Sunday, August 09, 2009

Judging Teachers

I am back from vacation, and slowly gearing up to post more on Gifted Exchange as the school year resumes!

In my inbox this week -- a fascinating story from LA that is not about gifted education per se, but gets at one of the major problems in American education: a failure to reward and nurture excellence.

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez recently wrote "A Lesson from a Good Teacher" about a young and energetic teacher named Susan Requa who moved from Chicago in order to teach at James Monroe High School in the LA Unified School District. She won rave reviews from some veteran teachers in the school, and was taking on leadership roles and proving to be a natural in the classroom.

But then LAUSD ran short on cash and needed to lay off some teachers. So who goes? The teachers with the least seniority. That would be Requa -- not, as Ron Harris, a supervising teacher at the school laments, the burn-outs or the Holocaust denier he has on staff.

It's easy to blame teachers unions for this state of affairs -- and Lopez, the columnist, does -- but school districts have also acquiesced in creating these rules. We know that teacher quality matters a lot to student outcomes. It should not be a huge jump to look at student advancement during a year, coupled with supervisor, peer, parent, and student reviews (aka "360 degree feedback"), and figure out which teachers should be rewarded and which should be retrained or else seek a different line of work. But in the vast majority of districts, compensation and job security are based primarily on years of experience and advanced degrees. Not an honest comparison between teachers or against a set of standards of best practices.

This problem in LA is just part of a broader philosophical woe in American education: we do not value excellence. We are perfectly willing to squander talent in pursuit of someone's idea of "fairness." This is why challenging bright students to the extent of their abilities always gets the short end of the stick in funding and other resource allocation. It is why schools squash acceleration in favor of "socialization" and refuse to use homogeneous grouping as broadly as they could.

I am not sure where this idea comes from. In many other spheres, Americans are very much into talent. Sports is the obvious counter example, but we also swoon over entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas, or CEOs who truly transform their companies. Indeed, if you look at the bookshelves these days, it seems that companies everywhere are engaged in wars for talent. So why isn't the LAUSD fighting to keep teachers like Requa? Why aren't schools in general fighting over talent among students and teachers? The lack of competition is certainly one reason but the philosophical issue goes deeper than that. I wish I knew.


jd2718 said...

When we choose, when I chose, to go into teaching, it was a pretty hefty decision. Part of that decision is the (relative) job security, pension, benefits that we receive as a trade off for the income we might generate elsewhere.

Not everybody who tries makes it. Not everybody should make it. But I would like to see the license of the administrator who signed off on that Holocaust denier's tenure.

Because an administrator did that. The union doesn't hire. Teachers don't grant themselves tenure.

Now, this story was not about a hiring situation, but a shortage - a shortage of positions. And for lay offs, and for good reason, we strive to enforce rules of fairness.

Notice well, this is not a firing situation. It's a question of who is going to be laid off. And while the columnist found a poster child in one school, in others it might be the union activist, or a whistle blower, or someone on the principal's bad side, or someone who wouldn't change a football player's grade, or a Mormon, or an atheist...

It is, as you mention, easy to tell if a teacher is doing well. But you segued away from the layoff situation.

You bring up two separate questions: 1. weeding out bad teachers and 2. rewarding high achieving teachers.

The former is entirely the responsibility of school administrations. It is shocking what a poor job many of them do.

The only place you actually get to "valuing excellence" is when you describe merit pay (without using those words).

Pay me fairly, and I'll perform. I don't need any bonuses to do my job, and I work hard already. Remember, we've already chosen a career path with less money.

The idea that my school could squeeze more out of me by dangling some cash is, frankly, insulting.

"360 review" might produce some useful ideas for me. But score me on it? The only quantitative part is the least useful/reliable: test scores. And monetize test scores and you'll get exactly the teaching that drive TAG kids to boredom, tears, misbehavior, or all three.

Demand excellence from a whole school community: teachers, students, parents, administrators, counselors... and you might see something.

Reward? Excellence rewards excellence. Anyone who's ever been there knows what I mean.


mathmom said...

"When we choose, when I chose, to go into teaching, it was a pretty hefty decision. Part of that decision is the (relative) job security, pension, benefits that we receive as a trade off for the income we might generate elsewhere."

The first time through I accepted that. The second time through, I am disturbed by it. It sounds like you are saying, "well, I may make less, but at least I don't have to be (or prove that I am) excellent at my job to keep it." And when I think about it that way, it sounds fairly pathetic.

Can the citizens of this country possibly afford to pay teachers "less" and not demand excellence?

I'm coming to this from the point of view of a non-unionized professional. In general I believe that unionizing professionals does more harm than good (to those who rely on the services of those professionals). So that's my bias. I've tried not to get too argumentative here, but I don't really "get" the union mindset, I guess. My request that you read and comment on this was not meant to be picking a fight. I really was curious as to what you think about this issue, but in the end I strongly disagree.

In my job, I am expected to demonstrate excellence, and have a performance review each year. It is based on imperfect, non-quantifiable assessments, just as any reasonable teacher review would have to be. (I totally agree that paying for test score increases is the *wrong* way to go!) I don't get an automatic pay grade step each year -- if my performance is excellent (and my company is doing well) I get a small raise, if not, I don't. (If my performance were poor, I'd be fired.)

You seem to equate being paid "fairly" with getting automatic raises at fixed intervals, with no review of your performance, no evidence that you're any better a teacher than you were the year before, when you were paid less. Why should we pay a teacher more from year to year if he/she doesn't improve and thus deliver more value?

Even though performance reviews are imperfect assessments, it is usually easy enough to figure out who the outstanding employees are, and who the inadequate ones are. This is obviously true of teachers too. You don't need to be able to precisely rank people, just bin them. Layoffs for most professionals are based on many factors such as where the staff is needed, but employees with poor reviews are the first to go. Seniority has little if anything to do with it. I really do fail to see why this is an untenable or unreasonable model for evaluating teachers, rewarding excellence and prioritizing layoffs.

And by rewarding excellence, I do mean some kind of merit pay. Make moving up the pay grid dependent on performance assessments rather than years of service. Rather than paying someone extra because they got a Master's degree or took extra courses, pay them extra because they demonstrate an improvement in their classroom technique after having obtained the education. Where it's clear that a teacher's performance is outstanding compared to others at their pay grade, they should be able to skip forward a step. Conversely, when a teacher's performance is poor, but not so poor that they need to be fired, they still should not move up a pay step that year.

Your main argument seems to be that assessing teachers' performance wouldn't be a "fair" way to assign relative pay. Is paying for years of service to the exclusion of any quality measure fair? To the excellent teachers? To the students?

Teachers assess students all the time. It's never perfect and it's never "fair" but no one (well almost no one) would say that we should just award a high school degree after 4 year of "seat time". Just because the assessment can't be perfect doesn't mean there shouldn't be one.

jd2718 said...

You are coming, honestly, from the point of view of an administrator.

My job security doesn't mean I don't work hard - it protects me from arbitrary dismissal - that's a big deal. But I wrote about benefits, security, and pension, not just security. Taken together, that's what makes up for the lower pay.

I have a review each year. It finds my performance satisfactory (there's one other possibility). It also makes recommendations for improvement (last year there were none, but that's unusual).

Most of you people at least pretend that it's about the kids. But all the rest you wrote about was how to pay some of us more and others less.

Not a word about administrators. Not a word about discrimination or favoritism. There are reasons we have unions; they come from the very real experiences of teachers before we had unions.

Finally, you invited me to comment here. And I did. I think I wrote respectfully.

What you just wrote was not respectful. I neither deserve to be called pathetic, nor would any of the parents of my students agree with you.

YOU want to talk about how much I should be paid?

I'm out of here. Make sure future invitations are to civil conversations.

mathmom said...

Just to be clear, I wasn't calling *you* pathetic, I was calling your justification for seniority-based retention in a layoff situation fairly pathetic. But I could have been more diplomatic about it, and I apologize.

As far as issues like discrimination go, that is certainly a danger of a non-unionized profession. But things are not the same (anywhere) as they were (how many?) years ago before teachers' unions. I'm not proposing a situation where teachers could be dismissed arbitrarily, or that a layoff choice would be at a principal's whim, but based on evidence gathered and documented through a formal review process that is required to gather evidence from multiple sources.

Is there something I'm missing that makes teachers more vulnerable than other professionals to discrimination or arbitrary action?

I already know that you're an excellent teacher, JD. I can tell this from your blog. This isn't about you in particular. This is about the many not-so-excellent teachers out there who have "seniority", and why that is a reasonable thing for taxpayers to pay for. How do students and parents and citizens benefit from a system that cannot reward teacher excellence (in any way, be that pay, benefits, priority to keep one's job in a layoff situation, etc.)?

Because it is about students in the end. How can we achieve consistent high quality teaching? How can we attract and retain excellence, without creating a disaster like NCLB which (IMO) incentivizes all the wrong things?