A new policy would level the playing field for educators whose students live in poverty. Why isn’t Philadelphia on board?

Students at the Alexander D. Goode School in York, Pa. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

If a pair of Republican state lawmakers get their way, Pennsylvania could become the first state in the nation that considers student poverty levels when judging teacher performance.

The proposal sponsored by Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, and Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, would change teacher evaluation standards to include a “poverty multiplier” to account for the detrimental effects of poverty on students’ standardized test scores. 

The lawmakers say it would usher in fairer accountability for Pennsylvania’s teachers, who are evaluated each year based, in part, on their students’ performance on standardized tests. 

Should student poverty affect teacher evaluations? One senator used to say ‘no’ — but now he’s changed his mind

 

The bill has the support of the state Department of Education and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing more than 180,000 public school teachers across the state.

But it hasn’t won over teachers in the Philadelphia school district, which enrolls more poor students than any other school system in the state.

Leaders in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents public school teachers in Pennsylvania’s largest city, say that the proposed reforms don’t do nearly enough to ameliorate the effects of poverty on student achievement. 

What’s more, they risk “codify[ing]” negative stereotypes about low student achievement into state law, the union’s president said in a memo sent to lawmakers this week.

The memo also says that the “poverty multiplier” at the heart of the policy, which mathematically adjusts student test scores based on poverty levels in a school building, is “deeply flawed and unproven.” 

Analyses by the union show it has only a modest effect on evaluation scores. That’s consistent with predictions held by Aument, who told the Capital-Star this spring that the equation would have a subtle effect on scores but a big boost on teacher morale. 

The union leaders further warned that the evaluations may be used in “punitive” ways against teachers whose lackluster performance could earn them terminations or furloughs. 

“We don’t believe it gets to the crux of the issue, which is that we have a woefully underfunded school system that shortchanges students in poverty and students in largely minority school districts,” Hillary Linardopoulos, a legislative assistant for the union, told the Capital-Star. 

‘A very valuable, very productive step’

Education policy experts interviewed by the Capital-Star agreed that measuring poverty and its effects on student achievement is a daunting task that may produce imperfect results. 

But that shouldn’t stop Pennsylvania lawmakers from trying, they said. 

“There are some thorny issues to sort through to make sure it’s accurate, but the general notion that we should account for poverty is absolutely the right idea,” Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said. “There could be quibbles over how you best quantify economic disadvantage. But I don’t think there should be a debate over whether including poverty as a factor is the fair thing to do. It obviously is.”

Kahlenberg said the proposed reform in Pennsylvania mirrors national educational trends, as more states start to hold teachers accountable with “value added test scores” — figures that measure how much students learn over time, not just how they perform on a single test.

These measures “indirectly account” for poverty, Kahlenberg said. That’s because they acknowledge that a single test score isn’t the best measure of a student’s aptitude. 

Pennsylvania may become the first state to use these weighted scores to judge a teacher’s performance in the classroom. 

According to Kahlenberg, that’s good news for students and teachers alike. 

“Social scientists almost universally recognize that poverty has impacts on achievement,” Kahlenberg said. “So ignoring that is highly unfair to students in poverty and to teachers who educate students in poverty.”

Another education expert said the proposed reform isn’t just fair — it also adds credibility to teacher evaluations, which are a critical component of any educational system. 

“We can’t improve teachers if we don’t evaluate them,” said Thomas Toch, director of the FutureEd think tank at Georgetown University.

But if lawmakers don’t acknowledge that poor districts present greater teaching challenges, he added, it’s hard to get a clear picture of effective teaching in the commonwealth. And for that, Toch said, students and taxpayers both suffer.

Evaluations that account for the adverse effects of poverty could create better data for educators and administrators who want to improve teaching in the commonwealth. It will also create a greater perception of fairness, which translates into better morale. 

“Pennsylvania is trying to be fair to teachers, and it’s seemingly accomplishing that [with this bill],” Toch said. “It sounds to me like a very valuable, very productive step.”

He also rejected the argument, raised by the Philadelphia teachers’ union and others, that state lawmakers should focus less on teacher evaluations and more on issues related to wages, healthcare, and other policies to mitigate the effects of poverty. As far as he’s concerned, those priorities aren’t mutually exclusive. 

“This doesn’t mean at all that policymakers can’t or shouldn’t continue to address, in every way possible, the damaging effects of poverty on student achievement,” Toch said. “They’re separate issues.”