Calling Black Men To The Blackboard

Our guest author today is Travis Bristol, former high school English teacher in New York City public schools, who is currently a clinical teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program, as well as a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests focus on the intersection of gender and race in organizations. Travis is a 2013 National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellow.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent American scholar, suggested that the problem of the twentieth-century is the problem of the color-line. Without question, the problem of the 21st century continues to be the “color-line," which is to say race. And so it is understandable why Cabinet members in the Obama administration continue to address the race question head-on, through policies that attempt to decrease systemic disparities between Latino and Black Americans when compared to White Americans.

Most recently, in August 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department’s decision to reduce federal mandatory drug sentencing regulations.  Holder called “shameful” the fact that “black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes." Attempts, such as Holder's, to reform the criminal justice system appear to be an acknowledgment that institutionalized racism influences how Blacks and Whites are sentenced.

The Irreconcilables

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has a new, highly-publicized report about what it calls “irreplaceables," a catchy term that is supposed to describe those teachers who are “so successful they are nearly impossible to replace." The report’s primary conclusion is that these “irreplaceable” teachers often leave the profession voluntarily, and TNTP offers several recommendations for how to improve this.

I’m not going to discuss this report fully. It shines a light on teacher retention, which is a good thing. Its primary purpose is to promulgate the conceptual argument that not all teacher turnover is created equal – i.e., that it depends on whether “good” or “bad” teachers are leaving (see here for a strong analysis on this topic). The report’s recommendations are standard fare – improve working conditions, tailor pay to “performance” (see here for a review of evidence on incentives and retention), etc. Many are widely-supported, while others are more controversial. All of them merit discussion.

I just want to make one quick (and, in many respects, semantic) point about the manner in which TNTP identifies high-performing teachers, as I think it illustrates larger issues. In my view, the term “irreplaceable” doesn't apply, and I think it would have been a better analysis without it.

Teachers: Pressing The Right Buttons

The majority of social science research does not explicitly dwell on how we go from situation A to situation B. Instead, most social scientists focus on associations between different outcomes. This “static” approach has advantages but also limitations. Looking at associations might reveal that teachers who experience condition A are twice as likely to leave their schools than teachers who experience condition B. But what does this knowledge tell us about how to move from condition A to condition B? In many cases, very little.

Many social science findings are not easily “actionable” for policy purposes precisely because they say nothing about processes or sequences of events and activities unfolding over time, and in context. While conventional quantitative research provides indications of what works — on average — across large samples, a look at processes reveals how factors or events (situated in time and space) are associated with each other. This kind of research provides the detail that we need, not just to understand the world, but to do so in a way that is useful and enables us to act on it constructively.

Although this kind of work is rare, every now then a quantitative study showing “process sensitivity” sees the light of day. This is the case of a recent paper by Morgan and colleagues (2010) examining how the events that teachers experience routinely affect their commitment to remain in the profession.

Beyond Anecdotes: The Evidence About Financial Incentives And Teacher Retention

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

Our guest author today is Eleanor Fulbeck, who earned her Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

A couple of weeks ago, an article in the New York Times, written by reporter Sam Dillon, took a look at the new incentive program being used by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Under this plan (called “Impact Plus”), teachers rated “highly effective” by the district’s new evaluation system are eligible for large cash bonuses and/or permanent salary increases.

Dillon notes that, “The profession is notorious for losing thousands of its brightest young teachers within a few years, which many experts attribute to low starting salaries and a traditional step-raise structure that rewards years of service and academic degrees rather than success in the classroom." He also profiles several teachers who received the bonuses, most of whom say it played a role in their decision to remain in the classroom.

Putting aside these anecdotes and characterizations of “experts’” views, the idea that financial incentives – such as bonuses for performance or teaching in hard-to-staff schools – is a key to boosting teacher retention is a complex empirical question, and an open one at that.

Teacher Retention: Estimating The Effects Of Financial Incentives In Denver

Our guest author today is Eleanor Fulbeck, who earned her Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is currently much interest in improving access to high-quality teachers (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2010; Hanushek, 2007) through improved recruitment and retention. Prior research has shown that it is difficult to retain teachers, particularly in high-poverty schools (Boyd et al., 2011; Ingersoll, 2004). Although there is no one reason for this difficulty, there is some evidence to suggest teachers may leave certain schools or the profession in part because of dissatisfaction with low salaries (Ingersoll, 2001).

Thus, it is possible that by offering teachers financial incentives, whether in the form of alternative compensation systems or standalone bonuses, they would become more satisfied with their jobs and retention would increase. As of yet, however, support for this approach has not been grounded in empirical research.

Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers ("ProComp") is one of the most prominent alternative teacher compensation reforms in the nation.* Via a combination of ten financial incentives, ProComp seeks to increase student achievement by motivating teachers to improve their instructional practices and by attracting and retaining high-quality teachers to work in the district.

My research examines ProComp in terms of: 1) whether it has increased retention rates; 2) the relationship between retention and school quality (defined in terms of student test score growth); and 3) the reasons underlying these effects. I pay special attention to the effects of ProComp on schools that serve high concentrations of poor students – “Hard to Serve” (HTS) schools where teachers are eligible to receive a financial incentive to stay. The quantitative findings are discussed briefly below (I will discuss my other results in a future post).

Do Half Of New Teachers Leave The Profession Within Five Years?

You’ll often hear the argument that half or almost half of all beginning U.S. public school teachers leave the profession within five years.

The implications of this statistic are, of course, that we are losing a huge proportion of our new teachers, creating a “revolving door” of sorts, with teachers constantly leaving the profession and having to be replaced. This is costly, both financially (it is expensive to recruit and train new teachers) and in terms of productivity (we are losing teachers before they reach their peak effectiveness). And this doesn’t even include teachers who stay in the profession but switch schools and/or districts (i.e., teacher mobility).*

Needless to say, some attrition is inevitable, and not all of it is necessarily harmful, Many new teachers, like all workers, leave (or are dismissed) because they are just aren’t good at it – and, indeed, there is test-based evidence that novice leavers are, on average, less effective. But there are many other excellent teachers who exit due to working conditions or other negative factors that might be improved (for reviews of the literature on attrition/retention, see here and here).

So, the “almost half of new teachers leave within five years” statistic might serve as a useful diagnosis of the extent of the problem. As is so often the case, however, it's rarely accompanied by a citation. Let’s quickly see where it comes from, how it might be interpreted, and, finally, take a look at some other relevant evidence.

Attention To Pay

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.

How Deep Is The Teacher Bench?

On most sports teams, coaches assess players in part by considering who is available to replace them. Teams with “deep benches” have more leeway in making personnel changes, because quality replacements are available.

The same goes for teaching. Those who aggressively wish to start firing larger numbers of teachers every year rely on an obvious but critical assumption (often unstated): that schools and districts can find better replacements.

In other words, it is both counterproductive (and very expensive) to fire teachers if you can’t replace them with a more effective alternative. Even those few commentators who have addressed this matter sometimes ignore another important fact: The teacher labor market is about to change dramatically, with a massive wave of retirements lasting 5-10 years. Thus, most current assumptions about the stability and quality of the applicant pool over this period may be unsupportable.

The numbers are a bit staggering.