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Getting the Story Wrong on Teacher Data Reports:
An Open Letter from a 5th-Grade Teacher

My heart sank when I found out. I was checking the news and a chill went down my back. My morale died. “Why?” you may ask. Well, let me start with a notable quote from a classic movie, “The Paper,” by the character Michael McDougal (played by Randy Quaid):

We run stupid headlines because we think they’re funny. We run maimings on the front page because we got good art. And I spend three weeks bitching about my car because it sells papers. But at least it’s the truth. As far as I can remeber we never ever, ever knowingly got a story wrong, until tonight.

I had since believed this represented an unwritten creed of the news media. Perhaps my view was incorrect, or perhaps the media has changed in its rush to keep up with the Internet. In either case I have been proven wrong.

It was ruled by a judge that the media — as it demanded — can release names of teachers with their grades from the 2008-2009 Teacher Data Reports. As many teachers falling at the low end of the scoring spectrum must also feel, I know my grade will paint an ugly and unfair portrait of my teaching career. It uses state test scores based on four months in my third year with a tough class (actually one of my shining moments, considering the progress I made with a difficult group of 32 kids). The resulting report manufactures a grade based on a formula Stephen Hawking would likely struggle to grasp. It doesn’t account for anything we do on a daily basis. Creative successes fall by the wayside. Breakthroughs with behavioral problems don’t surface in the assessments. Progress with non-English-speakers simply doesn’t count. The data has an unacceptable margin of error. The reports have been discredited as untrustworthy by many, including New York State, and have thus been discontinued. We were promised confidentiality, in writing.

Yet the media wants to make them public.

Using data proven to be untrustworthy.

Data solely based on state test scores.

State tests that have since changed multiple times because they were considered unreliable assessments.

An F carved into our foreheads.

For life.

On the Internet.

I’m sure the reports will offer some notation about how this is only part of the picture, but anyone who has any sense knows over time the only thing that will stick in anyone’s mind is the number. The story told by this number is simply wrong.

One number.

Using data proven to be untrustworthy.

Data solely based on state test scores.

State tests that have since changed multiple times because they were considered unreliable assessments.

Over the coming weeks (especially today, when the papers release the reports), I will go through the motions of wanting to leave teaching. Those other reflexive actions people have when they’re upset will surface. Meanwhile the data will enter the anti-teacher rallying cries and there will be articles calling to fire us all. The so-called reformers will claim this data shows how poor teachers are protected at the expense of the students. Some of us will see our names on lists of teachers who should be fired. But I know in the end I will hang on until they force me out. It’s cliche but I really do care for my students, and will continue to do everything I can to improve their lot in life.

So feel free. Bash away. Give credence to data crunchers and power brokers who could care less about the students. Sap the morale from the people who bleed out their hearts and souls to improve the lives of the kids they teach. Print faulty data.

But accept that fact that your standing as a journalist has been thrown by the wayside. Because when you print this list of teachers’ names and numbers YOU are knowingly getting the story wrong.

Salvatore Barcia
5th-Grade Teacher
New York City

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13 Comments:

  • 1 Kimberly Pannes
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Unfortunately this is another challenge teachers are going to have to face…as if we don’t have enough challenges. Where in the data is a report that shows student attendance or their ability to read at grade level when they enter our rooms? Where is the data that shows the number of kids that came to school hungry, or were neglected at home, or the students who have parents that have to work 2 or more jobs and cannot be there to help the student make dinner or find clean clothes for the next day ( don’t even mention homework)? Where is the data that reports the abuse a child faces or the myriad of other social factors that affect the learning environment of a child?? I will never understand why powers that be insist on treating the world of education as a sterile entity. We are not “pushing” goods and services- we are in the PROFESSION of working with human beings and we have not yet accounted for any “standard deviation” in that data. Best of luck to you and thank you for continuing to hold your head high and for working to improve the lives of children where it truly matters…not on some meaningless data report, but in the classroom on a daily basis.

  • 2 Karla Gittens
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Education in this city has failed. Now we use every means possible to point fingers.

    I am a product of the city schools as is my entire family and adult son.

    All parties must be part of the education process. This includes administrators,parents and teachers.

    As a recently retired administrator of the DOE , I can honestly say that our kids are not prepared to compete. We cannot drops that on the doorsteps of teachers alone.

    Talented educators have left the city system and will continue to leave. The city will save lots of
    revenue but our children will suffer .

  • 3 Remainders: Reporting about reporting about teacher reports | GothamSchools
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    [...] An open letter from a fifth-grade teacher to the news organizations publishing the data. (Edwize) [...]

  • 4 Sarah
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Mr. Barcia,
    You forgot an important part of the equation in those teacher test scores — the part that puts responsibility on the shoulders of families and students as well for individual progress. Education is like a triangle. Each side is responsible for driving to the goal of success: parents, teacher and student.
    Thank you for speaking up for all of us. We stand with you in the trenches each day, and we, like the students are more than numbers.
    -SQ

  • 5 Carol
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    I totally agree with you and I certainly feel your pain. At the end of the day God as well as the deformers knows that it is very difficult to teach students in NYC public schools. One day the truth will come out that this campaign against the public school is to destroy them for private gains.. If they continue I hope they will accept the chicken whenever they are hatched.. Continue to your best because God knows that there are many teachers who are sacrificing daily to improve students life and their main objective is to prosecute the foundation of learnng.

  • 6 Carole Papadatos
    · Feb 24, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    What more can I say? Thank you for speaking for us all.

  • 7 David Rohlfing
    · Feb 25, 2012 at 12:57 am

    There is a hopelessness in the teaching profession right now. Even our union is resigned to not stand up–we are against the Obama administration, a president our union endorsed and many of us support, given the alternatives. But we must also recognize our anger. In this case, we must harness our anger into changing education policy in New York City and in the United States. Let our anger fuel action.

  • 8 Jeanne La Conti
    · Feb 25, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Beautifully written. Thank you for standing up for what is right.

  • 9 Meredith Fogelman
    · Feb 25, 2012 at 11:35 am

    I love the quote and the way you put the responsibility back on the journalists. You wrote “your morale died” – many teahcers feel this way. We have been under attack for so long now. This was so well written and spoke for most if not all teachers. Thank you. Thank you for standing up for yourself and all your fellow teachers.

  • 10 Barbara Johnsen
    · Feb 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Thank you , Mr.Barcia for validating all the work we do in our classrooms every day.
    I know I have been there to help support my students making tough life decisions, especially when there are no parental supports. This has prevented many students from making poor choices ,yet this is not measured on the tests.
    I will continue to advocate for the whole student not just the “measure able” part.
    That is why I became a teacher.

  • 11 Steven
    · Feb 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Well written and I echo Sarah that we who are in the trenches day in and day out stand with you.

  • 12 Teri
    · Feb 29, 2012 at 8:15 am

    I am not a paid educator, I am a parent. I think these scores are crap. I have 8 beautiful children that have taught me how different every child can be, with nobody to praise or blame. They are who God chose them to be. I have a son who is very talented but not good at test taking. He struggled everyday until he was able to quit school. So is this going to reflect as a teachers failure? If so that is completely unfair. The teachers my son had were all wonderful. We kept in touch via emails and phone calls, everyone did what they could to encourage him to stay in school. However, he chose to drop out because of severe test anxiety. You cannot blame the teachers for this decision. I have dealt with teachers who just don’t care, and yes there are some out there. For the most part we have been very lucky and had some wonderful teachers. By the way, just one more question. How do these tests affect iur special education teachers? Just curious because I also have an amazing special needs child and those teachers need to be honored not battered for tge work they do. So from a parent of many children with multiple learning styles and abilities I thank everyone of you teachers that are out there because you love your students.

  • 13 Retno
    · Mar 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Mr. Brownfield: Thanks for a thought oikvoprng article. As a career changer (I rebuilt transmissions for thirty years) and a seventh-year teacher of English and Journalism, I would like to offer a few ideas on the topic of teacher benefits and salaries. The idea of chipping away at the benefit of full health care coverage is penny wise but pound foolish. Teachers work daily in a high risk- for- sickness environment. Teachers deserve the finest plans available. Mr. Brownfield, I am well aware that The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank and thus espouses more conservative viewpoints. However, I see a one-sided take on this issue here, and whether it is The HeritageFoundation or not, you have written a “news piece” that deserves a balanced approach. It was teachers who helped you hone the rhetorical skills necessary to prepare you for your impressive career. Sadly, now you seem to do the bidding of big business. Where is the teacher voice in this article? Where are those voices that call call for CEO salary reductions, or fairer corporate tax rules, or deeper funding for pre-school educational programs that will enable poorer kids to enter primary school on a more equitable level? It is not teacher salaries that are creating budgetary problems. It is poverty. In fact, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, cites poverty as the crux of the education problem. It is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is unconscionable that minimum and middle class wage-to price-values have remained stagnant over the past 40 years while the top tenth percentile of wage earners have seen a continued rise in this area. No, we must not target teacher salaries and benefits. Our problems stem from the inability of some people who wield economic power and control, to admit that their successes have grown from the labor and purse strings of those from the lower economic tiers. Our present budgetary crises are weeds, fertilized by unchecked avarice and crassly and knowingly cultivated by a system that needs to experience what Dr. King called “A true revolution of values [that] will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” Children born into poverty enter the classroom with serious language deficits. NPR recently reported that while the average child from an affluent family enters kindergarten with a 20,000 word vocabulary, the lower-middle to poor child enters with a 3,000 word vocabulary. This language and self-image gap often follows the child for the rest of his or her public education. Trying to reverse this damage is a tremendous and nearly impossible task. Mr. Brownfield, in earning a doctorate of law at Loyola, and winning awards for your performance in constitutional and administrative law, I ask that you as a journalist make an attempt to include sources who advocate for actualizing a focused support for educators and thus our kids. This issue can be seen a Brown v. Board of Ed issue, but on a different level. These children, through no fault of their own, are not being afforded the same 14th Amendment protections (educational, social, health care, etc.) under law as their more affluent peers. Whether a constitutional case could actually be made regarding this is a matter for legal experts, but as a human issue, there is no doubt that the disparity is as equally reprehensible as was the 1954 case. Taxpayer money would be better spent on doing everything possible to level this playing field and thus support teachers in this war on poverty. Making laws to eradicate this gap through a more just wage system would also alleviate the stressors on teachers and society. Education is a proven deterrent to a life of crime and a proven vehicle toward healthy citizenship. I ask that you write pieces that also include voices who work toward supporting teachers in their effort toward attaining social and economic parity for their students. Only a more balanced approach can help us to develop the most powerful tool our children have their minds. Include the left on these issues and help us build a system that offers a chance for a better world.