Friday, March 13, 2009

Sharpton and Klein's Imperfect Op-Ed

The Huffington Post has a piece today by Al Sharpton and Joel Klein entitled "Teacher Rx: The Perfect Storm for Reform." They make a lot of good points, but they also come up short on a number. Here are some of the parts where they slip up:

"the teaching profession does far too little to recruit promising teachers to high-poverty schools or retain them by providing merit pay"

I'm not sure "the teaching profession" really controls either of these things. I don't see "the medical profession" running recruiting campaigns or paying certain doctors more. I guess the closest thing to an action taken by the teacher profession would be an action taken by unions, but they don't exist to recruit or pay people. I think what they meant to say was that our education system does far too little.

"From the moment a prospective teacher enters a teachers college to the day of his or her retirement party, a teacher's ability to elevate student learning is poorly assessed (if at all), and virtually never linked to consequences--either positive, as in the case of awarding merit pay, or negative, like being dismissed for poor performance."

This is part of their discussion of merit pay, but is really only tangentially related. Teachers can both be rewarded and punished without the aid of tests or merit pay. If too few teachers are dismissed it's not just because the system doesn't punish bad teachers, it's also because principals aren't making a concerted effort to fire bad teachers.

But in the 21st century, teachers are long overdue to join the ranks of other white-collar professionals, whose remuneration is based chiefly on job performance. "It is astonishing to me that you could have a system that doesn't allow you to pay more for strong performance, or for teaching in a particular school," says Bill Gates. "That is almost like saying 'Teacher performance doesn't matter'--and that's basically saying 'Students don't matter'."

It's not that simple. Teacher performance can matter without being linked to pay. Students can matter without earning caretakers money. Parents aren't paid more if they take better care of their child, but an awful lot of them find the will to care anyway.

"credentials and certification are poor indicators of who will become an effective teacher"

As are test scores and college transcripts. But they might be preventing worse teachers from entering the classroom.

"In fact, promising alternative programs for recruiting and certifying teachers, like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows program, are every bit if not more effective than the traditional training provided at teachers colleges."

No, their teachers obtain about the same results on standardized tests. That may or may not indicate that they're good at training teachers. It might mean that they're better at recruiting/hiring people with more natural talent at teaching. It might mean that people in those programs simply work harder because they're more willing to burn out and move on. That fact in and of itself tells us very little about how well TFA or NYCTF train teachers.

"When disadvantaged students have a good teacher a number of years in a row, it can eliminate, or at least make a huge dent, in the achievement gap. One study of 9,400 math classrooms in Los Angeles in grades three through five projects that if low-income minority students could be assured of having teachers who fell in the top 25 percent of effective teachers four years in a row (in lieu of a sub-par instructor from the bottom quartile of teachers), students could close the achievement gap altogether"

Ugh. Really? People still haven't gotten the memo? This projection was based on pure, and inaccurate, speculation that has since been disproved. Stop citing this. There's plenty of evidence that teachers are important -- we don't need to resort to citing faulty evidence. Remember: overstating your case doesn't make it stronger. Read Aaron Pallas for more on this.

To move toward a true performance-based compensation system for teachers, school districts would need to be able to track the effect that individual teachers have on student performance from year-to-year over a period of years . . . Unfortunately, only a handful of states and districts have developed data bases that would enable school officials to track the performance of individual teachers and students over a multi-year period.

We believe that the Obama administration should require states seeking money from the new $5 billion "Race to the Top" innovation fund to not only develop but implement longitudinal value-added systems for assessing teacher performance. For all its imperfections and methodological challenges, value added analysis is still a vast improvement on the existing system, which fails its elemental duty to judge whether teachers are advancing student learning.

Two thoughts: 1.) Value-Added systems are difficult and expensive to develop. Might it be better for the federal government to create one (especially if we end up with national standards) and allow states to either opt-in or create their own? 2.) If the current system "fails its elemental duty" then why are we pressing to use it to evaluate teachers and schools?

Other than those problems, it's a pretty good piece.


Anonymous said...

Take the same teacher, move him or her from school to school, with varying levels of poverty and see if that teacher's gains stay the same. No way.

Eve Proper said...

I would argue that the medical profession does indeed control recruitment and salary - just not as ineffectively as with something like ads. Doctors control the AMA, and you can't practice unless you're board certified. And you can't practice unless your med school is OKed. Effectively, they control their own supply, and they sensibly restrict supply to keep salaries up. Sociologically, one of the definitions of a profession is that it controls who can join it. The same is true of clergy (mainstream Protestants and Catholic/Orthodox faiths) and law - the other two classic professions.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Ever seen a poster put up by the AMA telling people that they should become a doctor?