Can They Think Outside the Box? – More thoughts on merit pay and policy wonks

I posted a few days ago about my evolving thoughts on merit pay. The catalyst for this was a study on class disruption and learning. The comments left pushed my thinking on the subject even further. I’d let to post the discussions here today and get some more thoughts on there on merit pay.

Just to recap, the article I read from Change.org pointed out that even one disruptive student in a classroom can taint the learning experience for the whole class. Commentator d.eris of Poli-Tea Party illustrates the principle with a little anecdote from the Simpsons.

from d.eris

I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode in which Homer and Marge are hauled into the school and are shown a diagram of the grades of students who sit in Bart’s immediate vicinity. In a set of concentric circles, grades go up as distance from the trouble-maker increases.

If someone hasn’t written “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from The Simpsons” they someone damn well should!

It becomes easy to see how one tiny factor can skew assessment scores in any given classroom. Most teachers get their students by pure chance. One teacher could have a classroom full of students ready and willing to learn. Another may have a student with a learning disability or a constant rule breaker.

Chuck of Tongue-In-Cheek weighed in as well. Chuck and I have discussed merit pay before. Chuck applauds me for beginning to see the merit pay light, but also puts my solution for disruptive classrooms in perspective.

from chuckrates

Now you’re starting to see some of what I was trying to tell you about why merit pay is unrealistic. Executing proper discipline/behavior management against the “bad apple” is not always an effective solution. In my 5 years of teaching experience, the “bad apple” is not always breaking the rules. Often, he/she just has a poor attitude, or has special needs that must be accounted for to the detriment of my ability to attend to the other students.

Again, it’s all oversimplification. There might not be one “bad apple” in a certain classroom, but maybe there are three generally good kids who are shy or don’t work well with others. There goes my unit that centered around group projects. Maybe teacher A has a class in which five students miss a week of school because of a band trip, but teacher B has only one such student. Six people in Teacher A’s class (counting the teacher) now have to work significantly harder if they are to keep up with Teacher B’s class, which can pretty much continue as normal.

Just to be clear: I’m not opposed to merit pay. I just consider it unrealistic because there’s no way for it to be fair in the reality we live in. Sort of like Libertarianism — yeah, the world might be a better place in a lot of ways if it looked like Libertarians want it to look, but how in the hell do you get to that point without nuclear holocaust or something?

I’m starting to see the situation is far more complex than can really be solved by one measure. We can’t think that school is a factory line. Info in citizens out. There needs to be some outside the box thinking here.

I’m not convinced Obama, Duncan, etc have it in them to approach the situation in this way. I like you, think there are ways so improve learning, use merit pay, etc. The execution at this point is just all wrong.

It’s like Lee at Gettysburg. Everyone is telling him you know if we just packed up and flanked these guys they will leave their HIGHLY DEFENSIBLE POSITION. Lee just says, “naw let’s just cross miles of open ground and march straight up that darn hill. (I know this is a gross oversimplification of the battle and circumstances surrounding it. Just let it go this once.)

Also I’ve had the Libertarianism argument before. I’ll refer to His Little Majesty James Madison on this one. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Unfortunately a country needs a little more guidance than making sure its citizens don’t kill themselves and countries don’t invade. Libertarianism, and communism for that matter, take a utopian view of humanity I just don’t subscribe to.

There is a point to this. There is really no way to make the pay system for teachers 100% “fair”. There are inequalities inherent in the system that just can’t be avoided. There are circumstances outside of the educator’s hands. People do not carry an equal share of the work. Unless we genetically engineer the perfect teacher there wont be even teaching ability, then what would be the point of paying them anyway.

Can the pay system be made more efficient? Yes. Can the pay system reward teachers for exceptional work? Certainly. Are the current merit pay proposals we’ve seen the solution? No way. Will merit pay raise student achievement? Anyone who thinks any one reform on its own will solve out education woes needs their head checked.

The merit pay proposals we’ve seen attack the problem directly, like a factory. Merit pay crafters seems to have assembly line sickness. If we input this we will get this output. The solution is far from that cut and dry. What we need is outside the box thinking. I’m not convinced merit pay, or at least a better pay system, can’t be achieved. Antiquated linear thinking wont get us anywhere.

Are these policy crafters in need of some lessons in 21st century skills?

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What To Do With All Those Bad Employees – Firing teachers or shuffling them?

Alexander Russo wrote today concerning what to do with poor teachers

from This Week in Education

No one’s entirely comfortable with the people we’ve been using. They cost so much. Sometimes they’ve been arrogant and refused to change their ways. (They’ve even been accused of doing some really bad things.)

But you can’t just get rid of them all. There are too many to replace. Not to speak of the whole learning curve that would be involved with bringing in new people, no matter how well trained they were.

So what you’re probably going to do is to end up using the same people again, perhaps just under a new title.

This is just as true for classroom teachers as it is for Blackwater security personnel (NYT).

Full-scale replacement is out of the question. What can be done to make things better at scale?

Some brief thoughts about Alexander’s post on this rainy day:

Performance based pay is part of the answer. Money can be a great motivator for some malcontents. I know, we would all like to have this noble idea that everyone goes into teaching only because they love it. That may be true for most, but messing with someone’s income will move just about anyone.

Mandatory training for those who are in need. We give (or should give) struggling children extra help. Why not teachers?

High performing teachers should be assigned as mentors to low performing co-workers. Mentors could teach part of the day and mentor another part. Mentoring another teacher should also factor into pay assessments.

Of course all of those require reforms in how we assess students and teachers. More on that here (check the comments and Chuck’s blog)

Also, all statistics on assessments etc should be easily available to teachers, principals, and superintendents. It’s time we digitize. Think of the time and money that would save.

Last, we need to reconsider who we hire. A skimming down of certifications to require a candidate hold a college degree, meet essential skills and content knowledge depending on subject and grade level, and of course passing a background check will open up the teaching field to those frustrated with the current process.

More Merit Pay Madness- Sunday Editorial on Editorials

This Sunday Chuck McKay, a Newport, Maine high school teacher launched a brutal attack on merit pay for teachers and teacher accountability. Boy, there is so much to cover. Chuck really missed just about every mark in his assault. Let’s begin at the end. McKay warns us that, “when President Obama announces his support for “merit pay” for teachers, before you stand up and cheer, make sure you know exactly what “merit” really is.” Chuck, before you stand up and jeer merit pay take your own advice. Let me give you a little helping hand.

Later in his article Chuck admonishes those who believe teacher accountability an integral pillar of education reform. He then goes on to preach class size as a magic bean that will solve all our problems

from Bangor Daily News

You could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the studies that prove lower class sizes result in higher student achievement. You would think that would translate to lots of new job openings for teachers.

Taxpayers seem more concerned about getting more for less, research be damned. So, school boards won’t cough up the coin to hire more personnel; communities would rather maintain status quo and keep taxpayers docile.

Ok, there are studies that suggest class sizes under 20 in the early grades help set a good foundation. A small class does not a good teacher make. A poor teacher is a poor teacher for 1 child to 100. Same goes for a quality teacher. You can’t deny that Chuck.

Chuck claims it is impossible to measure the quality of a teacher. He dismisses merit pay as “goofy” because the lack of a ruler for teacher quality. Or perhaps because he cannot see past what he has been ingrained to believe about merit pay.

Some reformers recognized that student assessments must be part, but not the only piece, to teacher accountability. Chuck assumes that we would only base teacher accountability on student scores, which must be inherently evil.

from Bangor Daily News

How do you quantify the value of a teacher? Test scores? Please. For starters, it is unfair to students to assault them with another battery of tests, this time directly affecting the livelihood of their teacher.

Yes Chuck, part of the value of a teacher is what a child has learned in their class. That is never detached from the profession. That is the main reason for teachers, to teach. One of the ways to measure that is by test scores. Chuck falsely assumes that this will require more exams. That is an unfair scare tactic. Why must we have more tests? Why can’t we use the ones we have. The MEA testing system has been in place here in Maine for some time. I will it say again, as I’ve said before, standardized tests aren’t perfect. We need to reform them away from a multiple-choice format. Tests should be problem solving and analysis based, considering grade level of course. Why Chuck doesn’t consider that possibility I can’t say.

Chuck’s next argument against merit pay based on student assessments? His students are out to get him!

from Bangor Daily News

As a student, I wouldn’t want the pressure of knowing my performance has a direct impact on my teacher’s ability to support a family. As a teacher, I wouldn’t want students who didn’t like me deliberately tanking the test.

As a teacher, or a person in general, you know some people like you and some don’t. Some people are malicious enough to manifest their dislike in unsavory ways. Yes some students may deliberately do poorly on the test, but I find it hard to believe that would be an issue. Students should have a stake in doing well just as much as teachers should. How we could set that I’m not sure of at this time, but their test scores would most likely follow them through school and beyond. Also, what about a teacher who grades a student more harshly just because they don’t like them? That happens too. Not often, but it does. That doesn’t mean we close down the school does it? If you follow Chuck’s logic it does.

In one last jab against testing, Chuck tries this salvo.

from Bangor Daily News

Most importantly, testing as the penultimate measure of an educator’s worth ignores an obvious but overlooked truth: The most important thing you learn in school is not the content of any particular discipline. The most important thing you learn is how to learn. Try measuring that on a test.

Instilling a life-long love of learning in a child is an important endeavor. So is teaching children how to find the answers on their own. If a teacher is consistently failing to impart the basics on their students so that they can continue on their own how can that be called a success in any stretch of the word?

Chuck continues by suggesting that principal evaluations of teachers wont accurately measure quality.

from Bangor Daily News

Most teachers I know in various school districts are observed in class once or twice a year, at most, by their administration. On those occasions, a teacher can usually prepare his or her best lesson, not necessarily the one that best represents his or her typical job performance.

Principals probably have other methods of knowing which teachers are good and which are bad. But then, your next principal won’t necessarily agree with the current one.

You would need to come up with some legendary, magical teacher evaluation system in order to transcend good-ole-boy politics and inconsistent pedagogical philosophies in schools where the principal’s office has a revolving door.

Again Chuck believes that we can only use one form of measurement at a time. Combining many forms of accountability provides checks and balances, negating some of the flaws of each alone. Chuck is right on one thing. We need more principal and administrative visits. Make them surprise visits as well.

As teachers are accountable (partly) for student performance, a principal should be accountable for their staff. Principals should be subject to merit pay as well. This would provide principals with greater incentives to find teachers in need of assistance and reward those with better performance.

Last Chuck says that we are not able to factor in many intangibles when figuring merit pay.

from Bangor Daily News

What is the price of finding the book that turns a kid on to reading? What does it cost to prevent or break up a fight at school? What would you pay to have a teacher discipline a bully instead of looking the other way? How much is it worth to have someone notice changes in a child’s behavior and intervene, thus preventing a suicide or a drug addiction? Or implement a new teaching technology, even if it means more headaches, because it might empower kids? What tax increase would you tolerate to have a gifted child find her passion?

Ah but we can factor in those things. With the combination of peer review, student review, and principal review all of these things will factor into pay. It may seem callous to attach a monetary value to things like providing extra help to a student or taking initiative to introduce new methods, but we should. To pay someone who puts in the hard work the same as a teacher who just floats by is completely unfair. Those who go the extra mile should be rewarded. When we ignore those factors we are effectively saying, “Thanks for the extra work, but we aren’t going out of our way to recognize your excellence.” How much of that can one person take before they stop trying? We have got to break this culture that ignores achievement and rewards complacency.

Chuck assumes, like so many, if we can’t have a perfect assessment system we should have none at all. It’s just not fair! Well Chuck, it’s not fair to let things continue the way they are. I would much rather we get things in place to start progressing toward a better system then continue on the same path. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but Chuck seems to provide none. If you read this Chuck, I was a little harsh, but you got me fired up. Also, I’d like to see your solutions Chuck. Readers, yours too.

More Merit Pay Madness- Sunday Editorial on Editorials

This Sunday Chuck McKay, a Newport, Maine high school teacher launched a brutal attack on merit pay for teachers and teacher accountability. Boy, there is so much to cover. Chuck really missed just about every mark in his assault. Let’s begin at the end. McKay warns us that, “when President Obama announces his support for “merit pay” for teachers, before you stand up and cheer, make sure you know exactly what “merit” really is.” Chuck, before you stand up and jeer merit pay take your own advice. Let me give you a little helping hand.

Later in his article Chuck admonishes those who believe teacher accountability an integral pillar of education reform. He then goes on to preach class size as a magic bean that will solve all our problems

from Bangor Daily News

You could fill an Olympic swimming pool with all the studies that prove lower class sizes result in higher student achievement. You would think that would translate to lots of new job openings for teachers.

Taxpayers seem more concerned about getting more for less, research be damned. So, school boards won’t cough up the coin to hire more personnel; communities would rather maintain status quo and keep taxpayers docile.

Ok, there are studies that suggest class sizes under 20 in the early grades help set a good foundation. A small class does not a good teacher make. A poor teacher is a poor teacher for 1 child to 100. Same goes for a quality teacher. You can’t deny that Chuck.

Chuck claims it is impossible to measure the quality of a teacher. He dismisses merit pay as “goofy” because the lack of a ruler for teacher quality. Or perhaps because he cannot see past what he has been ingrained to believe about merit pay.

Some reformers recognized that student assessments must be part, but not the only piece, to teacher accountability. Chuck assumes that we would only base teacher accountability on student scores, which must be inherently evil.

from Bangor Daily News

How do you quantify the value of a teacher? Test scores? Please. For starters, it is unfair to students to assault them with another battery of tests, this time directly affecting the livelihood of their teacher.

Yes Chuck, part of the value of a teacher is what a child has learned in their class. That is never detached from the profession. That is the main reason for teachers, to teach. One of the ways to measure that is by test scores. Chuck falsely assumes that this will require more exams. That is an unfair scare tactic. Why must we have more tests? Why can’t we use the ones we have. The MEA testing system has been in place here in Maine for some time. I will it say again, as I’ve said before, standardized tests aren’t perfect. We need to reform them away from a multiple-choice format. Tests should be problem solving and analysis based, considering grade level of course. Why Chuck doesn’t consider that possibility I can’t say.

Chuck’s next argument against merit pay based on student assessments? His students are out to get him!

from Bangor Daily News

As a student, I wouldn’t want the pressure of knowing my performance has a direct impact on my teacher’s ability to support a family. As a teacher, I wouldn’t want students who didn’t like me deliberately tanking the test.

As a teacher, or a person in general, you know some people like you and some don’t. Some people are malicious enough to manifest their dislike in unsavory ways. Yes some students may deliberately do poorly on the test, but I find it hard to believe that would be an issue. Students should have a stake in doing well just as much as teachers should. How we could set that I’m not sure of at this time, but their test scores would most likely follow them through school and beyond. Also, what about a teacher who grades a student more harshly just because they don’t like them? That happens too. Not often, but it does. That doesn’t mean we close down the school does it? If you follow Chuck’s logic it does.

In one last jab against testing, Chuck tries this salvo.

from Bangor Daily News

Most importantly, testing as the penultimate measure of an educator’s worth ignores an obvious but overlooked truth: The most important thing you learn in school is not the content of any particular discipline. The most important thing you learn is how to learn. Try measuring that on a test.

Instilling a life-long love of learning in a child is an important endeavor. So is teaching children how to find the answers on their own. If a teacher is consistently failing to impart the basics on their students so that they can continue on their own how can that be called a success in any stretch of the word?

Chuck continues by suggesting that principal evaluations of teachers wont accurately measure quality.

from Bangor Daily News

Most teachers I know in various school districts are observed in class once or twice a year, at most, by their administration. On those occasions, a teacher can usually prepare his or her best lesson, not necessarily the one that best represents his or her typical job performance.

Principals probably have other methods of knowing which teachers are good and which are bad. But then, your next principal won’t necessarily agree with the current one.

You would need to come up with some legendary, magical teacher evaluation system in order to transcend good-ole-boy politics and inconsistent pedagogical philosophies in schools where the principal’s office has a revolving door.

Again Chuck believes that we can only use one form of measurement at a time. Combining many forms of accountability provides checks and balances, negating some of the flaws of each alone. Chuck is right on one thing. We need more principal and administrative visits. Make them surprise visits as well.

As teachers are accountable (partly) for student performance, a principal should be accountable for their staff. Principals should be subject to merit pay as well. This would provide principals with greater incentives to find teachers in need of assistance and reward those with better performance.

Last Chuck says that we are not able to factor in many intangibles when figuring merit pay.

from Bangor Daily News

What is the price of finding the book that turns a kid on to reading? What does it cost to prevent or break up a fight at school? What would you pay to have a teacher discipline a bully instead of looking the other way? How much is it worth to have someone notice changes in a child’s behavior and intervene, thus preventing a suicide or a drug addiction? Or implement a new teaching technology, even if it means more headaches, because it might empower kids? What tax increase would you tolerate to have a gifted child find her passion?

Ah but we can factor in those things. With the combination of peer review, student review, and principal review all of these things will factor into pay. It may seem callous to attach a monetary value to things like providing extra help to a student or taking initiative to introduce new methods, but we should. To pay someone who puts in the hard work the same as a teacher who just floats by is completely unfair. Those who go the extra mile should be rewarded. When we ignore those factors we are effectively saying, “Thanks for the extra work, but we aren’t going out of our way to recognize your excellence.” How much of that can one person take before they stop trying? We have got to break this culture that ignores achievement and rewards complacency.

Chuck assumes, like so many, if we can’t have a perfect assessment system we should have none at all. It’s just not fair! Well Chuck, it’s not fair to let things continue the way they are. I would much rather we get things in place to start progressing toward a better system then continue on the same path. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but Chuck seems to provide none. If you read this Chuck, I was a little harsh, but you got me fired up. Also, I’d like to see your solutions Chuck. Readers, yours too.

Maine Says No Merits to Merit Pay

Al Diamon has been convinced for years that the State House in Augusta is full of loonies. I’m young. The idealistic hope that our government can actually do something productive hasn’t been beaten out of me. Granted, my civic ideals are hanging by a thin thread, but my soul isn’t totally black like that of the cynical Diamon.

Then I read this.

from Morning Sentinel

A teacher pay debate is taking shape in Maine’s Legislature, and President Barack Obama has already taken a side.

Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, has filed legislation that would outlaw tying teachers’ pay to student performance on test scores and other “measurable” factors. And Sen. Carol Weston, a Montville Republican, is pushing a proposal to encourage performance-based pay for teachers.

It’s impossible to judge teachers’ job performance accurately and determine their salaries fairly based on student test scores and student evaluations of their instructors, Bolduc said.

“It’s the criteria we use to determine who is performing well and who’s not performing well,” said Bolduc, who is certified as a high school social studies teacher. “If it’s not done right, it won’t be done fairly.”

Sorry Bolduc, but you’re wrong. A teacher’s job is to teach students. The outcome of that teaching should be students who can read, write, and do mathematics and understand these things, not just recite information. If we cannot judge if a teacher is doing a good job by how well their students are performing then what? Administrator evaluations? Those come once a year and they often are no surprise.

I’m not saying that student assessments should be the only part of assessing teacher performance, but they have to be some part. To say otherwise shows a complete lack of understanding of the educational system. How did Bolduc know if his students were succeeding or failing? Reading chicken bones? No their grades. Their scores assessed how well they were doing in his class. It is unfair to judge a student by that criteria and not the teacher. We still need to reform a great deal of how we grade students, how we assess their learning overall, and the standards we set, but to say that the system is not perfect so no way is ludicrous and lazy.

Words from Sen. Weston are not much more encouraging.

from Morning Sentinel

Weston agrees that student achievement shouldn’t factor into teacher pay. Her bill — still in its draft stages — would set up a range of pilot projects in districts interested in exploring merit pay systems.

“Right now, the best teacher and the worst teacher are all treated the same,” Weston said. “What we’re saying (in the legislation) is if you’re a really great teacher who has ideas, ambition and you want to do these extra things, then let’s compensate you.”

It is a crime that the hardest working, best performing teachers get the same salaries, etc. as the poorest. There are few professions in which workers would tolerate such a system for long. Still I have to disagree with Weston on not including student progress in merit pay. Student outcomes are the whole purpose for a teacher to even be employed. To deny that as part of a merit pay system is to deny the whole existence of our educational system.

Bolduc goes on to say in the article that teachers do have good days and bad days. Some of these they can control and some they can’t. Sure, everyone does. Teachers who have bad days, slog through them, and get the job done deserve to be recognized as an employee anywhere else would. However, when you continually have bad days and don’t seek help that’s a problem, especially when the future of our children is involved.