Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Question of the Day

What gets people so angry at the idea of incorporating a degree of professional accountability into teaching and administrating? My column Friday at NJ Spotlight on teacher merit pay has generated a fair amount of hate mail. So what incites the outrage? I mean beyond the obvious, like those who see accountability measures as an assault on job security, or those who have a knee-jerk reaction to all things NCLB (No Child Left Behind), or spokespeople for NJEA, who are paid to say that stuff.

Let’s try to find some common ground. Here are three things we can agree on.

1) The most important element in a child’s education experience is the classroom teacher. Nothing matters more – not facilities or technology or programming or funding. A great teacher is irreplaceable.

2) Once a great teacher receives tenure he or she is not differentiated from a bad teacher (unless there’s some criminal activity, which seems like a pretty low bar). Nationally, more than 99% of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Either it’s really easy to teach or there's no difference in student performance between those placed with a good teacher and those placed with a bad teacher. a bad teacher. Since those things aren't true, differentiation matters.

3) Salary guides in NJ (and most other places) ignore typical market forces like supply and demand. Example: a chemistry teacher is hard to find, but elementary school teachers are a dime a dozen (no offense). Salary guides are immune to this discrepancy. Another example: in general, teachers (and who can blame them?) would rather teach in a high-performing, wealthy, safe school district than a low-performing, poor, dangerous one. Yet there’s no incentive for teaching in a Plainfield (DFG of B or socio-economic rating of I on a scale of A-J) instead of Park Ridge (DFG of I).

Recap: We need great teachers, but our current evaluative mechanisms don’t let us identify the best ones or fire the worst. The rigidity of our compensation plans preclude the ability of districts to pay teachers based on performance or limited supply or willingness to teach in more challenging school districts. This lack of differentiation may be linked to the fact that the majority of public school teachers leave the field within five years and turnover is highest in poor districts.

Okay; enough with the common ground. How about this: maybe we should consider state-wide salary guides that pay more for teachers in hard-to-staff areas (math, science, special ed) and more for effective teachers who are willing to teach in poor districts? (Imagine how many tax dollars we'd save by consolidating 591 separate negotiation dramas, one per school district, into one ball-buster?) Or if that's too excessive, how about state-wide bonuses for our best teachers or those who teach our most challenging kids?

Mad yet? How about if we take the money directed at special needs districts -- that Abbott money now being litigated in State Supreme Court -- and funnel some large percentage of it to salaries for our top professionals? Great teachers deserve to be compensated accordingly. Let's use the money where it matters.

The point is that we cheat our kids, especially our neediest children, by failing to recognize quality (or lack thereof) among our teaching staff. Are we ready to change?

5 comments:

Maria Pellum, Plainfield Resident said...

All good ideas, but I wonder is how can good teachers be differentiated from bad ones when it is not the teaching that might be failing but rather the lack of support to teachers from administrators and school boards? A good example is, well, from Plainfield, where teachers were, or still are not, given a curriculum guide because the district lacked an adopted curriculum until this past September, or perhaps because textbooks are so old that they are obsolete to new standards, worst, no individual textbooks are given to students to take home by the district. These are just two examples. How can anyone do a fair evaluation when teachers are powerless to get the tools they very much need to be good teachers? Do you think this lack of district support will be entered into the discussion any time soon? Thanks from a concerned parent from Plainfield.

NJ Left Behind said...

Hi, Maria. What's your School Board doing about this? You point to basic issues of oversight.

kallikak said...

"One Man's Answers of the Next Day"

Sniff, sniff. I smell a straw man aflame...

Sorry, but I can't agree:

1. The most important element in a child's education experience is the degree of commitment, receptivity and discipline that the child brings to the process. These factors are heavily influenced by the child's upbringing (including at-home re-enforcement of school lessons) and social forces impacting the child outside the classroom. Test: swap teachers from failing schools with those from Blue Ribbon winners.

2. Once ANY teacher receives tenure, his/her performance is still evaluated annually (including in-class observations).
Strengths and weaknesses are noted, and suggestions for corrective action are incorporated into the teacher's professional improvement plan. Under-performing teachers can be reassigned, retrained, docked their contractual pay increment or (in relatively rare cases) removed.
In sum, gradations in teacher effectiveness are clearly noted.

3. Under current practice, salary guides are jointly constructed by bargaining unit leaders and school administrators. Any blurring of supply-demand distinctions and other factors is thus tacitly approved by the rank-and-file---some of whom you portray as victims---in furtherance of their own collective agenda as union members. This agenda is protected under the state's Employer-Employee Relations Act. Any effort to impose a state-mandated compensation system---to reduce rigidity, increase fairness or for any other purpose---undercuts the current legal rights of union members and thus might incite their ire.

Recap: Can my super identify the best teachers in the district? Yes.
Is he working to improve the performance of those less-skilled?
You bet.

Maria Pellum, Plainfield Resident said...

Dear Laura,

Thanks for the answer. As for our BOE, they are still debating whether children need textbooks to take home or not. Curriculum guides are said to still be on the "developing stages", never mind that QSAC found the district lacking, or following, an aligned curriculum. We, the voters, can be blamed for picking our BOE reps, but what is the State's excuse for knowing what is missing and not making sure that the missing items get put in place? It is ironic, and almost funny, that while ELC fights for money, we, well, some, parents fight for the money to be spent where it matters. I wouldn't mind if among the many reforms there is one that forces BOEs of failing districts to have BOE mentors from successful districts. Thanks again for responding.

STOP said...

REPOSTED from user comment at NJSpotlight.com:

Over at NJ Left Behind, Laura Waters has expressed surprise that this piece has garnered as many angry responses as it did. The article itself is unremarkable – stuffed with the same sort of no-real-education-experience nonsense we’re used to hearing from the “reform” crowd. Advanced degrees don’t matter; “bad teachers” excoriated without any real substantial explanation of what, exactly, constitutes a “bad” teacher; a complete disregard for the value of experience; and so on.

But her defense of the criticism is remarkable in the BS it asks you to swallow. She starts her response by stating her assumption that there are things “we” can agree on:

“1) The most important element in a child’s education experience is the classroom teacher. Nothing matters more – not facilities or technology or programming or funding. A great teacher is irreplaceable.”

Note what she didn’t list there – poverty, checked-out parents, abuse, special needs. This is the classic reformer line – that the teacher is the primary factor in a child’s academic success. Nothing matters more, says Waters – facilities, or technology, or programming, or even (conveniently), funding. Why doesn’t Ms. Waters make her point even more forcefully, by doubling-down on the notion that a teacher has more influence over a child’s success than their home life?

“2) Once a great teacher receives tenure he or she is not differentiated from a bad teacher (unless there’s some criminal activity, which seems like a pretty low bar). Nationally, more than 99% of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Either it’s really easy to teach or there's no difference in student performance between those placed with a good teacher and those placed with a bad teacher. a bad teacher. Since those things aren't true, differentiation matters.”

Oh yes, “student performance.” You know, the standardized tests that are time and time again proven to not be a meaningful measure of student ability, nor teacher effectiveness. Reformers love to spit into the wind when it comes to having science on your side, but the verdict on merit pay is in, and merit pay ain’t getting any merit pay.

As for the second wild assumption in this second point – that, once tenured, good teachers and bad teachers are not differentiated. Again, this assumes worship of the same old flimsy metrics we’ve known for years don’t really tell us all that much.

But what’s really most smarmy about this post is the way the whole thing starts:

“So what incites the outrage? I mean beyond the obvious, like those who see accountability measures as an assault on job security, or those who have a knee-jerk reaction to all things NCLB (No Child Left Behind), or spokespeople for NJEA, who are paid to say that stuff.”

Allow me to collect myself.

First – accountability. To claim that teachers do not want to be held accountable for their work is not only absurd, but an enormous insult. Ms. Waters may not know this since her only classroom experience appears to have been as an “instructor” at a SUNY Bighamton program of some sort, so let me be perfectly clear: Those of us who choose this profession do so understanding that it comes with the ULTITMATE accountability, because what we do can and should impact the lives of everyone we teach, for the rest of their lives. Think about the teachers you remember from when you were in school – the ones you’ll never forget. Think about how you use math in your daily life, and the parts of speech, and To Kill A Mockingbird, and the school play. That is the accountability that we as teachers know we face when we choose this field, because our product is not a widget – it is a person’s life. “Education commentators” can sit around with their spreadsheets and piles of venture capital, but accountability can’t always be quantified.

So yes, Ms. Waters? What is it, exactly, that incites such outrage – you know, other than all the outrageous stuff you say.