Category Archives: Teachers

Dismissing poor teachers is not “anti-teacher”

Eric A. Hanushek, whose research into the effects of teachers on student learning was featured in the movie Waiting for Superman, disputes the argument that efforts to make it possible to remove the worst teacher from our nation’s schools is somehow anti-teacher. He recently did so in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal.

The article is behind a paywall, but here are some key points he makes:

  • “No longer is education reform an issue of liberals vs. conservatives.” Good for children, and for our future.
  • “All sides” now accept the idea that teacher effectiveness is key to student learning.
  • “The typical teacher is both hard-working and effective. But if we could replace the bottom 5%-10% of teachers with an average teacher—not a superstar—we could dramatically improve student achievement. The U.S. could move from below average in international comparisons to near the top.”

By the way, you don’t have to be anti-union to want to change personnel rules in public schools. Consider the group Put Kid First Minneapolis.

  1. First, the credential of the people behind the group:
  2. They believe that teacher unions are good and necessary: “If you want to bust unions, find a different group. We believe unions can create a more just and equal world. In our perfect world, teachers would make more than lawyers and bankers, and, to achieve that, we’ll need collective bargaining.
  3. “We support teacher tenure as a form of due process.” See the link above.
  4. “We’re agnostic on merit pay.”
  5. “We oppose vouchers for a whole host of constitutional and good government reasons.”

So they’re not the kind of people who want to bust unions, implement a voucher program, implement merit pay, or eliminate tenure.

But they do see a need for changes:

  1. “We do not support teacher tenure as a life-time job guarantee, regardless of performance or what students need.”
  2. “Allow school leadership teams (the principals, plus teacher and parent representatives) the freedom to hire and retain the most dynamic, talented, licensed teachers they can find, regardless of seniority or whether those candidates currently work for the district.”
  3. Use value-added tests, classroom observations, and parent/student surveys to evaluate teachers, recognize good ones, and remove poor ones.
  4. Use hiring freedom (the second point) to let schools take race and ethnicity into account when hiring teachers. I’m not comfortable with this, though I can see their point.

The development of the group Put Kids First Minneapolis is evidence that Hanushek is right. Giving principals authority to hire and fire teachers–and then holding them accountable–is not the only shake-up that public schools receive. But it’s an essential element, without which we’ll be denying many children the right to a high-quality education.

A small but growing chorus for school choice

Worth watching.

What “Jersey Shore” tells us about teacher pay

Popular attitudes towards public education suffer from an ignorance of some basic principles of education, such as the law of supply and demand.

Recently a friend of mine said something along these lines: “Isn’t it disgusting that the cast of ‘Jersey Shore’ gets paid $45,000 per episode when teachers in this country don’t get paid that much for a whole year?”

What I know about  “Jersey Shore” is very little. I suspect (I have not bothered to do a Google search) that it is a  “reality show” on some TV network, about people who spend their time baking in the sun at a beach on the Atlantic Ocean.

As you might surmise, I don’t see any need to watch that show. But millions of people, or at least hundreds of thousands, find the show compelling, entertaining, or otherwise worth their time. That fact means that advertisers hand over money to the producers of the show, who in turn pay the “actors” of  the show. That’s no “God’s-eye-view” judgment that “Jersey Shore” is more important to the health of the health of the country than education, but it does illustrate the economic principle of scarcity: That which is scarce, relative to the demand, fetches more than that which is not.

Nationally, the “average” teacher earned about $54,000 per year, which isn’t wealthy, but not exactly a starvation wage, either. (I suspect, though don’t know with certainty, that this number does not include health or retirement benefits.) The number in Kansas is lower ($49,000), but then again, Kansas has a lower cost of living than, say, the east-coast urbanized zone from Washington, DC to Boston, or the sprawling settlement that is Southern California. There’s another factor about teacher pay that must be kept in mind, too: Teaching offers job security that is not present in many jobs. Getting fired for non-performance almost never happens, thanks to the power of tenure and contracts. Even getting let go for economic reasons is not as likely as in some other industries (witness the recent, massive “edujobs” bailout from Congress.)

Finally, the pay of teachers has been affected by the trend towards “smaller class sizes.” Simply put, you can have few teachers earning a lot, or more teachers not earning as much. The path the nation has taken in recent decades is to increase the number of teachers. As any student of Econ 101 can (if he’s paying attention) tell you, when the supply of people supply a service goes up, that puts downward pressure on wages.

Portable pensions, please

“The most potent education reform may be the one that’s too often considered a side issue: pension reform.” That’s the word of the editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal.

Before you dismiss the suggestion based on the source alone, consider this: New teachers, once they get past the initial rough year or two, are sometimes the best teachers a school has. They haven’t had time to get worn down or cynical, for one thing. Yet the current retirement system effectively discourages them.

The Journal also quotes a report from Education Sector, which says under the current approach “”too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from the benefits and service time they have accrued.” That’s not exactly what students need.

For more on the report, see what I wrote a short time ago.

Standardized Tests: Good, bad, useful, or useless?

The New York Times has a symposium of 8 contributors who debate the value of tests in evaluating teacher effectiveness.

First up, the panelists who favor some use of value-added tests.

Lance Izumi on the plight of parents who can’t act on the data: “If, based on teacher assessment results, parents learn that their child’s teacher is lousy, then what’s their option? Most kids will continue to be stuck in assigned classrooms regardless of their teacher’s performance. Waiting for a teacher to be remediated or fired could take years, by which time their child’s learning could be derailed.”

Marcus Winters says we should use value-added tests, though cautiously: It would be irresponsible to use only value-added analysis to evaluate teachers. Nonetheless, imperfect value-added assessment is surely an improvement upon the current system, which makes no meaningful attempt to differentiate teachers by their effectiveness.”

Vern Williams says that value-added tests must be used in context: “One student with severe emotional issues can change the entire social and academic character of a classroom. Such situations are rarely if ever explained when value-added results are reported. These results should therefore be used carefully as part of a teacher’s evaluation when appropriate.” He also mentions using school-wide measures, which I think might be appropriate.

Kevin Carey says, “Value-added results should be interpreted carefully, in light of statistical margins of error. But perfection can’t be the enemy of the good, and annual testing is here to stay.” He adds that teachers should also be judged by peer evaluations and “more rigorous classroom observations,” which sounds about right.

Amy Wilkins sums up the logic of value-added testing this way: “Instead of relying on a single end-of-the-year test score, it examines growth over the course of a school year. So even when a student enters a classroom far below grade level, if that student makes big learning gains, the teacher gets credit for those gains. In fact, she gets far more credit for that student than for one who started the year a little above average but ended in the same place.”  She concludes, “No one is suggesting that ‘value-added’ measures be the sole criteria of teacher reviews,” and points out that in Los Angeles, teachers expressed “frustration” that they aren’t being given this information.

Now, those who oppose their use.

Linda Darling-Hammond says, “studies repeatedly show that these measures are highly unstable for individual teachers,” which of course is a serious methodological problem that draws into question the validity of such tests. She decries “evaluating and rewarding teachers primarily on the basis of state test score gains,” a proposition I don’t see advocated by anyone in that forum. She prefers, “the career ladder evaluations in Denver and Rochester, the Teacher Advancement Program and the rigorous performance assessments used for National Board Certification, all of which link evidence of student learning to what teachers do in teaching curriculum to specific students.”

Jesse Rothstein prefers “more frequent visits from trained evaluators and master teachers will require substantial additional resources.” He points out that student gains can fade over time. While he casts this as an argument against value-added testing, I think it points to the importance of having good teachers throughout a student’s career.

Diane Ravitch, the current darling of the education establishment for her about-face on school choice (she was for it before she was against it) says, “There is no technocratic fix for the problems of American education,” apparently thinking that value-added tests qualify as a “technocratic” fix. No, I think it’s an attempt to add another dimension to the evaluation process. She also mentions problems of cross-time validity (something to consider) and the possibility that tests will narrow the curriculum.

Summary: It’s really a mess, isn’t it? Reading these articles takes me back to my beginning classes in graduate school.  Validity and reliability are key concepts for any researcher. Validity, roughly speaking means whether your measurements measure what you want them to measure. Reliability, on the other hand, asks whether, if you take one measurement, you get a different result when you take a second measurement, even though nothing has changed.

These are serious questions that need to be addressed. But as one of the panelists said, we should not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good. And what we have now is, too often, “not good.” As a scientist, I may want to see another ten year’s worth of research into this matter. As a human being who knows that thousands if not millions of children suffer from poor teachers, I am saddened to think that their futures will be compromised as we seek the “perfect” means of evaluating teachers.

Use value-added analysis as a trigger to subjective, consequential evaluations

What is a fan of school reform to do about the weak state of teacher-evaluation models?

Marcus Winters writes about the need for doing something about the appalling state of teacher evaluation: While “studies show that the difference between a student’s being assigned to a good or bad teacher can mean as much as a grade level’s worth of learning over the course of a school year”, “even the nation’s lowest-performing school districts routinely rate more than 95 percent of their teachers as satisfactory or higher.”

What about classroom observations? He says they are “thoroughly subjective.” While he applauds value-added assessment, Winters warns that “given its messiness—especially when tied to stakes as high as people’s jobs—it cannot be used in isolation.”Yet, he says, we shouldn’t ignore value-added assessments altogether. Use them as triggers: “The real lesson [of the Los Angeles Times’ analysis] is that test scores are best used to raise red flags about a teacher’s objective performance; rigorous subjective assessment should follow, to ensure that the teacher is truly performing poorly.”

But due to collective bargaining agreements, tenure, and inability of teachers to evaluate teachers, that evaluation–and subsequent booting of incompetent–seldom happens.

Can schools find a perfect way of evaluating teachers?

The Economic Policy Institute agrees with something I’ve been saying for a while: “American public schools generally do a poor job of systematically developing and evaluating teachers.”

So what does it recommend we should do? In a press release, it says,  “While there are good reasons for concern about the current system of teacher evaluation, there are also good reasons to be concerned about claims that measuring teachers’ effectiveness largely by student test scores will lead to improved student achievement.”

So what’s the place for value-added assessments? It says making them half of an evaluation system is “unwise.” In a blog post, the institute’s Andrea Orr says, “the accuracy of these analyses of student test scores is highly problematic.”

A 29-page briefing paper (PDF) published by the institute says that change in test scores “should be used only as a modest part of a broader set of evidence about teacher practice.” It mentions several objections; I list them in a rough order of decreasing important persuasiveness, in my opinion:

  1. When value-added models have been used, their performance over time suggests that they’re not quite ready for prime time: “One study found that across five large urban districts, among teachers who were ranked in the top 20% of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year, and another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40%.” Now that’s a problem. While an individual teacher’s effectiveness can change over time, when such a large number of teachers change over just one year, the methodological validity of the measurement is called into question.
  2. There are many non-school factors at work: “Student test score gains are also influenced by family resources, student health, family mobility, and the influence of neighborhood peers and of classmates who may be relatively more advantaged or disadvantaged.”
  3. Student test score gains are also influenced by family resources, student health, family mobility, and the influence of neighborhood peers and of classmates who may be relatively more advantaged or disadvantaged.
  4. A variety of other factors inside the school can affect student test scores. They include: “curriculum materials, specialist or tutoring supports, class size, and other factors.” (OK, then, how about giving bonuses to the entire school staff if students excel? That recognizes the role of employees beyond the classroom teacher.)
  5. A student’s performance in subject X may be effected by his performance in subject Y; as a result, the measured effectiveness of one teacher may be tied up by the measured effectiveness of another.
  6. When schools use team teaching, block scheduling, or some other techniques, it’s hard to single out the contribution of a specific student.

The report admits that “Used with caution, value-added modeling can add useful information.”

Though I’m fairly sure the authors of the report did not mean to endorse school choice, their conclusion offers some support for that option: “Yet there are many alternatives that should be the subject of experiments. The Department of Education should actively encourage states to experiment with a range of approaches that differ in the ways in which they evaluate teacher practice and examine teachers’ contributions to student learning. These experiments should all be fully evaluated.”

A wide range of approaches? Well, that’s what we use in automobiles, where consumers can choose from the reviews offered by Car & Driver, Edmunds, Kellys, the Institute for Highway Safety and so forth. For service companies, you can look at reviews provided by Angie’s List, Yelp. Consumer Reports, and others. Yet in schooling, we’re trying to find the one reliable and valid approach to evaluating teachers.

Why? Because unlike the cases of  automobiles or carpet cleaners or doctors, when it comes to schooling, we expect everyone in a given geographic area to purchase from the same provider–the local school district. Naturally, there’s going to be an incredible amount of controversy over what the appropriate metric of quality is or should be.

I agree with the authors who say, “School districts should be given freedom to experiment, and professional organizations should assume greater responsibility for developing standards of evaluation that districts can use.” But that freedom will be most effective in a free market for schooling, with significant choice among schools, and competition for student dollars. That’s a far cry from what we have now.

Teachers union defends teacher, not student, interests

As I noted last week, the LA Times used official data to judge teachers by their effectiveness through a value-added analysis. The union in Los Angeles is not amused. It issued a statement, saying in part, “It is the height of journalistic irresponsibility to make public these deeply flawed judgments about a teacher’s effectiveness.”

Note the emphasis on teachers. How about students?

Give the Times credit for asking an important questions: Which teachers are having a measurable impact for the good, and which are not? Apparently the public wants to know; the Times says traffic to its website has soared. Even the education establishment has responded; the administration in LA has started efforts to do its own analysis–though it promises to keep the results confidential, which is to say, hide them from the public.

I’d agree that value-added analysis should be but one tool used to evaluate teachers. But for too long, teacher unions have resisted any and all efforts to use such an analysis. How important should a value-added analysis be in teacher evaluations is an open question, given the state of the art. But avoiding it altogether is something that shouldn’t be done.

The other question is “to whom should the information be disclosed?” Randi Weingarten, the president of the second-largest teacher union in the country (and ironically, the one most open to reform), says “not many people.”

“Although she said parents should have the right to know whether their child’s teacher received a satisfactory evaluation, she said the public should not have wide access to the scores.”

But if the public is paying the teacher salaries, shouldn’t it have access to the information? The local union, for its part, said releasing the information to the public, “could also have long-lasting impact on the careers of teachers.” Perhaps. But then again, are we running schools for the sake of teacher–or of children?

Kansas’ teacher retirement plan is underfunded, obsolete

It used to be that the teaching corps was made up primarily of the brightest and best of women, who had few other job options available to them. The world has changed, and it’s time–past time–for our personnel policies to change with them. One such necessary change is to the retirement system.

The group Education Sector has a new report, “Reforming Teacher Pensions for a Changing Workforce” (PDF). It says that most states have several problems with their pension systems for teachers and other government employees:

First, they’re woefully underfunded, with long-term obligations exceeding expected revenue by $450 billion. (For perspective, that’s about 12 percent of the entire budget of the U.S. government, with its far-flung military bases and many domestic programs.)

Next, and most important for our purposes here, current retirement policies are bad for education. The current approach “features elements that compel teachers to stay on the job, regardless of burnout or a desire to pursue a new career, until they reach a certain career milestone, after which they retire immediately or else begin to lose out financially.”

There are a number of political and legal obstacles to achieving both financial solvency and a retirement policy that encourages excellence in education, the authors admit. They survey the various ways in which defined benefit, defined contribution, and cash balance plans affect teachers differently.

Today’s pension schemes are built around a profession that practitioners remain in for 20-30 years with an expectation that performance and value continue to improve over time. But gains in teacher effectiveness are heavily concentrated in the early years.[So there’s less need to keep teachers employed in the same job for decades on end.] And younger workers, including teachers, are much more likely to move between careers. Solutions to the pension problem should be designed with an eye toward how the profession will look in the future, not how it looked in the past

By the way, how is Kansas doing? Not very well.  A state with a “funded ratio” of 100 percent has all the money it needs to meet its long-term obligations. A state with a ratio of over 100 percent has more than it needs. Kansas? Its ratio of 59, second-worst in the country. Only Illinois does worse. Kansas’ unfunded liability (for state employees, not just teachers) is over $8 billion, or nearly $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the state. Note that these numbers are based on data from 2008–before the economy turned south.

For a more detailed look at the financial health of KPERS, see this report (PDF) from a research center at KU.

Washington Post: Congressional school aid is “motivated by politics”

The Washington Post, on the “aid package” to states, much of which will go to public school districts:

The crusade for an education jobs bill, led by the Obama administration and Democratic leaders in Congress, has always struck us as more of an election-year favor for teachers unions than an optimal use of public resources. Billed as an effort to stimulate the economy, it’s not clearly more effective than alternative uses of the cash. Yes, school budgets are tight across the country, but the teacher layoff “crisis” is exaggerated. In fact, as happens each year, many teachers who got pink slips in the spring have been notified that they’ll be hired after all. Many layoffs could have been — and indeed have been — avoided by modest union concessions.

Read the entire thing here, where the editorial board explains the various problems with the design and execution of the package. Among other things, the post says the aid money should have been tied to reforms in school personnel policies. I agree.

Of baseball players and teachers

“The best teacher in America should make $25 million, like A-Rod; and a handful of teachers should make millions. The average teacher should make what a minor-league player earns. And bad teachers should be cut during spring training.” — Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

A few more superintendents like this, please

From the New York Times, via the Seattle Times, comes a story of a school system leader who means business:

Michelle Rhee, the reform-minded chancellor who took over public schools in Washington, D.C., three years ago, said Friday that she had fired 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor appraisals under a new evaluation system that for the first time holds some educators accountable for student improvement in standardized test scores.

“Every child in a District of Columbia public school has a right to a highly effective teacher; in every classroom, of every school, of every neighborhood, of every ward, in this city,” the chancellor said. “That is our commitment.”

The Washington, DC schools are notoriously poor, with not only low performance but until recently, poor management.

Give us $100,000-a-year teachers*

The Chicago Tribune recently ran an article about teachers in the state who earn $100,000 a year. Most of them, as you might expect, are in wealthy suburbs of Chicago.

The Tribune ran into some grief from the teachers union, and the paper ran an editorial that’s worth reading. The board said it’s happy to have $100k teachers–but only if they’re the right kind. Here’s an excerpt:

We’ve argued countless times that teacher pay should be based on performance, documented against measurable standards. In Illinois, it’s based largely on longevity.

Our agenda is excellence in education. You can’t achieve that without excellent teachers, and you can’t attract and keep excellent teachers unless you pay competitive salaries. Illinois taxpayers understand that.

Our agenda is to shatter an education status quo that resists installing clear performance measures for teachers, that resists expanding the number of innovative charter schools, that resists competition. A $100,000 teacher who can demonstrate excellent gains by her students has earned her keep.

You can read the whole thing here. A companion editorial reminds us of some of the benefits of being a teacher, including job security, little or no required travel, a liberal leave policy, summer vacations (or if you will, the ability to have a significant amount of time that’s self-directed, even if it is in fulfillment of various official requirements), and retirement benefits. It concludes, “It’s often said no one gets rich as a teacher. Yes, no one gets chief-executive rich, or pro-athlete rich or movie-star rich. But you can do very well as a teacher, compared to the broader work force. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with expecting teachers to demonstrate through performance measures year in and year out that they deserve what they make.”

Now, I understand there are problems with subjectivity in evaluation, favoritism, and factors outside the control of the teacher. But isn’t that true of many jobs, especially the professions? I’m also aware that test scores don’t reveal everything, and that there are methodological problems with using student scores to evaluate teacher performance. All this, however, doesn’t mean that “time on the job plus the number of post-college credits” should be the sum total of what determines teacher retention and pay.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, is moving towards using student academic progress as part of the process of evaluating teacher performance.

The PilotOnline.com says,

Virginia’s weak teacher accountability provisions are getting a fresh look.

According to plans presented to the state Board of Education on Thursday, new guidelines would require evaluations to consider student growth as a “significant” factor.

Current law only requires evaluations to be conducted every three years and does not tie them to pay.

For more on teacher pay in Kansas, see this page, which is under development.

Single-largest political donor? Teacher unions

Which fat cat spends the most amount of money on political campaigns. Big oil? Big banks? Wal-Mart, the largest private-sector employer? Think again.

The largest political campaign spender in America is not a megacorporation, such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or ExxonMobil. It isn’t an industry association, like the American Bankers Association or the National Association of Realtors. It’s not even a labor federation, like the AFL-CIO. If you combine the campaign spending of all those entities it does not match the amount spent by the National Education Association, the public-sector labor union that represents some 2.3 million K–12 public school teachers and nearly a million education support workers (bus drivers, custodians, food service employees), retirees, and college student members. NEA members alone make up more than half of union members working for local governments, by far the most unionized segment of the U.S. economy.

That’s Mike Antonucci, a gadfly to teacher unions. Antonucci groups every state and the District of Columbia according to how much union money is spent per teacher in the jurisdiction. The money can come state or national resources.

The state with the most spending is Oregon, in which the NEA and its state affiliate spent $357 per teacher during the time period studied. The state with the median amount of spending is New Mexico, with $9.77 per teacher. Kansas lagged, at $6.30, per teacher, though it was in the same category ($6-10 per teacher) as Michigan and New Jersey, states with much larger budgets.

Antonucci points out that when they wish to act, the NEA and the smaller AFT can have a significant impact on states that have a modest union presence of their own. They would want to do so because what happens in one state can serve as an inspiration in another. For example, the NEA worked (successfully) to defeat a disclosure requirement in South Dakota.

In addition to funding candidates and campaign committees, the two unions and their state affiliates fund a lot of other organizations that serve their purposes. One, for example, opposes standardized testing. The NEA has also given a quarter-million dollars to a research organization that has issued several reports critical of charter schools, which with rare exception non-union.

When did it get so hard to fire a teacher?

Writing in Slate, Brian Palmer asks, “When did it get so hard to fire a teacher?

New Jersey was the first state to adopt tenure, in 1909. There was some value in having tenure, as a way to protect teachers from “flunking the children of powerful parents, holding unpopular views, or simply getting old.” The idea was to promote merit. Unfortunately, tenure has become an obstacle to merit, as hardly ever does a teacher get fired for incompetence.

Palmer (rightly) places some blame on principals, for not giving meaningful evaluations. But then again, why go to the trouble of making a thorough evaluation of an employee if the cost of getting rid of bad apples is hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of legal wrangling?

The Gates Foundation: Outsized Player in Education?

The Washington Post describes some of the work done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in education. It notes that the foundation is advocating many of the key reforms in education today, including smaller schools, charter schools, and teacher evaluation.

One question that runs throughout the article is whether the foundation has too much influence. Certainly it’s got money to hand out, and it does push the envelope of what political leaders and education industry leaders are comfortable with. But it’s also possible to overstate the influence.

Consider this:

Overall government spending on K-12 education, estimated at more than $500 billion a year, dwarfs what the foundation gives. But the Seattle-based charity, with a $35 billion endowment, towers over others in the field. It gives nearly four times as much annually to elementary and secondary education as the second-biggest player, the Walton Family Foundation.

A $35 billion endowment sounds large, and it certainly is. But unless the foundation expects to spend itself out of existence soon–something few foundations ever do, at least intentionally–it is indeed going to be dwarfed by government spending. If the foundation gives away 5% of its assets each year–a moderately aggressive spending policy–it gives away $1.75 billion per year, or a ratio of 286:1. Note, though, that education is only one of several programs within the Gates foundation  (health care in the third world is another, and there are still others I’m not aware of), so in 2008, the foundation gave, according to a companion article in the Post, $219 million for education. Bump that up to $500 million just for kicks, and government spending still outspends Gates Foundation spending by a ratio of 1000:1.

There are several ways of looking at this: The tail wags the dog; school officials are so desperate for money they will do anything demanded by someone dangling money in front of them; or the education industry has a weakness to fads. Perhaps all three-if not more. I happen to agree with some of their programs and disagree with others. Some people quoted in the article point out the obvious, which is that the Gates Foundation (and anyone else, for that matter) can grab onto ideas that look good now but turn out to be not so good. That’s one reason why funds for school choice programs would be a great addition to the foundation’s portfolio: A new program would help students immediately (many of the foundation’s reforms have long-term effects), and would offer a bottom-up approach to complement the top-down approaches funded so far. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. For one thing, it has given $1.6 million (small change, admittedly) to teacher unions in an attempt to mend fences–and unions are no fans of school choice, for reasons that run from ideological to self-interest.

The article closes with a mention of a new pay experiment being conducted in Florida, funded in large measure by foundation money:

The Hillsborough system, with 193,000 students, emerged last year as the foundation sifted thousands of candidates for a project nicknamed the “deep dive.” Crucially, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association had already accepted the idea of bonuses linked to test scores and other metrics.

Over seven years, the $100 million grant will fund staff development, testing, salary and other start-up costs for a career path that aims to elevate teachers who excel and encourage those who flounder to get help.

Every year, teachers here will be evaluated on a formula based on student achievement gains (40 percent), principal observation (30 percent) and peer observation (30 percent). By 2013, a four-tier pay scale will take effect that will reward high performers regardless of their academic degrees or years of experience — a major break from precedent. Veteran teachers will be allowed to remain in the seniority-based pay scale or opt into the new one. New teachers will not have a choice and will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny before gaining tenure.

That sounds like a reasonable, gradual approach.

Indiana, Oregon, try market and performance-based pay

Marketplace-based pay is coming to Indiana, at least in baby steps. Some teachers will be paid more for filling hard-to-staff jobs, while others will get paid more for student achievement.

According to the Indianapolis Star, the “Indiana Department of Education this week applied for a federal grant to implement TAP, a system of incentives and training for teachers, at 44 schools throughout the state.”

That’s 44 schools, not 44 districts, so the project is indeed modest. But given the grip that the unionized factory model has on public schools (first in, first out, pay based on seniority), it counts as positive reform.

Contrary to the fears that deviating from the union scale means teaching to the test (and putting teachers in the position of being paid for something they can’t have total control over), teacher bonus pay is based on a mix of factors: “All teachers in the school would be eligible for substantial bonuses, according to a formula based 50 percent on principal evaluations, 30 percent on how their own students improve and 20 percent on how the entire school improves.”

To its credit, the state’s teacher union hasn’t blocked the idea, but has left it up to bargaining units at the district level. Still, it can’t quite shake the union model of pay: It “has no problem with teachers getting extra pay for extra duties but grows concerned when some teachers are paid more than others. That kind of system, the union has argued, can lead to abuses.”

To be fair to the union, school principals aren’t always up to the task of evaluating teachers. I believe it was the National Council for Teacher Quality that suggested a need for principals to be trained in the art of evaluation.

Six districts in Oregon, meanwhile, will apply for some TAP money as well. According to OregonLive.com, “The Oregon districts applied to win a share of the Teacher Incentive Fund, a relatively small $400 million pot of federal Race to the Top money set aside to encourage schools to measure and reward the effectiveness of teachers and principals.”

Has anyone in Kansas considered going after this money?

Click here for information on TAP, which works in many states. It gets some of its funding from the U.S. Department of Education, with foundations and others supplying the rest.

Should the U.S. government borrow money to pay teachers?

Writing in the Washington Post, Charles Lane takes on the proposed $23 billion rescue/bailout bill of public schools across the country, questioning several claims made by its advocates.

Lane never raises an obvious question: What’s constitutional about the U.S. government paying teacher salaries, when education has historically (and in fact is) a matter for state and local governments and families?

Once this precedent is established, what’s to prevent Washington from coming in to “rescue” schools–and further tighten the strings–during every downturn?

Alternative teacher training in Minnesota

Minnesota, one of the leading states on academic achievement–but in Minneapolis, with one of the largest racial achievement gaps in the country–discussed changing the qualifications for teachers in the last legislative session, with Rep. Carlos Mariani (D-Saint Paul) carrying legislation to strengthen the legal status of programs such as Teach for America and Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) offered similar legislation.

Also under consideration were measures to  incorporate measures of student  performance in teacher evaluations.

The push for reforms will continue, says Minnesota Public Radio:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty pushed to change the standards for teacher’s licensure and move toward a merit-based evaluation system. Though the proposals fell under heavy opposition from the state’s teachers union, the ideas retain enough bipartisan interest that they’re likely to carry into next year.

The teacher licensure measures would’ve affected two groups of people — new college graduates who don’t have a traditional education degree but still want to teach through programs like Teach for America and mid-career professionals who want teach but without taking years to get an education degree.

If a high-achieving state like Minnesota can be considering such changes, surely Kansas should as well.

Kansas schools: We need more money

To paraphrase an article in the Kansas Reporter, school districts across the state say that the recent tax increases will keep them from losing any more ground, but it won’t help them a lot.

It also quotes former SBOE chair Sen. Steve Abrams, who says that “Using the current paradigm I can understand how the school districts need more and more money.”

Some districts will cut teaching positions, though others won’t.

The need to cut spending should, but probably won’t, focus attention on one important reform that schools everywhere should implement: Change the first-in-first-out rule for dismissing teachers during budget crunches.

As a rule, teachers in their first two or three years of employment are not as effective as teachers who have worked those first difficult years. So laying off those teachers may not be the most harmful step to take, if the goal is to maintain an effective teaching corps.

But beyond those first three years, there’s no relationship between teacher longevity and teacher effectiveness. To get the most bang for the buck–that is, do spend money in the way that does the best good for students–schools should develop means of identifying the most effective teachers and then making sure that that information is used when it’s time to cut staffing positions.

Teacher unions will tell you either that all teachers are effective, or that it’s impossible to quantify teacher effectiveness. But it’s logically impossible for all teachers to be equally, highly effective: There’s no reason to expect that normal variations in worker excellence and productivity don’t exist in the teaching corps, just as they do among doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and other professionals. The hard but necessary task is to find ways to identify and act on those differences.

Kansas one of 14 states to hire more teachers as enrollment falls

Education Week says that some states may have hired too many teachers, which is causing some turmoil in schools as districts resort to laying off staff:

An increase in teacher hiring in recent years has led some observers to posit a link to the waves of pink slips districts are now sending across the country.

Thus far, hiring patterns have not been widely studied as part ofthe current discussion about layoffs. But national data from the U.S. Department of Education and from the National Education Association’s annual “Ranking & Estimates” reportRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader show that between the 1999-2000 and the 2007-08 school years the teacher force grew at more than double the rate of K-12 student enrollments.

A table that accompany the story says that Kansas is one of only 14 states that has increased the teaching force even as enrollment fell. Between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2007-08 school year, student enrollment fell by 0.8%, but the number of teachers employed rose by 7.8%.

Kansas was low on the list as far as declining enrollment. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland lost as few students as Kansas did on a percentage basis, with Vermont topping out the list with a 10% decline.

The state that added the most to its teaching staff was Pennsylvania, where the staff grew by 18%. Maryland’s staff grew by 16.3%, and Kansas ranked sixth out of 14.

Teachers who achieve more should be paid more

A few weeks ago, the Florida Legislature enacted some sweeping changes in how public school teachers are paid in the state. Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill, but it’s still worth looking at the reasons for the legislation.

After the Legislature passed the bill but before Crist vetoed it, former Gov. Jeb Bush offered a defense of the bill in an op-ed published in the St. Petersburg Times. Among his points:

A decade ago, the state enacted the A+ plan, which gave schools bonuses if the students in the school achieved specified gains on FCAT, the state’s assessment.

Most recently, reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for disabled students increased significantly, compared with either a modest gain or even a drop for the nation as a whole.

SB6 would build on that idea. The important factor is to use not test scores at one point in time, or test scores against a standard, but changes in the score over time: “Because some students start the school year below grade level, teachers will not be measured on what their students know. Rather, teachers will be measured on how much each individual student learns during the year in their class. Students will not be compared with each other, only to their own progress from one year to the next.”

The measure, he says, would help retain effective teachers. “Moreover, the bill requires even higher salaries for truly exceptional teachers who help their students make up for lost ground.” Don’t forget, it’s students who are performing at the lowest levels who have the most opportunity to gain–meaning their teachers have the most opportunity to earn a bonus. By contrast, today’s method of paying teachers rewards not effectiveness or even (in most cases) for teaching in challenging schools, but for staying on the job a long time.

Bush says, “Nearly half of teachers leave the profession in the first 10 years, many because of the low pay in the early years. Rewarding effectiveness instead of longevity will keep the best of the best in our classrooms.”

I suppose you could say that we need to raise teacher salaries across the board. But that would do nothing to address the longevity-based compensation scheme. If you’re going to be paid the same amount to work in a challenging school as you are for working in a school of supportive parents, why would you choose the former, unless you had the opportunity to earn a bonus? To be sure, some teachers will voluntarily take on a difficult task for the same pay, but is that fair to expect, as a matter of policy, that will happen on a large scale?

Equally controversial is SB 6’s plan to end teacher tenure in exchange for higher pay.

It also calls for paying math and science teachers more. Again, many teachers will find this objectionable, but it’s a simple recognition of the fact that people who are able to teach math and science have more options for work outside teaching than those who teach other subjects. They will need a greater incentive to work in a school than, say, a history major, whose job prospects are relatively less promising.

I’m leery when someone says that enacting law X or Y is a moral imperative, since it’s so easy to say that, especially when the facts are not on your side. But as Bush makes the plea anyway:

Closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students is the moral imperative of our nation. Thousands of teachers across Florida overcome tremendous challenges faced by their students — poverty, lack of parental involvement, an unstable home life — to ensure their students learn a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time. Unfortunately, their hard work in these tougher jobs is currently unrewarded. Many good teachers leave these jobs for suburban schools or leave the profession altogether for higher pay. That’s why the bill requires higher salaries for teachers who work in high-poverty schools.

To be sure, schools have been oversold as the secular gospel of our time, meant to overcome racism, prejudice, poverty, poor parenting, and many other ills. But the way we recruit and reward teachers should be based not simply on time on the job, college credits earned, or even on adhering to some gold standard of teaching methods. All teachers should be paid, but we should give greater rewards to those who have done the most to help their students achieve academic gains.

Strengthen schools by firing bad teachers

“I believe that sometimes firing teachers is exactly the right thing to do.” That’s Rick Hess, writing on the ASCD blog. When he suggested that New York City schools do that, he received, as you might expect, some vigorous responses, which he relates on the ASCD blog.

The responses on the ASCD blog, meanwhile, aren’t much more postitive to Hess’s ideas. In general, the people who left comments there seem to believe that there is no such thing as a bad teacher. Such a notion strains credulity, as it would make the teaching profession the only line of work in which nobody is below average.

How significant will the Colorado teacher law be?

CBS4 Denver has its own story on the new teacher-tenure law signed into law in Colorado last week. Among the points: Backs hope the law will help the state in its quest for “Race to the Top” funds, since “first round winners Tennessee and Delaware have moved to link teacher evaluations to student performance.”

The state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers has about 3,000 members. It backed the bill. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s affiliate of the NEA, has 40,000 members. It opposed the bill.

The CEA, however, will have 3 seats on a council that will be responsible for designing the mechanism by which the law will be carried out.

The story was also carried on Education Week. One person who left a comment there warns us that there’s still much we don’t know about how this will will play out:

Many of the provisions don’t take effect for 5 years and there is a committee that has to come up with definitions of “effective” teaching and plans for how the student achievement will be tied to the evaluation. The recommendations from the committee have to come back through the legislature where I’m sure they will get amended and watered down to something nearly meaningless.

Despite all the screaming, tears, and histrionics associated with this – its actually a very incremental change from the status quo. That disappoints me.

Colorado teacher reform law wins with bipartisan support

David Kopel offers some perspective on the new teacher tenure law in Colorado. Among his points:

  1. The chief sponsor of the law is a Democrat and–perhaps more important–former school principal.
  2. The right to appeal was not in the original bill, but was added as a political compromise–meaning that the proposal was even more strict than it is now. (How many private sector employees have a right to appeal a dismissal for cause?)
  3. The law was supported by a bipartisan coalition in the Legislature, plus the American Federation of Teachers, which is second to the National Education Association (which opposed the bill) in membership in the state, and the Democrat Party governor.
  4. The Legislature was prodded by the potential of getting money from the Race to the Top fund from the U.S. Department of Education.

One may argue the wisdom of further federal involvement in education–as Kopel does–but here’s one case in which it may have done a lot of good. In a few years, we will see how it has worked out. I’m hopeful, though it’s possible the reform will be scuttled by insiders.