Arthur Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language students at Frances Lewis High School in Queens, New York. He blogs as NYC Educator. In his letter, Goldstein refers to a meeting that Chancellor Farina had with a local superintendent, where she recognized that highly rated teachers were likely to get lower ratings in high-poverty schools. The blogger Perdido Street School wrote: “The dirty secret of education reform is that the problems in schools and districts with high poverty/high homelessness demographics are NOT caused by “bad teachers” – they’re caused by all the effects that poverty has on the psychological, emotional, physical and social development of the children in those schools and districts.”

Arthur Goldstein writes:

Dear Chancellor Fariña:

First of all, I applaud you for acknowledging that a highly-effective rated teacher entering a troubled school may suffer a reduced rating as a result of changing schools. I very much appreciate that you’ve taken a personal interest in this teacher and plan to attach an asterisk and follow her ratings. It’s inspirational not only to me, but also to teachers nationwide, that the leader of the largest school district in the country would acknowledge that a school’s population is a major factor in teacher ratings.

This, in fact, has been a major objection many of us, including experts like Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris, have had toward value-added evaluation programs. In fact, the American Statistical Association has determined that teachers impact test scores by a factor of 1-14%. They have also determined that rating teachers by such scores may have detrimental effects on education.

I am struck by the implications of your statement. If it’s possible that a highly-rated teacher may suffer from moving to a school with low test scores, isn’t it just as likely that a poorly-rated teacher would benefit from being moved from a low-rated school to a more highly-rated one? And if, as you say, the teachers are using the same assessments in either locale, doesn’t that indicate that the test scores are determined more by students themselves as opposed to teachers?

For example, I teach beginning ESL students. Teaching these kids is one of the very best things I’ve ever done, but I now consider it a very risky business. Kids who don’t speak English tend not to achieve high scores on standardized tests. I’m sure you also know that acquiring English takes a few years, varies wildly by individual, and that it can take 5-7 years to acquire academic English. The new NYSESLAT test seems to focus on academic English rather than language acquisition. Still, it would be irresponsible of me to neglect offering basic conversation and survival skills. (In fact, NY state now requires that we offer less standalone ESL., which is neither helpful to my students nor supported by research.)

Special education children also have specific needs and disabilities that can inhibit their ability to do well on tests. It doesn’t take an expert to determine that teachers in schools with high concentrations of students with disabilities already are more likely to incur adverse ratings. Who is going to want to teach in these schools? Who will want to teach special education or ESL?

Attaching high stakes to test scores places undue pressure on high-needs kids to pass tests for which they are unsuited. For years I’ve been hearing about differentiation in instruction. I fail to see how this approach can be effectively utilized when there is no differentiation whatsoever in assessment. It’s as though we’re determined to punish both the highest needs children and their teachers.

Since the advent of high-stakes evaluations, the morale of teachers I know and represent has taken a nose dive. Teachers, regardless of ratings, are constantly asking me about their ratings, and live in fear of them, as though the Sword of Damocles were balanced over their heads. Though the Danielson rubric is heralded as objective, in practice it’s very much in the eye of the beholder. As if that were not enough, ratings are frequently altered by test score ratings. Diane Ravitch characterizes them as junk science. (I concur, and having music teachers rated by the English Regents scores of their students pushes it into the realm of the ridiculous.)

Personally, I found the older evaluation reports to be much more thorough and helpful. Supervisors used to be able to give detailed reports of what they saw, and specific suggestions on what could be improved. ThoughI can’t speak for everyone in this, I found them easier to read than the checklists we currently receive. Just like our kids, we are not widgets. We are all different, and are good or not so good on our own merits.

Of course no one wants bad teachers in front of children. The current system, though, seems to focus on student test scores rather than teacher quality. It seems to minimize teacher voice in favor of some idealized classroom that may or may not exist.

It’s a fact that test scores are directly correlated with family income and level of special needs. There is no reliable evidence that test scores are indicative of teacher quality or lack thereof. Teachers are the second-best role models for children. It’s quite difficult for us to show children that life is a thing to be treasured when we have virtual guns placed to our heads demanding higher test scores or else. Just like our kids, we are more than test scores.

On behalf of children and teachers all over New York State, I ask that you join us in demanding a research and practice-based system of evaluating not only teachers, but our students as well.


Arthur Goldstein, ESL teacher, UFT chapter leader
Francis Lewis High School