Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gates funding gives boost to HISD program

Sounds like 4.5 million new reasons to promote teaching to the tests. -Patricia

$4.5 million to help train teachers new way to analyze student test scores

By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
December 7, 2007

The Houston school district's push to grade teachers on their students' progress got a $4.5 million boost Thursday from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant, the second multimillion-dollar award the district has received for this effort in recent months, will help fuel what school and foundation leaders call a major reform plan to improve teaching and ensure that all students are prepared for college.

"This project is about helping teachers help kids perform at their highest rates," said Steven Seleznow, an education director for the Seattle-based foundation started by the Microsoft Corp. chairman and his wife.

The district plans to use the grant mostly to train teachers on a different way of analyzing test scores. The "value-added" method evaluates how much progress individual students are making on standardized tests year after year — or whether teachers are adding value to students' education.

Value-added models
Under the performance-pay plan, unveiled amid controversy last year, teachers, principals and even Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra are eligible for bonuses based on this student growth.

This year, the district has revised its program and contracted with William Sanders, the pioneer of value-added models, to crunch the numbers. The school board approved paying his company no more than $473,000 this year.

Some teachers, however, say the bonus program still is unfair and too complicated. Various education researchers also question whether value-added models truly identify the best teachers and whether bonuses should be linked to them.

"I'm a skeptic because these are not perfect measures of teacher performance," said Dale Ballou, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "It doesn't mean it's a bad idea to try this. The question is whether we get something out of this that is good enough that it motivates teachers."

Sanders developed his model in Tennessee, where it has been part of the school accountability system since the early 1990s.

The Houston district also has hired Battelle for Kids, an Ohio-based nonprofit, to train employees about the data and create user-friendly online charts showing which schools are making progress and which aren't moving students along fast enough.

Parents and the public will have access to some of the color-coded charts, which could be a helpful, if confusing, tool to evaluate a school's performance. The district plans to use some of its grant money to produce documents to help parents understand the system, which confounds even veteran educators.

Traditionally, parents could find out only the percentage of students at a given school who passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

"Parents don't simply want their child to pass, and yet the existing systems — No Child Left Behind, the state accountability system — are all about passing," said school board vice president Harvin Moore. "When schools are judged on what percentage of the children passed, people focus on the 'bubble' kids, kids that are just under passing and the ones that are just over passing, to make sure they don't slip back. It's not that anybody intends to do this."

The board approved paying Battelle a maximum of $10.4 million over three years, with grants funding most of the tab.

The district has named its latest reform effort ASPIRE (Accelerating Student Progress, Increasing Results and Expectations).

Lisa Auerbach, who teaches at Herod Elementary, supports the new focus on student growth. She typically tries to calculate her students' progress on the national Stanford test.

"I have kids who may not yet be on grade level, but, by gosh, I've taken them further than a year's growth," she said. "I call that success because, if the next teacher can do the same thing, then over time that gap is going to narrow."

Complexity 'biggest flaw'?

Steve Antley, a social studies teacher at Marshall Middle School, said that even after attending training on the value-added system, he finds it too complicated to be helpful.

"It reminded me of being in a statistics class during graduate school," said Antley, who is president of the Congress of Houston Teachers. "I think the complex nature of the plan is its biggest flaw in terms of using it for performance pay. To create a performance-pay model, teachers should be able to clearly understand how the money's being awarded."

Sanders makes no apologies for his complex formula, though he wouldn't say whether he supports HISD's decision to award bonuses based on it.

"I'm not going to trade simplicity of calculations for the reliability of the information," he said. "Before groups of teachers, I often hold up a cell phone and I say, 'I don't have a clue what's inside this, but I have to have trust that when I punch the numbers, it's going to call the right number.' "

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