Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Need of Alteration

I saw an opinion piece in the latest issue of Newsweek yesterday that I caught my attention. In it Johnathon Alter offers some thoughts on what's wrong with and should be done about education in the United States.

I'm always glad when education gets more attention in the mainstream media, and Alter raises some valid points, but the piece leaves an awful lot to be desired. If you haven't yet read it, it's short and it's worth a glance. To those of you who read the education blogs regularly, I don't think you'll see anything particularly new.

To paraphrase, he essentially argues that unions are ruining our schools, that we need to hold teachers more accountable, make schools more like KIPP schools, and that Obama should go against the unions and find ways to bring and keep better teachers in our school.

Unfortunately, Alter makes a few errors. Perhaps most grievous, at least to those of us with research training, is his false statement about how students are selected for KIPP and other charter schools. He says that students are "randomly selected" to attend. Random selection is a technical term meaning that the sample (in this case the students attending KIPP) was selected completely at random and, therefore, no person should be more likely to be included than any other person. This is simply not how KIPP works. Parents and students have to apply in order to enroll. Yes, students are admitted from the pool of applicants by lottery -- but this does not constitute random selection because they were randomly chosen from a non-random group.

Alter acknowledges that KIPP schools aren't fully replicable, but not necessarily for the right reason. He argues that there simply aren't enough effective teachers to go around. That may well be the case, but I hardly think that KIPP has a monopoly on effective teachers or that "effectiveness" is necessarily what sets KIPP teachers apart from teachers at other schools. As far as I can tell, a large number of teachers at KIPP and other similar schools are young and without families and, therefore, willing to essentially devote their life to the school for a few years before moving on. What we really lack is enough people who are willing and able to do this in order to run all schools like KIPP.

I must also take issue with his overly strong statement that "we know what works to close the achievement gap." Some people appear to have done it, and we have some good ideas -- but that doesn't mean the solution is just sitting out there waiting for everybody to latch on.

I'll give Alter credit for arguing that we need to devise ways to measure how well teachers teach rather than simply arguing that we need to measure them and then hold them accountable.

Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Alter writes -- and the statement that gives away the ideological underpinnings of his argument if anybody wasn't already aware -- is that unions "still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children." Unions are far from perfect, and this is far from the most inflammatory rhetoric that I've read about them, but it's still sheer and utter nonsense. Alter disagrees with unions, so he essentially resorts to exaggerating their misdeeds and calling them names. Though more polite, it's the intellectual equivalent of calling somebody with whom you disagree a Nazi or a terrorist.

If I were a union leader, however, I would mull over Alter's final point. He argues that unions should "change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance." The statement is a bit over the top, but the general idea that unions could view submitting their members to more scrutiny in exchange for higher pay is something on which both sides might find some common ground.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Theory behind Merit Pay

Liam Julian posted a couple quick blurbs on merit pay today, including one partially in response to a comment I left on the first. Merit pay is, as I'll explain, fine and dandy on paper -- but I still worry about its feasibility in real life.

By "merit pay," I mean plans to pay better teachers more money -- which has taken all sorts of forms in different schools and districts.

The basic theories behind merit pay, as far as I can tell, are that:
-Teachers will work harder if they know that better teaching will result in more money
-It's more fair to pay teachers based on how good they are than on seniority or education
-Successful teachers are more likely to stay in the profession if their success is rewarded
-Brighter and more driven people are more likely to enter the profession if they know that their success will be rewarded
-Less successful teachers are more likely to leave voluntarily if their pay isn't advanced

All of these are eminently reasonable assumptions. On paper, they make a lot of sense. It wouldn't surprise me at all if any or all of these were borne out by experiments with merit pay.

That said, I also refuse to assume that all of these will be borne out in real life. Economists like to imagine that everybody is a "rational actor" that acts in their own best interest. That theory is, generally speaking, usually true. But there are exceptions -- large exceptions. Not to mention practical hurdles. And these mean that there are a lot of unanswered questions about merit pay, including:

-How much harder are teachers able/willing to work for more money?
-Would teachers motivated by money behave differently from teachers motivated intrinsically?
-How many more people would consider teaching if merit pay were common?
-How large of a role do salaries play when teachers leave the field?
-What types of people would enter teaching if pay were different?
-How well can we measure how "good" a teacher is?
-Will teachers buy-in to any measure of their success?
-Can a rewards system that is both fair and easy to understand be created?
-What type of behavior should be rewarded?
-What types of challenges or additional responsibilities should be rewarded?
-Do teachers know how to alter their behavior so that they will be more successful? (i.e. if teachers work harder, will they necessarily be better?)

I see multiple meritorious answers to all of these questions. If you'll bear with me, I have two quick anecdotal pieces of evidence that point in opposite directions. When I was teaching, I lived, ate, slept, breathed teaching. I gave it my all. If somebody had offered me $1 million if my kids improved, it wouldn't have changed my behavior any b/c I was already doing everything I could. A friend of mine, meanwhile, taught in a similar situation. He came in and out-performed all of the other math teachers in his middle school (as measured by student test scores) and then left, in part b/c he wouldn't be paid any more the next year as a result of his success -- he found it quite depressing that he would continue to earn only his 3% (or whatever) salary step bumps and make less than the older teachers in the department no matter what he did.

In short, I see arguments on both sides of the coin. I, for one, refuse to assume that merit pay either will or will not work. In order to answer that question (prepare for the most hated four words in education research) more research is needed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Last-Second Changes

I haven't come across much on this in the research literature, but I'm willing to stick my neck out and assert that one thing that absolutely drives people in schools nuts are the number of last-minute changes from above. People are told that they will be teaching different subjects or grades days or hours before the school year begins, for example. I was hired by the school at which I worked two days before the start of the school year because the previous 6th grade teacher had just been moved across the hall to be a bilingual teacher.

This is far from the most egregious example, but the state just shuffled around an awful lot of administrators in Nashville. A month before the start of the school year is a lot better than a day, but the former principals have been hiring staff and otherwise preparing their schools for the fall for two months now.

Imagine Mr. Smith hiring a new teacher in June and then Mr. Jones being installed as the new principal in July. What if Mr. Jones doesn't like the new teacher or the new teacher doesn't like Mr. Jones? It's going to take at least a year to sort these kinds of things out, and many of them could have been avoided had the state simply acted two months earlier.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Rational" and "Stupid" are not Mutually Exclusive

Back when I was studying economics, we learned all about the rational behavior in which individuals and organizations engage in response to various incentives and disincentives. "Home Economicus" is the generic rational individual that we assume all people to be -- actions are based on a rational evaluation of what actions would most benefit that individual.

Though all sorts of exceptions exist, the theory generally holds in most situations. We can predict that a person will be more likely to buy a product when the price is lowered, for example. In the same vein, we can predict that a teacher will change their behavior if offered a bonus when he/she reaches certain benchmarks. Such behavior would be considered rational.

Here's the problem that we sometimes overlook: what is rational to economists is not always in the best interest of society. Here's the latest example: Flypaper blogs about a plan in Los Angeles to allow certain students to attend school for only two hours per week. The plan is labeled "unbelievably stupid" and I largely agree.

But the plan is anything but irrational. The main goal of the program seems to be to encourage students to enroll in this new school rather than dropping out. They may not learn much by attending school for only two hours per week, but the fact that they're enrolled means that the school district continues to receive money from the state for each student -- money they wouldn't receive if the student dropped out. The plan is, in short, in the best interest of the school district. Those who came up with the idea were acting in their own self-interest.

Self-interest is a powerful motivator. But it's not always the solution.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why Do Teachers Get so Defensive?

I read Liam Julian's post "The Martyrs" right before the holiday (yes, I'm a little behind). Though needlessly flippant and condescending, he asks an interesting question: why are teachers so defensive when criticized?

He, specifically, is upset at teachers who dismiss the opinions of others by pointing out that they've never taught (as some teachers recently did to him) and argues that the idea that only teachers can judge other teachers is a logical fallacy. He makes a valid point; it is possible to recognize excellent or poor teaching (and, for that matter, good and bad ideas for a school) without having ever taught.

That said, I'm not sure he really gets to the heart of the issue. Simply saying that a teacher is wrong when they make that argument is at least as unproductive as a teacher making that argument in the first place.

In other words, let's try to find an answer to the question "Why do teachers get so defensive?" other than "they're wrong, so who cares."

I was quite critical of teachers before I started teaching. But now, with the exception of those few who are both truly awful and don't care, I hesitate a bit before I lash out. And I wince about when I hear others lash out.


In my experience, teaching is a very personal pursuit. It requires a lot of an individual. Many people who go into teaching devote more than just time and energy into their teaching -- it's more than just a job to them. It's also much more difficult and nuanced than it looks. I was pretty cocky before I started teaching -- I was convinced that I could sweep in and change the world. And then I discovered about a million things that I never would have anticipated.

I think these two things make teachers quite jumpy when they are criticized. I used to deliver newspapers when I was younger. If somebody had told me I was a bad newspaper boy, I wouldn't have been particularly happy; but it wouldn't have been the end of the world. I simply placed newspapers inside of doors after school and then went back home -- it was something that I did to earn some cash to buy candy and other cool (and worthwhile) stuff rather than a part of my identity.

For many teachers, however, their job is personal. And criticism of the way they do their jobs is seen as criticism of them as people. And nobody takes kindly to that.

Perhaps more important is that anybody who has taught knows that there's more to it than it looks like. When people from the outside criticize teachers, I think it's quite logical to point out that that they don't know the full story. It's a heck of a lot easier to point out what a teacher is doing incorrectly than to actually do it correctly. That doesn't mean that somebody who has never taught can't recognize good teaching and bad teaching, but that their understanding of why a teacher is doing something or what they should do differently lacks nuance.

Lastly, I think there is a mismatch in expectations and rewards for teachers. I'm not sure if the members of any other occupation have such high expectations placed upon them by the public. Your dentist doesn't make the newspaper if they post a picture of themselves in a bikini on their myspace page. Your accountant isn't shunned on the local news if they have a sex-change operation. Teachers are expected to be role models and to conduct themselves with dignity at all times. And yet, teachers may also be criticized more than any other sector of society. In other words, teachers are expected to be perfect, but are treated as second-class citizens in a number of respects.

When somebody pours their heart and sole into a difficult job that commands little respect it shouldn't surprise us when they bristle at criticism.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How to Fix Testing?

Maybe it's b/c my brain is still only half-functioning, but I feel like writing something today about which I know little and that will probably result in a lot of people calling me stupid.

Testing is a huge part of American education, but it's riddled with all sorts of problems. One problem is that most tests are simply not a valid measurement of student knowledge/aptitude/performance (or whatever it is that the test strives to measure). Allow me one example. My first year, all my students took the English exam at the end of the year and their performance was compared to the previous year. This makes sense on paper. But, in reality, the exam was 50 minutes long and contained 50 multiple choice questions. The internal validity, in short, was lacking. Economists would say there was "a lot of noise" in the test results -- the scores of the students varied widely from their true ability based on all sorts of random reasons. This is one flaw with the value-added formula -- if we're not really sure how much the kid knew last year, then we can't really tell how much they learned this year.

Many have also complained that students spend all day on "test prep" in the weeks or months (I was told to stop teaching social studies after Christmas and do practice English tests) leading up to the exam -- in effect, teachers are trying to teach kids to game tests. This not only robs kids of other learning opportunities but, if done correctly, artificially raises scores.

Anyway, skoolboy posted a tongue-in-cheek call for more testing on eduwonkette's blog today. While I was teaching I thought up a somewhat similar proposal to his, but my tongue was not in my cheek. Here's one way I think testing could be done that would solve a lot of the problems:

Every class in the school takes one test approximately every two weeks. The time, day, and subject matter of the test are random. The teacher and student find out that they will be taking a test a certain period the following day at the end of the previous day. They are not informed of the subject matter until they arrive in the testing room (a testing room equipped with computers is necessary to ensure that all these tests can be graded quickly). By the end of the year, each student has taken about 20 tests spread across all subjects. This provides a much broader base on which to judge students' knowledge. Since testing runs all year and one never knows on what subject they'll be tested next, test prep is impossible to do effectively or to sustain throughout the pre-test time period. The system will be a bit of a pain in the butt and will generate some complaints from teachers. A well-organized testing coordinator and a well-run testing room would have to present in each school. A wide variety of high-quality tests that can be graded largely by computer will have to be available -- national testing may be the only affordable way to do this. But, if done correctly it would solve a lot of problems.

In short, I'm not convinced that more testing isn't the answer.