Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Welcome Back…to What?

Why Your Classroom Isn’t the Same Today as It Was a Year Ago

Since late August 2011—this time last year—we have seen a highly-successful mission to Mars, the closing of a significant portion of the United States space program, the 2012 London Olympics, wavering gas prices, an equally wavering economy, the first Mormon presidential candidate, and a host of technological upgrades, to name only a few historic events.

If you teach history, then I don’t envy you. Unless of course you’re sticking to the Byzantine Empire without really comparing it to today…but that’s a topic for another post.

Are all these changes particularly unique to this year? Haven’t we seen these kinds of changes before? The answer is yes, and it’s also no. For the sake of time, let’s focus the reasons that the answer is no.

The Common Core State Standards

Ah, yes. You’ve heard about it. You’ve read a few news articles about them. And you’ve probably heard politicians discussing them. But what do you know about them?

The Common Core State Standards are everything that No Child Left Behind should have been, with a few of NCLBs more distasteful elements sprinkled in. The Common Core Standards finally put the classroom back in teachers’ hands. We aren’t measuring rote knowledge about the Battle of Hastings and the quadratic formula—the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) came together to focus on what students can do rather than simply what they know (or, more accurately, what they can regurgitate on a single day to represent an entire year).


Don’t be scared by the whole standards things—it’s a good thing, really.

Your teachers now have more leverage and mobility to take their curriculum where they know it needs to go in order to help individuals. Teachers have standards themselves called InTASC. When CCSSO got fed up with evaluations used as punitive measures instead of as opportunities for progress, they got together with the folks at InTASC and re-created these teacher standards.

Redefinition of the Classroom

By now, parents and educators alike are quickly warming up to the idea of technology in the classroom. Safety concerns stop most of us from taking our students outside of the classroom setting itself, but the growth and pervasiveness of technology is allowing many schools this year to get creative with learning tools.

Flipped classrooms are growing in popularity, in-class technology is beginning to take hold, and America is waiting to see what their children’s teachers are going to do to answer the growing needs of your students. We have to face it—today’s tools are Wikipedia, smart phones, texting, and blu tooth. We can either drone on about William the Conqueror while our students play “Words with Friends” on their phones, or we can show our students how to turn the super computer in their pockets into valuable tools in today’s world.

The country is finally putting education back in the hands of educators, and I am excited to see where we take it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Rebuttal to “Can $125,000 Make You a Better Teacher?”

It’s research. That means it’s impartial…right?

Education News says that a person's
salary--decades after grade school--can
determine teacher effectiveness. What say you?
Last week we looked at some interesting evidence surrounding merit-based pay. I argued that as public servants, teachers certainly merit more than what they may already receive, but that increased has not been successful in creating better schools.

Shortly after publishing said post, I came across this article lauding the effects of merit-based pay on student gains. Not one to ignore the other side of any argument, I would like to address some of these findings. From the first paragraph, we read the following:
  • A study out of Harvard, conducted by the economist Raj Chetty, found that those placed in kindergarten classes run by more experienced and better teachers not only were more likely to perform well in later grades, but also were more likely to graduate high school, enroll in college, earn more and save more for retirement. A good teacher, defined by Eric Hanushek of Stanford as landing in the 84th percentile in quality, could add between $22,000 and $46,000 to a student’s lifetime earnings.

“A good teacher” has no more definition than being in the “84th percentile in quality.” But that’s not a definition at all, because “good” and “quality” still have no qualification, no definition, and no standard. “Good” in this context simply demarks an unclear point on a vague scale.

The article goes on to say that where merit-based pay is concerned, we need not worry ourselves with an over-abundance of competition. The article states the following:
  • Using the Hanushek formula, test gains by the students of the teachers either in the Individual Gain or Team Gain groups translated into increase of lifetime earnings of $20,000 to $42,000, while gains of students in Individual Loss and Team Loss classrooms amounted to between $37,000 to $78,000. But aside from that, the authors also determined that teachers participating in the zero-sum incentive program did about as well as those participating in the group incentive plan. This means that testing gains could be obtained without putting teachers in each school in competition with each other. [Emphasis added]

That is a much different story: it’s not that merit-based pay worked; the study simply proves that merit-based pay didn’t not work. But the data assumes too much if it wants to use a middle-aged woman or man’s salary as a means of measuring the effectiveness of an 8th grade history teacher.

I do agree with the study on a crucial point—it’s about the student preparedness for graduating high school, enrolling in college, and being prepared for all that life holds after high school. How that readiness is being measured, however, appears to be most unprofessional.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Can a $125,000 Salary Make You a Better Teacher?

We need students to be more proficient and more prepared. But can increased salaries and $20,000 bonuses really make teachers more effective?

Everyone is looking for the silver bullet to fix education—and if the “silver bullet” doesn’t work, then a silver shotgun shell may suffice for some districts that are trying dramatic overhauls. And for many of these districts, it’s working.

But every now and then, we trade in a “silver bullet” for something a little more, well, green. President Obama has a plan to give science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers bonuses of up to $20,000 in 2013. A total of $1 billion (Arne Duncan calls it “new money”) is in the president’s 2013 budget that will support up to 10,000 teachers. Administrators will hand pick which educators merit such a merry gift.

The Pit of Merit-Based Pay (and Despair)

Yikes. Did I just say “merit”? Whether or not that word is taboo (and a political quagmire), it’s worth the hassle if it means that teachers start to get more students to surpass those ever-elusive proficiency rates. So the over-arching question is this: will more money really make teachers more effective?

There are two inherent problems in saying that bigger pay checks make better teachers:
  1. The entire idea around merit-based pay is that teachers somehow just don’t care quite enough about their jobs or their students
  2. The assumption is based on the idea that teachers are obviously holding out for better money before they bestow upon their students the keys of knowledge
Merit-based pay is tricky, and it is problematic (as outlined above). However, no one can deny the vital importance of a teacher’s work, and we want our best and brightest teachers to teach the upcoming generation.

$125,000 Salaries Make Better Teachers…Right?

So now let’s talk about the money trap. There is a school in New York known simple as the Equity Project (TEP) Charter School. TEP says on its website, “TEP teachers are valued and sustained through revolutionary compensation: a $125,000 annual salary and the opportunity to earn a significant annual bonus based on school-wide performance . . . . In short, hiring and paying master teachers what they are worth is a cost-effective mechanism for boosting student achievement.”

TEP is one year old. They submitted their annual report with the following data—and the following disclaimer:

TEP had only 5th and 6th grades in 2010-11 so attainment of this goal will not be assessed until the 2012-13 school year when TEP’s initial 5th grade cohort completes 8th grade.

2013 Cohort (TEP 6th graders in 2010-11):
  • # students in cohort 2009-10: 124 (ELA), 123 (Math)
  • # returning students in cohort in 2010-11: 118
    • NYS ELA Exam: 31% (36 / 118) at or above Level 3
    • NYS Math Exam: 42% (49/118) at or above Level 3
2014 Cohort (TEP 5th graders in 2010-11):
  • # students in cohort in 2010-11: 122 (ELA), 124 (Math)
    • NYS ELA Exam: 31% (38/122) at or above Level 3
    • NYS Math Exam: 56% (69/124) of TEP 5th graders performed at or above Level 3

That’s it. That’s the summum bonum of the first (very expensive) year—31% proficiency in ELA. Was it worth the cost?

We’ve Tried Everything! What Is Left to Do?

On the surface level of this evidence, it would be easy to argue that they had wasted budgets on performance-based pay. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you will find that the problem is not with the pay at all. It’s with how we measure and train effective teachers.

Mr. Obama’s budget plan and TEP’s strategy assume that bigger pay checks make better teachers. But if I’m an author (and I am), then a bigger percentage from a publishing firm is not going to make me write a better book. For me to become a better author, I need to learn from better authors. I need training that is relevant to my genre, I need to connect with my audience, and I sure would like to have a mentor or at least differentiated instruction for highly specific needs. And when I write better books, then I get a bigger percentage.

The Teacher Effectiveness System

We need effective teachers. We need a systemic approach to helping teachers grow. When we have better teachers, we will have students who learn more (and that’s a proven fact).

Is the Teacher Effectiveness System a silver bullet for that? Well, yes and no. It is not a “silver bullet” in that buying the tools for that approach will make it happen (not any more than paying teachers more money makes them more effective). But applying that approach every day and using the tools to their utmost—well, then you’re all but guaranteed to get the results you might expect.