Believe it or not, I wake up every morning eager to go to work. I never know what’s going to happen in my classes, but I invariably look forward to them. My students never fail to surprise me. I feel privileged to introduce newcomers to my language. But now, if they don’t pass tests likely designed for English speakers, I face losing my job.
This is particularly disturbing because I see patterns, especially among kids who did not actually want to be uprooted, torn away from their friends, family and quite often even their parents. I had several students last year who spoke almost no English, and learned next to nothing the entire year. When I checked their records, I learned that two of them had not only passed junior high English classes (not E.S.L., but regular English), but had also passed Spanish.
Without my crystal ball I can only speculate on how they managed this. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that their value-added scores would not have put me in a favorable light. Under New York State’s new paradigm, two years of kids like that would leave me selling pencils on the corner.
Yet stats will not show two kids I have this year who have turned around. One young man sits in front of my class (full disclosure — I forced him to) and now participates every day. He’s not my best student. He’s always joking. On the brighter side, he’s not only pretty funny sometimes, but he’s also learning rapidly. He now has every chance of graduating high school, and his life prospects are much improved over those of someone who doesn’t know any English.
Another student who failed my class last year faced the unhappy prospect of moving back into my class again. “I don’t want to go there,” she told the counselor, “He always makes you talk.” But she’s now grasping everything that eluded her last year. Also, she’s happy. I see her smile every day, from wherever in the classroom I happen to be.
Did I fail these kids last year? Maybe I did. But I spoke to them, cajoled them, threatened them, contacted their counselors and called their homes repeatedly. I try everything I can think of, and sometimes I fail. Does this mean my name ought to be on page 3 of The New York Post as a poster boy for everything wrong with education?
These days, that’s something every New York teacher needs to worry about. You’ve probably heard that New York State is on the verge of a brand new teacher evaluation system. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo calls it a balanced system, one that relies on multiple measures, including observation and student test scores.
That’s because student test scores are used to determine 40 percent of the rating. However, anyone who doesn’t succeed in this area is rated ineffective. Many are now pointing out that 40 percent of “objective measures” can magically equal 100 percent.
Resultant feedback after two ineffective ratings may include things like, “Get lost,” “You’re toast,” or “Take a long walk off a short pier.”
Perhaps as this happens Mr. Cuomo will take solace in knowing New York state will be paying considerably less in pensions.
The “reformers” who shout the virtues of this new plan from the rooftops ought not to be so comfortable. As far as I can tell, since bad test scores can afflict even excellent teachers, teacher dismissals can occur utterly at random. So while the district might be able to pick off big mouth pain in the neck unionists (like me), they could just as easily end up firing members of Educators for Excellence, which happily backs every darn “reform” that comes down the pike.
There are, in fact, multiple issues with value-added measures that tie teacher ratings to student performance. They have wild margins of error, and many things kids do are well out of the control of teachers who see them 40 minutes a day.
In fact, the New York Post education reporter Yoav Gonen tweeted that margins of error on recently released teacher data reports ran as high as 87 percent. Diane Ravitch pointed out that odds were worse than a coin toss. Nonetheless, my union has agreed to make them part of the evaluation system.
Maybe I should stop volunteering to teach beginners and dump them on rookie teachers. Rookies often get the toughest classes. The thinking behind this is rookies can’t teach, and these classes can’t learn, so they’re perfect together. So what if we ruin a few teaching careers before they even start?
Beyond value-added, administrators, even principals, are human, subject to all the frailties and weaknesses that afflict all of us. Believe it or not, some take a personal dislike to certain teachers, for reasons in no way related to their teaching abilities. And some take things so far as to give these teachers poor ratings. As I am a public and vocal critic of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration, this concerns me in no small way.
If I’m a terrible teacher, fine. Give me a bad rating. But when I advocate for kids, smaller class sizes, reasonable standards for high-needs students, classrooms instead of trailers, or kids eating lunch at noon rather than 9 a.m., that’s no reason to question my teaching. Nor is the fact that, as U.F.T. chapter leader, I represent each and every working teacher in my school. My colleague received a poor rating for doing his job as chapter leader, and had to go to court at his own expense to have that rating reversed.
This ought to be enough to prove that principals are not infallible. Yet in New York City, only 13 percent of poorly rated teachers will have the opportunity to go to a mutually agreed-upon independent arbitrator.
Considering this, teachers may be reluctant to speak up for themselves, let alone kids. They’ll be subject to arbitrary dismissal from not only junk science like value-added, but from small-minded vindictive administrators as well.
I want strong, smart role models for my kid and yours. Mr. Bloomberg, it appears, does not.
Arthur Goldstein is an E.S.L. teacher and United Federation of Teachers chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Queens.