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  • Evaluating Individual Teachers Won't Solve Systemic Educational Problems

    Written on July 26, 2011

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

    Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors.  

    What are we to make of recent articles (here and here) extolling IMPACT, Washington DC’s fledging teacher evaluation system, for how many "ineffective" teachers have been identified and fired, how many "highly effective" teachers rewarded? It’s hard to say.

    In a forthcoming book, Teaching and Its Predicaments (Harvard University Press, August 2011), I argue that fragmented school governance in the U.S. coupled with the lack of coherent educational infrastructure make it difficult either to broadly improve teaching and learning or to have valid knowledge of the extent of improvement. Merriam-Webster defines "infrastructure" as: "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)." The term is commonly used to refer to the roads, rail systems, and other frameworks that facilitate the movement of things and people, or to the physical and electronic mechanisms that enable voice and video communication. But social systems also can have such "underlying foundations or basic frameworks". For school systems around the world, the infrastructure commonly includes student curricula or curriculum frameworks, exams to assess students’ learning of the curricula, instruction that centers on teaching that curriculum, and teacher education that aims to help prospective teachers learn how to teach the curricula. The U.S. has had no such common and unifying infrastructure for schools, owing in part to fragmented government (including local control) and traditions of weak state guidance about curriculum and teacher education.

    Like many recent reform efforts that focus on teacher performance and accountability, IMPACT does not attempt to build infrastructure, but rather assumes that weak individual teachers are the problem. There are some weak individual teachers, but the chief problem has been a non-system that offers no guidance or support for strong teaching and learning, precisely because there has been no infrastructure. IMPACT frames reform as a matter of solving individual problems when the weakness is systemic.

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  • Attention To Pay

    Written on November 30, 2010

    The debate over how best to restructure teacher salary systems is older than I am—with good reason: Instructional salaries represent roughly 40 percent of current K-12 public school expenditures.  And some of the arguments for changing current salary structures make sense, at least in theory. 

    For instance, there is a case for tying step increases (typically awarded according to years of service) to additional measures, such as strengthened evaluation systems and curriculum-linked professional development (as is the case in the recently-ratified Baltimore contract). These types of changes, if they are bargained and approved by teachers, could be of real benefit to all stakeholders.

    At the same time, it’s unfortunate that some of the talking points used commonly by those who wish to overhaul teacher salary systems are rather misleading and oversimplified. Not only do they sometimes seem designed to inspire outrage against teachers, they also tend to obscure or ignore important facts about the relationship between teacher pay and teacher quality.  Three such arguments seem particularly pervasive.

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  • Three Questions For Those Who Dismiss The Nashville Merit Pay Study

    Written on September 27, 2010

    The reaction from many performance pay advocates to the Nashville evaluation released last week has been that the study is relatively meaningless (see here and here for examples).  The general interpretation: The results show that the pay bonuses do not improve student achievement, but short-term test score gains are not the "true purpose" of these incentive programs. What they are really supposed to improve, so the line goes, is the quality of people who pursue teaching as a career, as well as their retention rates.

    While I disagree that the findings are not important (they are, if for no other reason than they discredit the idea that teachers are holding their effort hostage to more money), I am sympathetic towards the view that the study didn’t tackle the big issues. Attracting the best possible people into the profession – and keeping them there – are much more meaningful goals than short-term test score gains, and they are not addressed in this study (though some results for retention are reported).

    But this argument also begs a few important questions that I hope we can answer before the Nashville study fades into evaluation oblivion.  I have three of them.

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  • Persistently Low-Performing Incentives

    Written on September 21, 2010

    Today, the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) and the RAND Corporation released a long-awaited experimental evaluation of teacher performance pay in Nashville, Tenn. It finds that performance bonuses have virtually no effect on student math test scores (there were small but significant gains by fifth graders, but only in two of the three years examined, and the gains did not last into sixth grade).

    Since this is such a politically contentious issue, these findings are likely to spark a lot of posturing and debate. So it’s worth trying to put them in context. As I discussed in a prior post, we now have at least preliminary results from three randomized experimental evaluations of merit pay in the U.S., the first contemporary, high-quality evidence of its kind.  This Nashville report and the two previously-released studies – one from Chicago and one from New York City's schoolwide bonus program – reached the same conclusion: Performance bonuses for teachers have little or no discernable effect on student test scores. 

    Although the NYC and Chicago findings are preliminary (the evaluations are still in progress), the NYC program provides schoolwide and not individual bonuses, and one additional study (Round Rock, Tex.) is yet to be released, the three already-released reports do represent a fairly impressive, though still very tentative, body of evidence on merit pay’s utility as a means to improve test scores.

    And at this point, it’s a good bet that, when all the evaluations are final and the smoke has cleared, we will have to conclude that performance bonuses are, at the very least, a very unpromising policy for producing short-term test score gains. 

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  • Extra Time: More From The Magazine's Education Poll

    Written on September 14, 2010

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post.

    A recent education poll conducted by Time Magazine has gotten a lot of attention. Many of the questions are worded so badly that the results are rather meaningless. The question on merit pay, for example, defines the practice as “paying teachers according to their effectiveness” (who would oppose that, if it could be accurately measured?). Other questions are very interesting, such as the one asking whether respondents would pay higher taxes to improve public schools (56 percent would). Or the finding that, when asked what will “improve student achievement the most," more than twice as many people choose “more involved parents” (54 percent) over “more effective teachers” (24 percent).

    But, as is sometimes the case, a few of the survey’s most interesting results were not included in the published article, which highlighted only 11 out of 40-50 or so total questions (the full set of results is available here). Here are three or four unpublished items that caught my eye (the sample size is 1,000, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent):

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