Saturday, April 30, 2011

Comeback Time

Apologies for stopping the blogging and thinking for a little while. I was sidetracked by recent events in the online poker world, which had been providing my income recently. But have no fear I'm still thinking a great deal about issues in education, how they play out politically and in the media and, when I'm lucky, small scale solutions.

Topics to look forward to include a belated look at the DC test cheating scandal (probably in multiple parts), a little dive into political game theory, and some discussion of understanding variance.

One thing I will try to incorporate also is taking some of the lessons and thought processes I learned from poker and applying them to education, politics or nothing in particular. Thus I hope to marry a few of my passions.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part VI

Myth number five is a personal favorite of mine. It states that “merit pay will motivate teachers to teach more effectively” and the refutation is, obviously, that it won’t. Research shows that pay for performance in the absence of anything else doesn’t work in any field. And that is why this is the ultimate red herring. Merit pay isn’t about improving current teachers. It is about recruitment and retention. I don’t even know how much merit pay proponents think of it in this manner because it seems like nobody ever talks about recruitment and retention when they talk about merit pay.

Merit pay is good for recruitment and retention on multiple levels. Obviously, merit pay means more potential earnings which is a great way to recruit potential teachers. After all money was the deciding factor for a lot of future financial wizards before they tanked the economy. Now, it is true, nobody wants to recruit teachers who are only in it for the money. I doubt many would be so swayed, rather I think recruitment would improve dramatically among those potential teachers who choose other professions because of money. By introducing merit pay money can cease to be the deciding factor for those who do not choose teaching because of money.

It isn’t just more money though. It is what that money signals. By having merit pay we signal that we value merit, success, effectiveness. The current standard pay structures don’t signal a meritocracy at all. The signal is that staying power, experience and willingness to attain credentials of questionable value are valued more than anything else. Yes, experience and staying power are valuable, but more valuable than being an effective teacher? I, for one, would rather enter a profession where I am rewarded for good work, not just for showing up for a long time, where I am forever stuck being compensated less than those who came before me no matter how hard I work or how effective I am.

The signaling effect and the money effect don’t just apply to recruitment but also retention. Teachers don’t exist in a vacuum. They have diverse interests and skills and have diverse options for how they wish to spend their lives and earn their living. Imagine being a successful teacher, who is also really good at other things too. Most urban teachers face stresses unimaginable by most people every day. It isn’t easy and it grinds you down, day after day, month after month, year after year. Ask anyone. Yes it is also rewarding but most of the time it is also quite thankless. Now if leaving the profession after three or five or ten years to enter a new job that is a little less stressful and compensates you a little better is an option, can you blame someone for taking that option? But if the person is a great teacher might a little extra money change the decision making process a little bit by taking money considerations off the table? Maybe the stresses remain too high but maybe not. Maybe by making the decision entirely about how they want to spend their lives and not about how they need to make a living would let more teachers remain in the profession if they are good teachers.

Same goes for signaling value. Everyone thinks they are underpaid and undervalued. It is the nature of jobs and life. But at least if you work really hard and do a really good job there is a reasonable expectation that at some point you will be rewarded for that in most jobs. Whether that reward comes through a raise or a promotion or just some recognition depends on the person and the job. But it is nice to be recognized. It is nice to be valued. A raise doesn’t just say good job. It also says we value you, we want you here, we see what you are doing and it is special. And not allowing for that signals that you are just like everyone else, you are not special, we do not see you. And it must hurt morale for some teachers who are amazing, who work insanely hard, who push their kids to new heights have to wait fifteen years to be compensated at the same level as the teacher down the hall who isn’t putting in the work they are or to be compensated the same as the teacher across the hall who thinks teaching is yelling and can’t wait for summer break. In such situations, where it is hard to differentiate between the best, the worst and the middle, where there is no reward for being anything other than average, it isn’t hard to see many of the brightest regressing to the mean a little bit because why kill yourself for someone who can’t even go to bat for you?

So yes, merit pay won’t make your teachers better. Money isn’t that type of motivator. But over time it should improve the caliber of your teacher corps. And that should raise student achievement.

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part V

Another favorite myth from the myths that distract policy makers is that “teacher tenure rules make it impossible to get rid of poor teachers”. According to the refutation the real problems is “ill-trained and supported administrators.” Another point of research indicates it is actually “poor evaluation procedures.” I, personally, feel it is definitely both.

That’s right, I agree that poor evaluation procedures and under supported administrators make it hard for evaluations to work properly and thus make it difficult to get rid of poor teachers. Which is why we should end tenure…period.

Urban school leaders face a million crises every day, and unfortunately I’m only engaging in a little bit of hyperbole. They are CEOs, education leaders, middle managers, politicians with warring constituencies and human. Yes, you have to be crazy to want to be a principal and you have to be crazy to be a good principal. By definition they are under supported, just like the teachers and pretty much everyone involved in urban education. By definition they are ill-trained if only because of the sheer number of things they need to be trained on. So complicated, cumbersome evaluation tools are going to be problematic no matter what, even if their focus is on evaluating their employees rather than ensuring the proper running of their school. Just like in the real world, I think a boss should be allowed to choose their own team. And they will sink or swim with that team. By effectively holding principals accountable, there are fewer incentives for them to play favorites with their employees at the expense of running a successful school. This doesn’t make principals dictators, it gives them the autonomy (a key motivator for successful people) to build a successful environment according to their vision. They still aren’t allowed to abuse employees, discriminate against employees or violate labor laws. The unions exist to protect teachers from abuse, not to protect their jobs. So let everyone do their job.

And yes, sometimes a teacher will get a crazy boss, just like in any profession, who doesn’t value their contributions appropriately. That is the loss of the principal in question. The teacher should be able to find employment at another school if they are an effective, professional teacher. Evaluation, tenure or anything else is not going to protect a teacher from a boss they don’t get along with, it will more likely exacerbate the situation.

Poor evaluations and evaluation procedures are more difficult questions. Nobody can seem to agree on what good teaching looks like. That makes creating good evaluations difficult. Nobody can seem to agree on who should do the evaluating either. DC employed an interesting compromise that included both third-party content experts and principals. This was in response to teacher feedback that wanted to avoid the personal biases of the principal but also include the understanding of context of the principal. DC also employed both announced and unannounced evaluations, allowing for multiple observations, thus avoiding the “30 minutes that mean everything” effect to a great extent. These seem like appropriate compromises but they do require enormous investment. Teacher evaluation is an area where the teachers and teacher unions need to put a flag in the ground and stand by…anything. At least anything other than no meaningful evaluations. Nobody wants to be told they aren’t doing a good job. But ultimately if nobody is telling you where you can be doing better how can you improve? There is no question that administrators and districts must do a better job of creating buy-in for new evaluation systems and show a little empathy and understanding for people who have spent the last twenty years receiving excellent evaluations. But teachers need to be prepared to give a little too and acknowledge that criticism doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Without both sides coming to the table with realistic expectations there are only two outcomes: teachers feeling like they are being attacked and having something done to them or no meaningful evaluations taking place at all.

Lastly, in a world where teachers are the valued, successful professionals, whose great benefit comes from their ability to educate children both as part of a team and individually, tenure isn’t necessary. In the end, effective teachers should always be employable individuals even if they run into a school or school leader that wasn’t the right fit. So if we are to really treat teachers as high-status grown-ups with professional skills and individual talent and not replaceable cogs then abolishing tenure is the way to go. Or at the very least make it an honor won after years of successful service.

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part IV

Myth number three in the myths that distract policy makers is possibly the most important myth and probably the loudest myth in the education reform debate. The myth states that “removing incompetent teachers will save our schools.” The refutation is essentially that teachers are better at teaching than we give them credit for.

My primary issue with the refutation is the use of the Teacher Advancement Program as the source of their teacher evaluation data. TAP is a specific program intended to nurture the growth of teachers professionally and has shown promising results. It is not the average situation in urban districts. Also in most TAP schools teachers voted on whether to participate, which creates a pretty serious selection bias to apply their data to all urban teachers.

Nonetheless, I will take the 85% of teachers being evaluated as proficient or better at face value. That means 15% are less than proficient. Every year, when parents put their children in schools they are rolling a dice that their child will get a teacher that won’t damage his or her education. Every time that dice comes up as a six their child loses a year of solid education for a year that may put them behind their peers next year, and the year after, and the year after. That’s 15%. So go ahead and tell me that on average during your child’s elementary school experience he or she will have a teacher that will fail them is “obsessing over a small problem.” I think our expectations here are out of whack by a lot.

Furthermore, ineffective teachers tend to cluster in the schools that need great teachers the most. You know who can overcome a bad teacher? A child with the resources outside of school to keep on learning. So the problem of ineffective teachers is actually magnified for the children least able to cope with ineffective teachers.

Every professional workplace does include some lemons who need to be dismissed. It is a common rule of business. Ideally, your rate of turnover each year is similar to the percentage of ineffective employees you have and ideally most of the turnover comes from your worst employees. Show me a school district that turns over its bottom 10% year and upon year. Turnover rates are indeed high in urban districts but I would venture to guess that a good number of those who leave are the best. Unfortunately, due to a lack of historically strong evaluation systems, there is no longitudinal data that I can find to prove that (Really? 95% excellence on most of these evaluations? That isn’t useful evaluation). So schools are clearly not getting the normal turnover of low performers that one would find in other professional environments. I think we’re obsessing over a notable problem and the idea that it is a small problem is impressively damaging to everyone and an insult to students and good teachers.

I do however agree that the myth is a myth. Replacing ineffective teachers won’t save schools. Anyone who has ever been near an urban district knows there is no silver bullet. This is the truth and reminds me of another. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But it sure does help. Replacing ineffective teachers doesn’t save schools. But it sure does help.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Distracting Everyone With Myths That Distract Policymakers: Part III

We’re back, taking on the next myth that is distracting policymakers. Myth number two states that “teaching experience matters little for student achievement.” The refutation in the blog post says it does, even once you get past the first three years, but it has the important conditional: “when teachers teach the same subjects and grade levels consistently, especially during the first five years of teaching.” This is great news but the conclusion I draw from it may not be the one intended by the author.

What the author appears to be trying to accomplish here is to attack ed reformers who are anti veteran teachers. I would argue that the idea that ed reformers are anti veteran teachers is unfounded. Using DC and the controversial IMPACT evaluation system as the example, the score breakdown of all teachers by experience backs up the idea that experience is good.

Regardless, the conditional above is incredibly important for a variety of reasons. One, is simply that in an urban district, where the challenges faced by teachers are so much greater than those elsewhere, it is incredibly difficult to accomplish that type of stability. Of course, if we return to myth one, maybe an answer is making those first couple years more of a residency program that guarantees stability. However, in the reality of urban districts, there is huge teacher turnover, fluctuating enrollment and constantly changing priorities due to constant political turnover. Improving longitudinal tracking of teachers might actually help mitigate some of these realities. And the investment wouldn’t necessarily have to be all that large. Districts already invest heavily in tracking “highly qualified” (a misnomer we can discuss another day) teacher status for NCLB. Leveraging the data behind “high qualified” teacher status and introducing some incentives to encourage teacher assignment consistency, which “highly qualified” does to some extent, could go a long way towards making sure teachers aren’t bounced around too much during their first years.

Of course, once again, really attacking this issue would require rethinking the way teacher assignments and movement are conducted. One of the ways I read the refutation of myth number two is that stability is a huge part of gaining the experience needed to improve as a teacher and it is more important for young teachers than veteran teachers. Veteran teachers already have the experience to handle the many difficult situations faced regularly by urban teachers. So it would seem that the common practice of Last In First Out is the opposite of good policy. Young teachers are more likely to be the ones bounced from school to school through excessing, more likely to be slotted into vacant position where they lack familiarity with the grade level and subject and more likely to be pushed towards the most difficult schools. This is a function of the way teacher tenure and most union contracts are constructed.

We are setting up our most vulnerable teachers for failure before they achieve the experience needed to succeed. Anyone who believes that experience matters, and that it matters a lot longer than many thought if there is stability during the first five years, should be absolutely against Last In First Out. We can help create even stronger veteran teachers if we allow our current crop of new teachers to gain experience in a more stable, managed and supported way. If we really care about the mental health of our teachrs, about supporting their professional development and maximizing their ability to teach our children, then all parties need to wake up and make it happen because for once we could make some real progress without a lot of pain.