The Lack of Merit Around Teacher Merit Pay

A new study out from Vanderbilt is sure to shake some feathers in the circles of people who believe that merit pay is necessary to motivate teachers to perform better (Merit Pay Found to Have Little Effect on Achievement).  It creates one of the few times that I’m in agreement with a TEA official.

While the study showed that merit pay did not appear to be a great factor in student learning, I do want to emphasize the following paragraphs which were buried in the news report:

Mr. Mance of the Tennessee Education Association said the study confirms what many teachers and unions have long believed: that teachers are already hardworking. For this study to show positive results, he said, “you’d have to have teachers who were saving their best strategies for an opportunity to get paid for them, and that is an absurd proposition.”

Researchers cautioned, however, that the Nashville experiment does not provide answers to many other questions about incentive pay. For instance, it wasn’t designed to test the hypotheses that pay incentives might serve as a draw to a different population of teacher-candidates or as an incentive for other candidates to stay in the profession—thus potentially changing the quality of the teacher workforce.

“I personally believe that the biggest role of incentives has to do with selection of who enters and who stays in teaching—how incentives change the teaching corps through entrance and exits,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “The study has nothing to say about this.”

And what happened to the teachers in the study?  They had high attrition–just like normal teachers.  Their students’ achievement levels dropped in middle schools–just like any students.  Indeed perhaps it’s time we focus on the three big qualities of actual learning:

  1. The quality of the teacher in the room
  2. The amount of time spent in learning at the classroom and school level
  3. The willingness of a school and community to make #1 and #2 priorities.

Pay structure certainly has a place in this, but simple “merit bonuses”  as motivators are not effective.

A Prospective Commodore’s Purpose

The following below is my statement of purpose of Vanderbilt’s Ed.D program in K-12 Education Policy and Leadership:

Her name was Desiree; she was my student in junior English and an elective called Critical Thinking at a Title I high school in Nashville. Desiree is a bright girl, something she is incapable of knowing at the school where she is. Before I met her, Desiree lived in a world of low expectations; everything about her seemed less than average she seemed a small girl in an unimpressive high school filled with students that 90% of licensed teachers will not even consider interviewing for. But Desiree can write, but no one knows this. She had four sophomore English teachers; all her teachers were fired or quit because they could not handle the high demands of working at this school. No teacher noticed Desiree because her aptitude for writing was lost in the system. There was no system for Desiree–her teachers were lost in the policies of attendance referrals, suspension referrals, and psychological referrals. But there were no policies for Desiree; there was no way to recognize her uniqueness.

It was poor policy that led to my collision with Desiree. I was also the victim of failed policy–laid off from my first teaching job even after having student Advanced Placement scores that exceeded my more veteran peers. I lost the seniority draw in budget cuts, and I needed a new school. Desiree needed a new teacher; she needed someone who could cut threw the distractions of what she was “expected” to be to see what she actually was–an under-served, unchallenged student.

And thus, I was an ex-AP teacher in a new world, a world most educators never see. I was with a week and a half’s noticed thrust into teaching a set of students whose sophomore education had been mostly a poor patched together work of four teachers’ efforts. I had an elective to teach with no guidelines and a population of students in poverty who were not used to being made to think deeply or express their inner voices, if anyone either bothered to ask. Under a mandate to raise writing scores, which had plummeted in previous years, I was supposed to focus on borderline students–those who might just past, it was the unwritten policy of the job. The goal was to get more 4’s on the state writing exam for 11th graders (out of a possible 6). The previous year’s mark was 61% pass (4 or higher) with only a handful of 5’s (considered strong writing) from an honors class.

Few things irk me more than a rule that I find counterproductive. I was stubborn: I had not left AP to put myself into a culture of worksheets and low expectations. I taught my students persuasion, I taught them how to make a narrative argument, I taught them how to read nonfiction, I taught them how to look for symbolism in The Glass Menagerie. I taught at a level that was not supposed to be possible because that was the culture.

Desiree blossomed. She made a 5 on the writing exam; she became happy to be in English class. She encouraged her friend next to her; she made a 5 as well. Three more boys in that class, two of which had failed other class, made 5’s. Overall, 75% of my students passed, a school high with over a quarter of them receiving 5’s–more students from that one class made 5’s then all that school’s honors and AP students.

That was years ago. Now I look back, and I see how many school rules have worked against education–“teach only out of the prescribed book,” never-mind that my kids cannot read it. My first district mentor once horrified me by ordering me to only give answers that were in the back of my teacher’s book because the district had paid too much money for it; it was supposedly too much for my AP kids to offer other suggestions. When I declined, she accused me of insubordination. At the Title I school, I was supposed to teach these four “essential literature” books to my students. Because the books were by black authors, my inner-city kids were supposed to be able to relate. They didn’t–they were all books about mature adult issues. I found them literature that they did find relevant by many different authors, and they enjoyed that more than what the guidelines said students “in this population” should be taught.

Along with my teaching, I read education blogs and journals on a daily basis; it is where I generate new ideas as the ones that clear “policy” barriers are usually not fully implemented or out of date. I am intrigued by techniques that I see school reformers using, that I read from university departments, that I uncover analyzing active research. I strongly believe that there is a need for people who have taught in all kind of teaching situations who can also advocate, consult, and implement effective scholastic policies. I have taught effectively in middle-class, inner-city, and affluent high schools. I have seen the benefits of sound policy, and I have seen poor policy implemented because it was not thought out or researched. I have seen how policy affects the gifted, the special needs, the popular students, the forgotten students, and the educators.

I am applying to Vanderbilt because I believe that I must better myself to improve education policy. I want to discover and to test new ideas, to advocate policies that improve the academics of forgotten students like Desiree and all those students who needed someone to tell those sophomore teachers to look for them. I dream of being a better practitioner of better policy.

Teacher Opinions on Classroom Technology

GOOD has an interesting infographic out about teachers’ views of technologies.  Many are optimitstic about educational technology, but the survey shows that many aren’t ready to give up their textbooks, yet.  My reaction to this is because a textbook is an easy on-hand resource while in every school that I have been educational technology is a scarce resource that one only has at certain times.

A Visual Examination & Ranking of Rural Students in Poverty by US State

The Center for American Progress, one of my websites for educational analysis from the research side of the field (though I don’t always agree with its conclusions; the place is fairly good at producing raw informative data and seems less slanted left in education as they are in other fields), has released this interactive map showing where each state falls with what percentage of its students can be classified as “rural” and what percentage of the rural students are in poverty.  These are some really interesting statistics that aren’t mentioned often as most of the school reform rhetoric centers on struggling inner-city schools when many of the rural schools have been fighting similar problems for just as long.  The data for Nevada and Hawaii was incomplete.

States with the highest percentage of rural students (all at/over 60%):

  • Maine
  • Vermont
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • Nebraska

States with lowest percentage of rural students:  (all under 20%)

  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Delaware
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • Maryland
  • New York
  • Hawaii

States with highest percentage of rural students living in poverty from west to east:  (all over 50%)

  • New Mexico  [highest in nation–81%]
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana  [2nd highest in nation–70%]
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Kentucky
  • West Virginia
  • South Carolina

States with lowest percentage of rural students living in poverty from west to east:  (all under 20%)

  • New Jersey
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut  [lowest in nation–7%; only state in single digits]
  • Rhode Island
  • New Hampshire

Tennessee’s Data:

  1. Total:  325,823 students are rural
  2. 42% of students are rural
  3. 45% of rural students live in poverty (approx 147,272 students)
  4. Tennessee is touched by four of the nine states with the highest percentage of students in poverty (AR, MS, AL, KY)
  5. Of its other border states, TN’s numbers as percentage of students living in poverty are comparable to Tennessee’s–MO  has numbers only slightly lower, NC and GA slightly higher.  Virginia has significantly lower percentages of its rural students living in poverty (32.5%)  than Tennessee, and that number is the lowest in the southeast.  Tennessee is second, followed closely by North Carolina.

A Comic for Poets and Gamers

I send out a billion comic panels of love to xkcd for this lovely mesh of 19th century American poetry and 21st century video game violence.

First (as a reference and for your general betterment) the poem  “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by the American Poetess, herself, Emily Dickinson:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

And now, for general chuckles, the comic “The Carriage” by xkcd:

Thanks to the CUNY Brooklyn website  for the poem text.

On Job (Old Testament), Job Hunts, and Changing My Facebook Status

Part of this blog’s mission is to explore the inner lives of educators.  It’s a part of the mission that I’ve ignored lately.  I prefer talking about assessment schedules, making ranking lists, linking to a good educational resource, and proposing educational initiatives to looking at my “Inner Education.”  It is a painful place for me right now.

But it is after midnight, I feel a personal conviction right now, and I refuse to sleep until a few things are written.  This is important to me, and I want you to know why.  I feel my profession slipping away from me.  It has been in dire straights before, and many times I have felt like I have had such a profound apt for it that I could never be separated from it.  But, I am still unemployed despite my best efforts.  It is painful to feel what was something I was once so passionate for not be in my life.  News reports from schools make me cringe; I feel like I should be in there.  School has been my calling, me giving back to the world, using my gifts for the betterment of myself, my students, and my community.  Now, it is gone and while I still find purpose in my life; it feels hollow compared to what it once was.

The studies say that 50% of all teachers are out of the profession before they complete five years.  I’m sure that there is a myriad of reasons for it, many say “lack of administrative support”  is the #1 cause; Haberman calls that code for “can’t control a classroom”, which rings some truth to me, and yet is hollow for other reasons.

I wonder how many teachers exit the profession like I seem to be doing…an anti-climactic fade into unemployment exacerbated by a recession, a drought of once-plentiful stimulus money, and just seeing all the doors close in multiple districts.  Seeing suddenly bright prospects fade just as quickly with little reason behind it.  Today I had hope again; a school that I had always wanted to work at had a sudden vacancy; here I was two weeks into the school year with experience, a record of success, and many teachers already employed and a dream job possibly opening once everyone else had been placed.  I wrote a special cover letter to the principal along with my constantly checked resume and applied for the job that couldn’t have been open more than two days…it was already filled, despite the posting.  I was despondent; it led to my Facebook status:

Another dream job at […] opened today and was filled just as quickly. I’ve been scouting the place for two years. It’s happened to me at multiple Metro Schools this year; I’m the perfect applicant, but the postings are all a sham–most of them don’t even exist… Who’s getting these things?

I was angry. It all seemed so arbitrary; something that belonged in a Dreiser-novel where I’m the struggling protagonist caught in a web of fate beyond my escaping. The universe was mocking me. Another interview for Monday was supposed to occur, but they never called me back with a time.  I’ve applied for a dozen other non-teaching jobs that I think my experience fits, but I’ve received little to no response.  I was almost ready to cry, and I average one cry about every five years.  My passions are powerful but infrequent.  I’m the classic Meyers-Briggs INTJ–I like logic and rationality; my inner world generally stays inside except when needed.

I remembered teaching Sunday School several weeks ago, probably the last time I had a good piece of passion.  I had expressed my faith publicly that God was going to put me somewhere.  Perhaps deep down I thought that that would spur God to action, to use me as an example of his power.  Weeks later I was as languishing as ever.  I felt like a fool and couldn’t even cry out about it lest I make my prior faith look shallow and set a bad example.

And so I was angry at God.  I felt backstabbed, as if the faith I had shown through the previous months should be enough to earn me something by now.  Hadn’t I taught the Word when most would decline to?  Hadn’t I joined two ministry teams despite I wasn’t sure that I was the best talent-fit for one, but they needed someone my age badly and didn’t have any guys?  Hadn’t I tithed from my checks?  Hadn’t I tried to get that girl out of my head that I was interested in but it wasn’t mutual?  Hadn’t I been praying?  Hadn’t I handled this layoff more maturely than my last one?  Hadn’t I been going to church more than once a week?  Hadn’t I been patient? Was I not ready for whatever it is yet?

I felt like crying, but I was more angry than sad.  When I was in middle school I used to get angry at God all the time when I was bullied or victimized.  I used to call Him names. I hadn’t felt like that in a while, but I did now.  I sat on my crouch and in my head I called Him a single word, “Cruel.”

It was an unspoken word that instantly ricocheted back at me.  The soft voice inside me that answered that I really don’t listen to enough or confuse with hunger answered, “Check the facts.  Is that really true?”

I knew I had gone off-track, and I knew what I needed to do.  I ran to my car, got my Bible out of the front seat, and just started to read.  It had been too long since I read without some lesson tied to it.  I poured myself into references on work, faith, and teaching.  But as a respite I arrived at a book that I once knew by heart but had not looked at in a long time–Job.  (The irony that its a homonym with “job” is just too much for me.)

Job was a guy who lost everything for seemingly no good reason (though there was one, it just wasn’t apparent, nor did he ever find out).  Not only was he blameless but his wife and friends turned on him with poor arguments that were unhelpful and hurtful.  Job just wanted to make a case to God (a la me); the answer he received when God did show up put an end to his questions (a la me).  And the lessons are apparent:

  1. God doesn’t necessarily cause all suffering
  2. Suffering can happen without a person sinning (and I am in no way as blameless as Job; I did sin)
  3. Suffering can be part of a greater victory (in Job’s case a cosmic put-down of Satan, whom I imagine was a speechless as Job was)
  4. Even if a personal loss is total (and mine is not), God can restore anything that he  allows to be taken away
  5. The comfort of other people is fleeting; advice should be weighed against God’s nature.
  6. We will never have enough “facts” or “evidence” to judge God’s plan for the universe.  To me, who thrives on logic and evidence, this is a hard blow, but in truth, it is true; I do lack perspective.  God answer to Job sends shivers down my spine, “Brace yourself up like man, and answer me now if you can.”  I think I got the same challenge, and my response was the same (“I place my hand over my mouth.”).

So, my prayer ended up being one of forgiveness instead of tears.  God forgave me for my lack of faith, I got a much needed wisdom-refresher, and while I still feel drained, I no longer feel despair.  In the end, Job didn’t get or need a reason for his suffering.  I probably won’t get that perspective on mine, either, but that is not my worry.  I’m not in charge of the universe.  As for my calling, the fact that I have only what I have now must be at some level ok with God as long as I keep listening to his teaching.  If I am riding the pine in the Christian baseball game at this moment, I just need to know that that is ok.

So, now what?  It is 1:30 AM, and I have been writing and revising now for nearly 90 minutes.  I must rest, and I shall sleep well.  I thank God that as I have no job I can sleep in tomorrow.  I’m going to need it.

But, an hour after I posted my complaint to Facebook about the school job, I changed my status:

“Though He shall slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Job 13:15

Good night.

Problems in Education Journalism Redux

I mentioned earlier this week an article from the Washington Post, where Jay Mathews asks some pointed questions of the LA Times reporters  who will publish LA Unified’s value-added scores.  Those reporters responded in one of Mathews’s latest posts.  There answers repeats the praises of value-added testing, which have some truth, but they still fail to truly address the underlying issue, that the original reporting lacks context for the percentile rankings.