Chicago teacher strikes: the latest chapter in the misguided Impact Metrics Movement

Chicago teacher strikes: the latest chapter in the misguided Impact Metrics Movement
Photo by Matt Johnson

Central to the Chicago teacher strike has been the debate over teacher evaluations. Over the past several years, millions of dollars have been thrown at universities and research groups to create an equitable evlauation tool to quantify teachers' impact. And at the end of the day, the education industry has discovered what the nonprofit sector has long known: the push for accountability in the social sector brings as much baggage as it does data.

The metrics movement has emptied the deep pockets of national foundations and corporations, shifting the focus away from cash-strapped direct services. It has brought fleeting fame to a revolving door of PhD's that are heavily motivated to debunk yesterday's mode of measuring impact. And worst of all, it has exploited resource-dependant service providers - from schools to homeless shelters - whose private and public funding, or even their jobs, depend on the data yielded from the ever-changing evaluation tool-du-jour. Don't get me wrong - I don't think we should return to the "business as usual" mode of operation, when principals popped in to classrooms for 10 minutes to evaluate teachers, and when nonprofits relied heavily on hand-picked data and individual success stories to sell their cause to funders. But when nonprofit leaders routinely complain of spending almost half their work day logging data, one has to ask: at what point do evaluation tools become more of a liability than an agent of systemic change.

This question lies at the core of the debate raging in Chicago over standardized test-based teacher evaluations. CPS has proposed using test scores for 25 percent of a teacher's evaluation, rising to 40 percent over five years. The Chicago Teacher's Union argues that socioeconomic factors - i.e. poverty, drug culture, family situations, etc. - can cause students' school performance to fluctuate irrespective of teacher effectiveness. A proposed compromise has been using a value-added method that measures the teacher's contribution in a given year by comparing current school year test scores of their students to the scores of those same students in the previous school year, as well as to the scores of other students in the same grade.

The debate focuses too much on the fairness of these evaluation tools, and not enough on the cost and sheer nuisance of implementing them. Millions of dollars of funding that could have gone towards any number of direct service causes have been invested in education reform. At the end of the day, these so-called sophisiticated algorithisms are still a work in progress. And when the next framework is released, it will likely include more wrinkles that will make it more costly and time-consuming to implement.

True accountability in the social sector is a double-edged sword. As much as it motivates teachers and non-profit leaders to produce results, it also saddles them with paperwork and turns the people they serve into statistics - instead of people that have unique goals that often cannot be measured.








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