, the New York City Department of Education’s new teacher evaluation and development system, which was implemented in 2013 in order to comply with New York State education law 3012-c.  This 2010 legislation mandated an overhaul of the Annual Professional Review (APPR) for teachers and school leaders and introduced the current highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective rating system, a cornerstone of corporate education reform’s plan for teacher accountability.

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As the above NYCDOE pie chart shows, 20% of our overall teacher effectiveness rating comes from a local measure of student learning or MOSL (another 20% of our rating is based on a state measure such as the annual NYS Common Core ELA and math assessments).

Here is the NYCDOE’s definition of “local measure”:

      • Local MeasureRecommended by a school committee appointed by the principal and UFT Chapter Chair and approved by the principal, each teacher’s local measure will be based on student growth on assessments and growth measures selected from a menu of approved options for each grade and subject (from the NYCDOE website).

My school chose the K-5 NYC Baseline Performance Tasks* in ELA and math as our local measure (MOSL).  Students receive baseline scores for their performance on the fall assessments and will be tested again at the end of the school year to determine their growth in these two subject areas. While MOSL may no longer be an unfamiliar term to NYC parents, most have likely never set eyes on these performance tasks and may not realize how meaningless and labor intensive they are. *It is worth noting that in 2013-2014, these tests were called ‘assessments.’ They are now referred to as ‘tasks,’ but do not be fooled; they are still non-teacher created standardized tests. 

Last month, it took me two and a half days to administer the 2014-2015 Grade 1 Math Inventory Baseline Performance Tasks to my students because the assessment had to be administered as individual interviews (NYCDOE words, not mine).  The math inventory included 12 tasks, many of which were developmentally inappropriate.  For example, in demonstrating their understanding of place value, first graders were asked to compare two 3-digit numbers using < , > and =. Students were also asked to solve addition and subtraction word problems within 100.

While I do not believe my students were emotionally scarred by this experience, they did lose two and a half days of instructional time and were tested on skills that they had not yet learned.  It is no secret that NYC teachers and administrators view these MOSL tasks as a joke. Remember, they are for teacher rating purposes ONLY. “You want them to score low in the fall so that they’ll show growth in the spring,” is a common utterance in elementary school hallways. Also, there will be even more teaching-to-the-test as educators will want to ensure that their students are proficient in these skills before the administration of the spring assessment. Some of the first grade skills might be valid, but others are, arguably, not grade-level appropriate.

The Grade 1 ELA (English-language Arts) Informational Reading and Writing Baseline Performance Task took less time to administer (four periods only) but was equally senseless, and the texts we were given had us shaking our heads because they resembled third grade reading material.  In theory, not necessarily practice, students were required to engage in a non-fiction read aloud and then independently read an informational text on the same topic. Afterwards, they had to sort through a barrage of text-based facts in order to select information that correctly answered the questions.  On day one, the students had to complete a graphic organizer and on day two they were asked to write a paragraph on the topic.  Drawing pictures to convey their understanding of the topic was also included in the assessment.

Not only are these “tasks” a waste of valuable instructional time, but at least six professional development sessions, which in theory are supposed to be teacher-designed, have been sacrificed to score them. The ELA rubric, in particular, was poorly written and confusing.  It’s critical to note that these MOSL tests and rubrics were not created by working teachers. If they had been, they would have looked much different and the ELA rubric would have made sense. Sentiments ranging from incredulity to outrage have characterized our scoring sessions.

I suspect the majority of NYC public elementary schools selected these Baseline Performance Tasks as their MOSL option, however an alternative MOSL, which few know about, exists.  Prior to the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, 62 NYC schools, including The Earth School and Brooklyn New School, were chosen to participate in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program, which – among other goals – satisfies the MOSL component of the NYC teacher evaluation and development system.

In her 10/27/14 weekly letter, Dyanthe Spielberg, principal at Manhattan’s The Neighborhood School (P.S. 363), wrote the following:

“Our PROSE plan modifies the MOSL (Measures of Student Learning) portions of the DOE teacher evaluation structure by substituting collected student work, observational data and narrative reports for MOSL.  This process includes an emphasis on looking at student work, and reviewing informal and formal assessments.  It requires ongoing reflective inquiry, as well as revisions of teacher plans and practice in relation to review of student work, data and feedback. Together, teachers will align criteria to create goals and assess progress.  This collaboration, both with the grade level teams, other colleagues and parents, as well as partner schools, will allow teachers to conclude the year with a clear analysis of how they have grown as educators related to their actual performance in the classroom as opposed to a rating based on a student’s individual performance on an individual day. We are excited about this opportunity to practice and demonstrate how we think about assessment, teaching and learning, and to build on our partnerships with other NYC public progressive schools.” 

Wow! Are they hiring? When a teacher friend told me about PROSE, I immediately became resentful and wished my school had participated in this program.  Is anyone in Brooklyn’s District 19 even aware that PROSE exists? The NYCDOE, the UFT and even the Mayor’s Office claim that all NYC public schools were notified about the PROSE application process. I was on the School Leadership Team (SLT) last year and had no knowledge of it.

Charter schools aside, two public school systems within the NYCDOE appear to be evolving; one for NYC’s relatively affluent and well-educated population whose kids attend progressive schools that are given waivers to assess students outside of the Chancellor’s Regulations and the UFT contract, and the other for the masses.  I have long felt that Tweed does not trust educators at Title I schools like mine and therefore feels obliged to micromanage us.  Like second-hand clothing shipped off to Haiti, we are the ones who get the unpopular, but free, Core Curriculum, like ReadyGEN for ELA.

Education reformers, who saddled us with an excessive testing program and the Common Core, claim that their remedy – a very costly experiment – will close the achievement gap. But what about the widening quality of education gap? Are teachers to blame for bad curricula and assessments that they didn’t even create? Why should our ratings be based – in part – on poorly designed and often developmentally inappropriate tests that do not adequately reflect classroom instruction and students’ knowledge? Will TIME showcase this widely held viewpoint on a future magazine cover? 

 

 

 

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Teaching in Davonte’s Inferno: A Must Read Summer Book

Former New York City public school teacher, Laurel M. Sturt, tells it like it is. Refreshingly, she’s real with us in her no-holds-barred memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years In The New York Public School Gulag, a heart-breaking and humorous exposé of the farcical – and often terrifying and depressing – working conditions in a Bronx public elementary school. Like Sturt, I have substantial experience teaching in a Title I public school located in a low-income New York City neighborhood. Luckily I’ve never worked for tyrannical principals – as was Sturt’s fate – but I did relate to much of what she describes in her book.

For my own personal growth as a teacher (dare I say ‘professional development’?), Davonte’s Inferno shed more light on the social and emotional problems facing a number of our kids in Title I schools: abuse of all forms, neighborhood violence, and chaotic, unstable homes, the most shocking Sturt calls “houses of horror.” Her scientific research details the ‘toxic stress’ associated with poverty that negatively impacts student learning. Reading it served, in part, as a reminder to offer my students more unconditional love and to provide them with a safe space in which they can speak freely without fearing any judgement on my part. Due to the lack of much needed wraparound services in our public schools and in our neighborhoods, combined with the dearth of individualized instruction as a result of overcrowded classrooms and cuts to academic intervention services, Sturt’s book motivated me to spend a few lunch periods each week with angry fifth grade boys I fret over. We teachers wear many hats.

For the wider audience, not only is Davonte’s Inferno a crucial read for those entrenched in the corporate education reform debate, but it’s also relevant due to recent anti-teacher tenure initiatives such as the Vergara v. California decision and, here in New York City, Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which, among other efforts, has filed a lawsuit in New York to remove “poorly-performing” teachers from the classroom. The lawsuit cites low test scores as “evidence” that New York City students aren’t getting a sound education and claims that “far too many students every year find themselves stuck in classrooms led by ineffective teachers. It’s a problem that affects families in every corner of the state, but the sad truth is that the students who need great teachers the most—those who grow up in low-income communities—are often the least likely to get them.”

Sturt’s book acknowledges that ineffective teachers exist.  In fact, she describes the follies of one teacher who abused the system by faking an injury, among other misdeeds. She also tells on herself when she loses her cool with a student, something that EVERY teacher struggles with.  However, contrary to Campbell Brown’s argument, there are far fewer ineffective teachers in our schools. Similar to what I see at my Brooklyn elementary school, Sturt writes that, “Where I connected with everyone was my desire to help the kids.  I had never been around so many people who loved children as much as I did.”  “As vilified as public school educators had become,” Sturt remarks, many of the teachers in my school were in fact accomplished and committed:  I would have gladly put my own son in their care. Just like in the rest of the system there were, however, a handful of hacks, protected by favoritism, whose incompetence had never been questioned.”  Note ‘handful.’

What education reformers like Campbell Brown fail to fully consider are the exacting conditions in which we work.  In addition to the above-mentioned examples, New York City public school students and teachers are demoralized by excessive, high-stakes testing and the narrowing and standardization of pedagogy and curriculum as a result of the Common Core package and the NYC Department of Education’s application of Danielson’s Framework for Teaching for teacher evaluation purposes.  Some, unfortunately, also face vindictive principals like the four administrators detailed in Davonte’s Inferno: Cruella, Guido, Principal Dearest and Rosemary’s Baby. Countless administrator horror stories have been shared with me and I consider myself lucky to work at my school and to have due process rights as a tenured teacher.  Sadly, the capricious behavior of the principals at Sturt’s school led to the unjust firings of several promising new teachers.

If all stakeholders in public education could be honest with themselves and truly put children – not ego and profit – first, then perhaps we’d experience real progress in addressing the problems in our public schools, namely the achievement gap. Laurel Sturt’s authentic book moves us closer in that direction.