Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Warren Buffett and Charlotte Danielson: Perfect Together

It's funny how sometimes the conventional wisdom of the day will get a sharp kick in the shins by people who actually know what they're talking about. But the conventional wisdom is a hearty sort who will then hop around on one foot spouting their blather despite evidence to the contrary.

Such as it is with money and education.
In August, financier Warren Buffett spoke truth to power about the how the tax system coddles wealthy people (see in my post, Warren E. Buffett Is An Idiot). Since Buffett spoke out, Republicans have fallen over themselves to rebut his argument and have gone to great lengths to marginalize and ridicule a man they once held up as a paragon of intelligent investing and capitalistic success.

Now the conservatives will have to contend with a giant in the field of teacher evaluation; Charlotte Danielson, the author of The Framework for Teaching which is used in approximately one-third of all New Jersey public school districts as the main criterion for evaluating effective teaching. In her words:

The Framework may be used for many purposes, but its full value is realized as the foundation for professional conversations among practitioners as they seek to enhance their skill in the complex task of teaching. 

So what's the fuss? In an interview with njspotlight.com, Danielson addresses the problems associated with a teacher evaluation system that relies heavily on student test scores, which the Christie Administration believes is the best way to judge teachers. In the article, Crafting an Accurate System for Evaluating Teachers, she gets right to the heart of the matter quickly:

"Most teachers would say that principals don't know what they're doing, and they're mostly right. Whatever the instrument, you have to have evaluators who know what they are doing and can demonstrate that. I think it is an essential component of a valid system."

Danielson continues by saying that her framework should not become a checklist that administrators use as a "gotcha" to catch ineffective teaching, but as a system that both teachers and administrators can use to reflect upon and improve teaching.

When it comes to using test scores, though, Danielson is clear:

"I don't think there is a single teacher who says that student achievement is irrelevant in their performance. Any teacher should be able to demonstrate that the children are learning.
The question is the evidence and how to attribute that to any one teacher. And I can say with confidence that nobody yet has figured out how to do that. They're just too unstable, one family moves into town and changes it all. And you can't even approach reliability without three years of data."

This completely undercuts what Governor Christie is proposing. He wants an evaluation system up and running that uses test scores for 50% of a teacher's evaluation by September of 2012. That would be after only one year of data from a pilot program using nine New Jersey school districts. Anyone involved in statistics will tell you that nine districts is too small a sample, even if those nine were representative of the state as a whole. Which they are not.

Will the Christie people listen to Danielson? Of course not. After all, her system has been used in hundreds of New Jersey school systems and is producing the country's best teachers as measured by New Jersey's being ranked number one in national test scores. Christie is in the unique position of saying that the state's teachers are performing poorly and need to be judged by test scores, but according to the test scores, we're already number one.

Asked if there is a connection between teachers who are successful under her system and student learning, Danielson says:

"We do have evidence that the answer is yes, and it does validate my work. High levels of teacher performance do correlate with student learning gains. But this is all very new work, and we have to bear that in mind. And policy-makers need to bear it in mind."

Of course, you need an open mind in order to bear it, and open minds in both Washington and Trenton seem to be in shorty supply these days. Buffett and Danielson are proof positive that much of what the right wing is peddling these days has spoiled on the cart. If we consume too much of it we risk national salmonella poisoning.

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