Teacher Pay and Widgets

Psst. Don’t tell anyone but I ran Sunday morning. I managed to drag my inflamed foot and leg around for a few miles. My physical therapist said it was OK to give it a try. Big mistake. So I guess I’m going to be working out on the ice bag for the next few days and munching Tylenol like peanuts. Note to self: You’re injured ass-hat.  Oh mama.

But the weekend started out well. I spent a delightful afternoon Friday talking to students at Kent State. It was part of a communication class and the students were practicing their interviewing skills — asking me about public relations, career advice, resume writing and so on. One student asked what I learned as a teacher, making the career switch from business. And I didn’t have to think about that very long.

I said I learned how incredibly difficult it is to teach — and help students succeed in the classroom and out. I learned how much time teachers have to spend in the classroom and out — if they are taking their job seriously. Most do. And I learned how little teachers make compared to others with comparable education and professional skills in business, government and nonprofit organizations.

Then I made it home and headed for the double Jameson and The New York Times and my eyes hit on the front-page story: “Next Test: Value of $125,000-a-Year Teachers.” Here’s the lead:

So what kind of teachers could a school get it it paid them $125,000 a year?

It’s an interesting idea to improve education — the notion that the classroom teacher really does make all the difference in student learning and achievement. And at some point, the argument goes,  you will have to increase the pay for teachers — and then link it to performance. The right concept — but difficult, maybe impossible, to achieve. Here’s from the NYT article:

They [referring to the teachers involved] are members of an eight-teacher dream team, lured to an innovative charter school that will open in Washington Heights in September with salaries that would make most teachers drop their chalk and swoon; $125,000 is nearly twice as much as the average New York City public school teacher earns, and about two and a half times as much as the national average for teacher salaries. They also will be eligible for bonuses, based on schoolwide performance, of up to $25,000 in the second year.

The school, called the Equity Project, is premised on the theory that excellent teachers — and not revolutionary technology, talented principals or small class size — are the critical ingredient for success. Experts hope it could offer a window into some of the most pressing and elusive questions in education: Is a collection of superb teachers enough to make a great school? Are six-figure salaries the way to get them? And just what makes a teacher great?

Increasing salaries — based on merit — is at the heart of a controversial proposal that the head of the public schools in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee, has advanced (without success so far) as the centerpiece of her plan to improve education in the nation’s capital. Her plan would have senior teachers receiving as much as $135,000 a year — but they would have to agree to give up tenure to qualify for higher pay. And Prez O advocates merit pay as a way to attract and retain highly qualified teachers.

Clearly, if we are ever going to solve the host of problems facing education in this country — public education involving at-risk students in particular — we’re going to have to find a way to help teachers succeed. And that’s not related totally to higher pay — but making sure that the very best are attracted to teaching as a profession and then remain in the classroom for a career lifetime would help.

Will this ever happen? I’m not convinced it will. Why? At least three reasons. One, merit pay proposals are controversial with teacher unions. Two, where is the money for increased teacher salaries going to come from? Three, how do you evaluate teacher performance?

Consider this from the Akron Beacon Journal last week: “Akron principals, teachers disagree on performance ratings.”

Akron Public Schools principals believe about 2 percent of Akron’s teachers should be fired for poor performance in the classroom.

But they didn’t name names in a national report released today criticizing the effectiveness of teacher evaluations.

Akron teachers themselves believe 5 percent of their fellow teachers deliver poor instruction, again without naming names, according to the report.

The district, however, did not fire any teacher for poor performance in a three-year period reviewed for the report.

Akron was one of a dozen school districts in four states — Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas and Colorado — participating in the report by The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit founded by teachers in 1997 to promote quality teaching.

The report, titled The Widget Effect, concludes that evaluation systems now used by schools give almost all teachers positive performance ratings and cannot distinguish between good and bad teachers, much less reward, assist or remove them based on performance.

And here’s the rub:

From the 2005-06 school year to the 2007-08 school year, Akron did not fire any teacher for poor performance, according to the report.

The district rated more than 90 percent of teachers as either outstanding or very good. Another 8 percent received satisfactory ratings and only seven teachers, less than 1 percent, were identified as needing improvement. No one was rated unsatisfactory.

Ugh. Merit pay anyone? Well, we’ll see.

Outstanding teachers deserve outstanding pay. I’m not sure we know how to evaluate excellence in the classroom — and that’s an issue that we really do need to address if we are serious as a nation about improving education at all levels and in all communities. And if we really believe that the difference for most students is the classroom teacher.

It ain’t easy folks. That’s what I told the students at Kent State Friday.

And I plan on writing more about The Widget Effect, a serious study from The New Teacher Project. I just used an overview of the findings in this post to make a point about teacher pay — particularly as it involves the growing push for merit pay and more rigorous evaluations of teacher performance. It’s a much broader and complex issue than that. For instance — and here is a Web site blurb about the report:

If teachers are so important, why do we treat them like widgets?

Effective teachers are the key to student success. Yet our school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts, not professionals. Excellence goes unrecognized and poor performance goes unaddressed. This indifference to performance disrespects teachers and gambles with students’ lives.

See, told you. It ain’t easy.

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One response to “Teacher Pay and Widgets

  1. Evaluation is possible, as long as you know what it is you want evaluated.

    Teaching the curriculum? No problem.

    Student achievement? No problem.

    Critical thinking? Ah, Houston, we have a problem.

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