Tag Archives: teachers

Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day: It Matters

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day.  On the national totem pole of events, I’m sure this day falls way short of let’s say Arbor Day, when we celebrate trees. Hmmm. And the fact that as a nation we no longer appreciate teachers or celebrate teaching as a professional is having — and will continue to have — grave consequences for the future of our young people and ultimately for our economic prosperity and democracy.

Excellent teachers are the bedrock for an excellent education.  We need to hire, train, support and reward excellent classroom teachers at all grade levels. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that today. In fact, it seems that we are doing just the opposite by diminishing teachers and teaching and pointing the finger of blame at them for what has become by most measures a collapse in education, certainly public education.

This, of course, is a rant that I embark on from time to time. So I’ll let someone else do the heavy lifting today.

Here’s from Charles Blow, writing in the NYT, “Teaching Me About Teaching“:

On Tuesday, the United States Department of Education is hoping that people will take to Facebook and Twitter to thank a teacher who has made a difference in their lives. I want to contribute to that effort. And I plan to thank a teacher who never taught me in a classroom but taught me what it meant to be an educator: my mother.

She worked in her local school system for 34 years before retiring. Then she volunteered at a school in her district until, at age 67, she won a seat on her local school board. Education is in her blood.

Through her I saw up close that teaching is one of those jobs you do with the whole of you — trying to break through to a young mind can break your heart. My mother cared about her students like they were her own children. I guess that’s why so many of them dispensed with “Mrs. Blow” and just called her Mama.

She wasn’t just teaching school lessons but life lessons. For her, it was about more than facts and figures. It was about the love of learning and the love of self. It was the great entangle, education in the grandest frame, what sticks with you when all else falls away. As Albert Einstein once said: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

She showed me what a great teacher looked like: proud, exhausted, underpaid and overjoyed. For great teachers, the job is less a career than a calling. You don’t become a teacher to make a world of money. You become a teacher to make a world of difference. But hard work deserves a fair wage.

That’s why I have a hard time tolerating people who disproportionately blame teachers for our poor educational outcomes. I understand that not every teacher is a great one. But neither is every plumber, or every banker or every soldier. Why then should teachers be demonized so much?

I won’t pretend to have all the policy prescriptions to address our country’s educational crisis, but beating up teachers isn’t the solution. We must be honest brokers in our efforts to fix a broken system.

Do we need teacher accountability? Yes.

Must unions be flexible? Yes.

Must new approaches be tried? Yes.

But is it just as important to address the poverty, stress and hopelessness that some children bring into the classroom, before the bell rings and the chalk screeches across a blackboard? Yes.

Do we need to take a closer look at pay and incentives for teachers? Yes.

Do we need to lift them up a bit more than we tear them down? A thousand times, yes!

A big part of the problem is that teachers have been so maligned in the national debate that it’s hard to attract our best and brightest to see it as a viable and rewarding career choice, even if they have a high aptitude and natural gift for it.

A 2010 McKinsey & Company report entitled “Closing the Talent Gap: Attracting and Retaining Top-Third Graduates to Careers in Teaching” found that top-performing nations like Singapore, Finland and South Korea recruit all of their teachers from the top third of graduates and then even screen from that group for “other important qualities.” By contrast, in the United States, “23 percent of new teachers come from the top third, and just 14 percent in high poverty schools, which find it especially difficult to attract and retain talented teachers. It is a remarkably large difference in approach, and in results.”

According to the report, starting teacher salaries in 2010 averaged $39,000 a year. Let’s assume that federal, state and local taxes eat up a third. That would leave a take-home pay as low as $26,000. However, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access and Success, a college senior graduating that year carried an average of $25,250 in student loans. The math just doesn’t work out.

Furthermore, jobs in education were slashed substantially from August 2008 to August 2011. According to an October White House report: “Nearly 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008, 54 percent of all job losses in local government.”

If we want better educational outcomes, we need to attract better teachers — and work to retain them. A good place to start is with respect and paychecks. And a little social media appreciation once a year wouldn’t hurt either.

So, on Tuesday, I plan to send this message on Twitter: To the teacher who taught me what it means to be a teacher: My mama. Everybody’s mama.

What will you tweet?

Teachers really do make a difference. And they do it every day in conditions that are often less than idea.

So let’s recognize their accomplishments and commitment to helping students — young and old — succeed. And let’s spend some time celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day.

It matters.

#thankateacher

You’re a Creative, Motivated Teacher. You’re Fired

OK. How many of you have ever given — or received — a performance evaluation that resulted in you, or someone else, losing a job? If you work in business or government, my guess is not many. Most organizations use performance evaluations, at best, to cap pay increases, merit or otherwise. (You know. Everyone is always “excellent” until it comes time to divvy up the merit pay budget.)

That’s not the case in education these days. And teachers are losing their jobs based on evaluation models that are suspect at best. If we want to improve education in this country and give young people the opportunity to be successful in careers and throughout their lives we need excellent teachers. But not only have we been devaluing teaching as a profession for years — now we are gleefully firing teachers based on so-called “value added” statistical models. (See HuffPost, “Teachers Survey: Job Satisfaction, Security Take A Dive.“)

Here’s an example as reported in WaPo, “Creative…motivating and fired“:

By the end of her second year at MacFarland Middle School, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wysocki was coming into her own.

“It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined,” Assistant Principal Kennard Branch wrote in her May 2011 evaluation.

Two months later, she was fired.

Wysocki, 31, was let go because the reading and math scores of her students didn’t grow as predicted. Her undoing was “value-added,” a complex statistical tool used to measure a teacher’s direct contribution to test results. The District and at least 25 states, under prodding from the Obama administration, have adopted or are developing value-added systems to assess teachers.

When her students fell short, the low value-added trumped her positives in the classroom. Under the D.C. teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT , the measurement counted for 50 percent of her annual appraisal. Classroom observations, such as the one Branch conducted, represented 35 percent, and collaboration with the school community and schoolwide testing trends made up the remaining 15 percent.

Her story opens a rare window into the revolution in how teachers across the country are increasingly appraised — a mix of human observation and remorseless algorithm that is supposed to yield an authentic assessment of effectiveness. In the view of school officials, Wysocki, one of 206 D.C. teachers fired for poor performance in 2011, was appropriately judged by the same standards as her peers. Colleagues and friends say she was swept aside by a system that doesn’t always capture a teacher’s true value.

Proponents of value-added contend that it is a more meaningful yardstick of teacher effectiveness — growth over time — than a single year’s test scores. They also contend that classroom observations by school administrators can easily be colored by personal sentiments or grudges. Researchers for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reported in 2010 that a teacher’s value-added track record is among the strongest predictors of student achievement gains.

Which is why D.C. school officials have made it the largest component of their evaluation system for teachers in grades with standardized tests. The District aims to expand testing so that 75 percent of classroom teachers can be rated using value-added data. Now, only about 12 percent are eligible.

“We put a lot of stock in it,” said Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for D.C. schools.

Yet even researchers and educators who support value-added caution that it can, in essence, be overvalued. Test results are too vulnerable to conditions outside a teacher’s control, some experts say, to count so heavily in a high-stakes evaluation. Poverty, learning disabilities and random testing day incidents such as illness, crime or a family emergency can skew scores.

Oh, boy. And how about this.

Wysocki said there is another possible explanation: Many students arrived at her class in August 2010 after receiving inflated test scores in fourth grade.

Fourteen of her 25 students had attended Barnard Elementary. The school is one of 41 in which publishers of the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System tests found unusually high numbers of answer sheet erasures in spring 2010, with wrong answers changed to right. Twenty-nine percent of Barnard’s 2010 fourth-graders scored at the advanced level in reading, about five times the District average.

D.C. and federal investigators are examining whether there was cheating, but school officials stand by the city’s test scores.

Wow. Possible cheating to inflate test scores? I’m shocked. Wonder what Mr. Chief of Human Capital for D.C. Schools thinks about that?  I digress.

OK. Let’s have someone else opine on this. Here’s Valerie Strauss, writing in WaPo, “Firing of D.C. teacher reveals flaws in value-added evaluation“:

The firing of a D.C. teacher called “creative,” “visionary” and “motivating” is the latest example of the many things wrong with value-added methods to evaluate teachers, the newest trend in school reform that is sweeping states with a push from the Obama administration.

My colleague Bill Turque tells the story of teacher Sarah Wysocki, who was let go by D.C. public schools because her students got low standardized test scores, even though she received stellar personal evaluations as a teacher.

She was evaluated under the the D.C. teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT, a so-called “value-added” method of assessing teachers that uses complicated mathematical formulas that purport to tell how much “value” a teacher adds to how much a student learns.

One of the many profound problems with this is that the measurement for how much a student learns is a standardized test, which we know can only measure a narrow band of student achievement — and that’s only if the test is relatively well written, a student takes the exam without illness, anxiety or exhaustion, and nobody cheats.

The value-added formulas — which supposedly can factor in all of the outside variables that might affect how well a student performs on a test — are prone to so much error as to make them unreliable, according to mathematicians and other assessment experts who have warned against using these models.

Elizabeth Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, N.Y., is trying to deal with the fallout from bad value-added evaluations at her school. New York City last month released value added scores for 18,000 teachers over the objections of educators in the state, and Phillips wrote that they were “extremely inaccurate, both in terms of actual mistakes and in how data are interpreted.

“It is wrong to call a great teacher a failing teacher because a few kids got 3-4 questions wrong one year rather than 2-3 questions wrong the year before,” Phillips wrote.

Wysocki found herself fired because, though her evaluations were high, her students did not score as highly as the complex value-added formula had predicted they would. She argued that this could have happened because more than half of her students’ test scores from the year earlier may have been inflated; the school they attended is now under investigation for cheating.

She was fired anyway, and now teaches in Fairfax County, one of the country’s best public school systems. Good move, D.C.

The Obama administration helped push states down the value-added road by insisting in Race to the Top requirements that student growth be included in evaluation systems. State after state seeking Race to the Top money — and even those who didn’t — jumped on the bandwagon. The arm-twisting on value-added has been so strong that even union leaders have stopped fighting for a blanket prohibition on its use and now are working to keep down the percentage of an evaluation that depends on student test scores.

We live in an era when school reformers keep talking about the importance of making decisions based on “data” — but apparently, only half-baked data will do. It may be that at some point in the future someone will figure out how to fairly and reliably use a mathematical formula to evaluate how well a teacher does his/her job, but we aren’t even close to being there yet.

So how fair is it to use such a system right now?

Not at all. One day, the folks who championed it — including administration officials who say they are concerned about fairness and equity — may well come to regret their myopia. It will be too late, though, for teachers now being smeared with this exercise in delusionary assessment.

I recognize that there are teachers who aren’t nearly excellent standing before students in classrooms in every city in America this morning. And there is no excuse for allowing a poor teacher to remain; this really is more important than the jobs most people have pushing papers and surfing the Internet for eight or so hours a day in businesses and government. But I would feel better about removing ineffective teachers if we gave them the same level of support that others receive: on-the-job training, mentoring, administrative support and the resources necessary to do the job. Oh, and some parental support and involvement doesn’t hurt either. And I guess it would be kinda nice if all students showed up every day well-fed and healthy.

So this fixation on value-added statistical models strikes me as another reform that continues the educational Slide to the Bottom. [I know. It's the unions fault. Spare me the e-mails.]

Glad I’m quasi-retired.

And for more on all this, read the NYT op-ed, “Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher.”

 

 

The Link Between Poverty and Education

I know I often fail to see the big picture. And I also know that the economic and social issues facing our nation defy quick, easy fixes. But I do know that over the past two decades or so we’ve made a mess of public education in the country — and that has undercut our ability to compete in a global economy while leaving many unprepared to enter and succeed in the workplace.

One reason for this is that policy makers, business leaders and educators have adopted one short-term reform after another while often failing to consider a key issue: the link between poverty and success or failure in school.

I also know that it is fashionable these days to point the finger of blame at classroom teachers and teachers unions. The argument: If only we could staff every classroom with an excellent teacher and then hold him or her accountable for results, then the problem would be solved.

Not that simple.

Here’s an informative op-ed in the NYT this morning, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?”:

No one seriously disputes the fact that students from disadvantaged households perform less well in school, on average, than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. But rather than confront this fact of life head-on, our policy makers mistakenly continue to reason that, since they cannot change the backgrounds of students, they should focus on things they can control.

No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, did this by setting unrealistically high — and ultimately self-defeating — expectations for all schools. President Obama’s policies have concentrated on trying to make schools more “efficient” through means like judging teachers by their students’ test scores or encouraging competition by promoting the creation of charter schools. The proverbial story of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost comes to mind.

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

Yet federal education policy seems blind to all this. No Child Left Behind required all schools to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face. The legislation did, to be sure, specify that subgroups — defined by income, minority status and proficiency in English — must meet the same achievement standard. But it did so only to make sure that schools did not ignore their disadvantaged students — not to help them address the challenges they carry with them into the classroom.

So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?

Some honestly believe that schools are capable of offsetting the effects of poverty. Others want to avoid the impression that they set lower expectations for some groups of students for fear that those expectations will be self-fulfilling. In both cases, simply wanting something to be true does not make it so.

Another rationale for denial is to note that some schools, like the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, have managed to “beat the odds.” If some schools can succeed, the argument goes, then it is reasonable to expect all schools to. But close scrutiny of charter school performance has shown that many of the success stories have been limited to particular grades or subjects and may be attributable to substantial outside financing or extraordinarily long working hours on the part of teachers. The evidence does not support the view that the few success stories can be scaled up to address the needs of large populations of disadvantaged students.

A final rationale for denying the correlation is more nefarious. As we are now seeing, requiring all schools to meet the same high standards for all students, regardless of family background, will inevitably lead either to large numbers of failing schools or to a dramatic lowering of state standards. Both serve to discredit the public education system and lend support to arguments that the system is failing and needs fundamental change, like privatization.

Given the budget crises at the national and state levels, and the strong political power of conservative groups, a significant effort to reduce poverty or deal with the closely related issue of racial segregation is not in the political cards, at least for now.

So what can be done?

Large bodies of research have shown how poor health and nutrition inhibit child development and learning and, conversely, how high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs can enhance them. We understand the importance of early exposure to rich language on future cognitive development. We know that low-income students experience greater learning loss during the summer when their more privileged peers are enjoying travel and other enriching activities.

Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.

It can be done. In North Carolina, the two-year-old East Durham Children’s Initiative is one of many efforts around the country to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s well-known successes with the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Say Yes to Education in Syracuse, N.Y., supports access to afterschool programs and summer camps and places social workers in schools. In Omaha, Building Bright Futures sponsors school-based health centers and offers mentoring and enrichment services. Citizen Schools, based in Boston, recruits volunteers in seven states to share their interests and skills with middle-school students.

Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama administration effort that gives grants to programs like these, is a welcome first step, but it has been under-financed.

Other countries already pursue such strategies. In Finland, with its famously high-performing schools, schools provide food and free health care for students. Developmental needs are addressed early. Counseling services are abundant.

But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook — or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked.

Yes, we need to make sure that all children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to good schools, as defined by the quality of teachers and principals and of internal policies and practices.

But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.

[Writers: Helen F. Ladd is a professor of public policy and economics at Duke. Edward B. Fiske, a former education editor of The New York Times, is the author of the “Fiske Guide to Colleges.” ]

As I said, no quick, easy fixes here.

But for those blaming teachers and teachers unions for all the problems facing our educational system these days, you’re missing the big picture.

Ohio Issue 2: Vote No

OK. I’m going to be brief today. Vote No on Ohio Issue 2.

As I’ve mentioned in this space previously, I’ve already voted via absentee ballot. I’ll stand with the teachers, firefighters, cops and nurses on this issue. But I don’t stand in a queue these days to do much of anything. So I’m a happy camper this morning not having to drive anywhere to vote.

But if you are waiting in line to vote, here are two articles that might help inform your vote on Issue 2.

First, here’s a signed editorial in the NYT, “In Ohio, a Hint About 2012.”

Second, an op-ed in the NYT this morning by Joe Nocera, “Teaching With the Enemy.”

Ohio has been racing to the bottom for at least two decades. A yes vote on Issue 2 does nothing but accelerate that slide.

Can Teachers Ever Receive A Passing Grade?

OK. I’m back to education. Hey, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. And I haven’t been able to uncover anything new about Pippa. So let’s look at teachers and one of the big issues being kicked about these days by the education reformers and other miscreants: teacher performance and evaluation.

Can teachers ever receive a passing grade?

Not likely. At least not as long as the major component of evaluating a classroom teacher is how well students do on standardized tests. Not until we recognize and accept the fact that teachers in the classroom — even the excellent ones — can’t control everything that involves students and their families. And what happens outside the classroom influences what happens inside.

Let’s be candid about it. How many of you have ever given — or received — an honest and objective performance review on-the-job in business or elsewhere? My guess is not many. Very difficult to do for several reasons. First, nobody wants to give or receive what is considered to be bad news or a critique that in effect says, “dude, you suck.” And in business, if you spend enough time noodling over it, you can most likely come up with a few easily agreed upon yet general objectives on which to base the evaluation that causes no real damage to the company or the fragile collective egos involved.

Anyway, not as easy in education — but unlike in most businesses and in government these days — teachers are getting fired as a result of the evaluations. Go figure.

Here’s from Joe Nocera, opining in the NYT, “The Limits of School Reform“:

I find myself haunted by a 13-year-old boy named Saquan Townsend. It’s been more than two weeks since he was featured in The New York Times Magazine, yet I can’t get him out of my mind.

The article, by Jonathan Mahler, was about the heroic efforts of Ramón González, the principal of M.S. 223, a public middle school in the South Bronx, to make his school a place where his young charges can get a decent education and thus, perhaps, a better life. Surprisingly, though, González is not aligned with the public school reform movement, even though one of the movement’s leading lights, Joel Klein, was until fairly recently his boss as the head of the New York City school system.

Instead, González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

And Michelle Rhee, until recently the chancellor of the D.C. public schools and one of the heroines of the flick Waiting for Superman because of her outspoken views about teachers unions and methods to improve public education, has an interesting take on all this in her post on The Huffington Post, “In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week: Let’s Show Our Thanks to Teachers by Elevating the Profession“:

Kids are great judges when it comes to weighing in on educators charged with teaching them. A study by Harvard University professor Thomas Kane found that student evaluations were good predictors of teacher success. As adults, however, we have to do better when it comes to fairly evaluating the nation’s teachers, and fairly compensating them.

Most teachers are evaluated inconsistently, going without the feedback and professional development that can help them excel. The need for change is basic and glaring, and that’s why StudentsFirst is urging states and districts to replace outdated, weak evaluation systems with rigorous ones that can strengthen the profession.

Good evaluations must be accompanied with good pay. The average teacher salary in the United States is estimated to be around $55,000. Surely your favorite teacher is worth more than that. What’s more, teachers tend to earn minimal increases in lockstep with each other and without regard to how well they are actually doing. Excellence goes unrewarded. We should instead value teachers by better compensating them for helping kids make gains and for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.

OK. Teachers — like everyone else who collects a paycheck — should be responsible and held accountable for results.

But we are in an era now where evaluations and other measures can make a big difference — might, in fact, be the only difference — as to whether a teacher keeps his or her job or not. In those circumstances, we need some standards and common sense to apply that guarantees that teachers who deserve it can receive a passing grade.

Just sayin’.

Low Teacher Salaries: Does It Matter?

OK. Osama bin Laden still sleeps with the fishes — and the pundits are in full bloom over what this means (or not) for the 2012 elections. And Pippa is still the Princess of Perkiness. So with those stories either behind us or resting on the back burner, it’s time for this pajama-clad citizen journalist to return to a favorite subject: education.

I’ll admit the obvious. Education doesn’t have the sex appeal of Pippa, or even Lindsay Lohan, for that matter. But I’ll slog on in any event. I believe the quality of education (or not) is important to our children, our economy and our future as a democracy.

And we need excellent teachers in the classroom — at all grade levels and throughout the country in both rich and poor school districts — if we are really going to make a difference. An op-ed article in the NYT by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari — “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” — adds considerable perspective:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

Why? You would think that making teaching more attractive to college graduates would be a logical first step — but we’ve done just about everything during the last decade to move in the opposite direction. Here again is from the op-ed:

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a maximum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

OK. I recognize that teachers are not unique. At a time when most jobs are being created in low-paying retail, service and health care industries, teachers are not unique when it comes to low salaries.

And the mood of many in the country now is to strip teachers of pensions, benefits and collective bargaining rights — as though that somehow levels the playing field with those who have watched their own middle class lifestyles go down the toilet during the Great Recession and as we have provided multinational corporations the incentives to outsource jobs to other countries.

So am I hopeful that we will do something to attract more excellent teachers to the classroom — with higher salaries being one part of the equation?

No. Not unless we regain the belief that excellent teachers are important. And not unless we change the way most states and communities finance education — with billions these days being funneled off to the Department of Education so the bureaucrats who are far removed from the classroom can continue to toss money at one failed school reform notion after another.

Low teacher salaries.

Yes. In the long run this does matter.

In Ohio: Play Ball

Well, I’m still Inside the Beltway where it’s tough to get a decent cup of coffee before 4 a.m. and where the Internet access, even in an upscale hotel, is spotty at best. Who knows. Maybe Mubarak is vacationing here.

And there is more hot air in the hallways of Congress right now than on the streets of DC. It’s like, ah, 30, with a drizzle that makes you long for the snow in Northeast Ohio. By the way, they opened the baseball season here yesterday in miserable weather. Good luck in Cleveland today. Shouldn’t baseball be played in the spring and in warm weather? Oh well. Play ball.

Saying all that,  I may be forced to take an abbreviated look at the Cherry Blossoms followed by a more extended happy hour.

And while I’m on the road, I have to rely on the lamestream media to do the heavy lifting required to keep the masses informed. Here’s the story that caught my eye early this a.m. from The Plain Dealer, “Gov. Kasich signs Senate Bill 5 as supporters and opponents gear up for huge referendum“:

Gov. John Kasich signed a controversial collective-bargaining overhaul into law Thursday evening, setting off a statewide election campaign that promises to be one of the biggest ballot battles in recent memory.

With the bill officially on the books, opponents of Senate Bill 5 — which dramatically reduces the power of unionized state workers, including firefighters and teachers — moved quickly with plans to put the issue before voters by launching a campaign organization called “We Are Ohio.”

The campaign will coordinate efforts to write a ballot issue, gather signatures to place a referendum on the November ballot and raise money to persuade Ohioans to throw out SB 5.

“This is going to be a very big campaign,” We Are Ohio spokesman Dennis Willard said, noting that that the collective bargaining debate is drawing attention from supporters and opponents from other states as well as from numerous interest groups here.

The new group is heavily influenced by Democratic and union leaders but was created to stand alone from the party and any single labor group, in part to try to attract others who do not subscribe to Democratic politics but who oppose SB 5.

Dale Butland, a long-time political consultant to unions, said he expects both sides to raise millions and predicted that supporters of the bill, which includes chambers of commerce and businesses, will out-spend unions.

“Obviously, to the unions and the to Democrats, this is an existential threat,” he said. “On the other side, there will be corporate money flooding into this place.”

Butland predicted supporters of the new law could raise $20 million or more.

“I don’t think the anti-Senate Bill 5 side can match that” he said.

When I’m Inside the Beltway I meet, talk to and work with people who are very liberal. And they support all unions — except unions that represent public employees, particularly teachers. And part of that is the fact that teachers are now the easy targets of education reform. Hey, nothing else in 30 years has worked to improve public education so it must be the teachers’ fault–and that of the teachers unions.

Anyway, my guess is that to some extent the referendum in Ohio over the collective bargaining law — if it gets to that point — will focus national attention not just on the rights (or not) of public employees to negotiate items beyond wages. But it will once again focus attention on teachers and the sorry state of education not just in the state, but throughout the nation.

Play ball!

Why Pay the Teachers?

I’ve been dabbling in education — and what might pass at so-called attempts at educational reform — since at least the early 1980s when we became a “nation at risk.” First I became involved as part of my PR job at Goodrich during the era when the business pooh-bahs believed you could improve education by running and managing schools just like businesses. Then I was a faculty member at Kent State. And now I’m quasi-retired but still working part-time with an advocacy group in DC, Corporate Voices for Working Families.

So it’s interesting to me that after all these years, all the research, all the money and all the everything else — none of which has worked to actually improve education across the board — we’re back to the basics: teachers.

And more importantly, the educational gurus, policy makers, think tank advocates and other miscreants have all reached essentially the same conclusion: you ain’t going to have excellent schools and well-educated young people prepared for work and life without excellent teachers.

Unfortunately, we’ve devalued teachers and teaching as a career for so long now that I’m not sure that we can stop this sinking ship from taking on water.

Here’s an interesting perspective by Nicholas Kristof in his NYT Op-Ed, “Pay Teachers More.”

From the debates in Wisconsin and elsewhere about public sector unions, you might get the impression that we’re going bust because teachers are overpaid.

That’s a pernicious fallacy. A basic educational challenge is not that teachers are raking it in, but that they are underpaid. If we want to compete with other countries, and chip away at poverty across America, then we need to pay teachers more so as to attract better people into the profession.

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren’t open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America’s children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers — and 47 percent of America’s kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, “Closing the Talent Gap.”

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

OK. Hard to argue the point about relative worth. But do good teachers matter?

Kristof again:

One Los Angeles study found that having a teacher from the 25 percent most effective group of teachers for four years in a row would be enough to eliminate the black-white achievement gap.

Recent scholarship suggests that good teachers, even kindergarten teachers, increase their students’ earnings many years later. Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University found that an excellent teacher (one a standard deviation better than average, or better than 84 percent of teachers) raises each student’s lifetime earnings by $20,000. If there are 20 students in the class, that is an extra $400,000 generated, compared with a teacher who is merely average.

A teacher better than 93 percent of other teachers would add $640,000 to lifetime pay of a class of 20, the study found.

And the point:

Look, I’m not a fan of teachers’ unions. They used their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers. Teaching work rules are often inflexible, benefits are generous relative to salaries, and it is difficult or impossible to dismiss teachers who are ineffective.

But none of this means that teachers are overpaid. And if governments nibble away at pensions and reduce job security, then they must pay more in wages to stay even.

Moreover, part of compensation is public esteem. When governors mock teachers as lazy, avaricious incompetents, they demean the profession and make it harder to attract the best and brightest. We should be elevating teachers, not throwing darts at them.

Consider three other countries renowned for their educational performance: Singapore, South Korea and Finland. In each country, teachers are drawn from the top third of their cohort, are hugely respected and are paid well (although that’s less true in Finland). In South Korea and Singapore, teachers on average earn more than lawyers and engineers, the McKinsey study found.

“We’re not going to get better teachers unless we pay them more,” notes Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an education reform organization. Likewise, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform says, “We’re the first people to say, throw them $100,000, throw them whatever it takes.”

Both Ms. Wilkins and Ms. Allen add in the next breath that pay should be for performance, with more rigorous evaluation. That makes sense to me.

Starting teacher pay, which now averages $39,000, would have to rise to $65,000 to fill most new teaching positions in high-needs schools with graduates from the top third of their classes, the McKinsey study found. That would be a bargain.

Indeed, it makes sense to cut corners elsewhere to boost teacher salaries. Research suggests that students would benefit from a tradeoff of better teachers but worse teacher-student ratios. Thus there are growing calls for a Japanese model of larger classes, but with outstanding, respected, well-paid teachers.

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It’s a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less — and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

Unless we attract and keep excellent teachers in the classroom — at all levels and throughout the country — we’re not going to be just a nation at risk. We’re going to be a nation sucking a tail pipe,  with a declining economy and standard of living today and expectations for the future.

And one last matter. Here’s a letter by Sarah Simon to the NYT in response to Kristof’s view:

As a high school student, I can assure you that my teachers are intellectual and hard-working people, not lazy or greedy or incompetent, as some state officials have claimed. They arrive early, stay late and spend their free hours preparing for class.

Politicians are making a big mistake by criticizing all teachers and trying to limit their salaries or benefits. Teachers who guide students and inspire them to be the best they can be are the key to the future of our country.

If we don’t increase salaries and make the field more attractive for even better teachers, then these shortsighted governors, who have not been students for decades, will win.

Critics of today’s education system seem to forget that without teachers, there wouldn’t be any engineers, lawyers, doctors — or governors, for that matter.

Wonder if Sarah will consider a career as a classroom teacher?

Teachers, Status and Budget Cuts

I know that waking up every morning at a time when many normal people are just going to bed is not a cause for great celebration. But I rather enjoy it. And being able to browse the Internet in darkness and silence opens up a whole world of contradictions.

Take education as an example.

Sam Dillon has an interesting NYT article this morning “U.S. Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status.” Here’s an excerpt:

To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

“Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”

And:

The meeting occurs at a time when teachers’ rights, roles and responsibilities are being widely debated in the United States.

Republicans in Wisconsin and several other states have been pushing legislation to limit teachers’ collective bargaining rights and reduce taxpayer contributions to their pensions.

President Obama has been trying to promote a different view.

“In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders,’ and I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect,” Mr. Obama said in a speech on education on Monday.

And the point:

The “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, the report says, include adopting common academic standards — an effort well under way here, led by state governors — developing better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.

“Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession” was the top recommendation.

Wow. “Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession.” I imagine that means hire, support, retain and reward excellent teachers who view education as a career, not as a step to a better job somewhere else.

Here’s another story — this one via the HuffPost: “Union Estimates 19,000 Teacher Layoff Slips So Far in California.”

School districts in California have issued nearly 19,000 layoff notices so far to teachers amid uncertainty over the state budget, the California Teachers Association estimated Tuesday.

The union announced its estimate of preliminary notices on the day school districts must let employees know they could lose their jobs.

Some districts had yet to fully report how many warnings had been distributed as they prepare for worst-case budget scenarios. The union said it expects to have a final count Friday.

And:

In Union City, between San Jose and Oakland, kindergarten teacher Quyen Tran was one of about 60 school employees in her small school district to get a layoff notice. She started teaching in New Haven Unified School District in 2006.

Quyen, 30, said she was laid off last spring but hired in August right before the school year began. She is expecting her first child in June.

“It’s very stressful,” she said during a news conference, “just not knowing where I’m going to be next year or how secure my income will be.”

Quyen, however, said she’s more worried about the impact of state budget cuts on her students.

“With all these layoffs of teachers, they will have no choice but to stuff more kids into these classrooms,” she said. “They’re going to be cheated out of their education just because there are not going to be enough teachers around.”

Increase the status of teachers?

We’ll see.

Arlo Guthrie and the Protests in Wisconsin

Well, I made it to the Kent Stage Friday night to see Arlo Guthrie, following a traditional stop at Ray’s for a few brews and a turkey club.  And it was an excellent AARP hootenanny.

I know I need to be careful when I call Guthrie an aging lefty — since I don’t mean that in baseball terms. But hey, we were both born in the same year: 1947. Both of the generation that came of age in the ’60s convinced we were going to change the world. Not.

So I had to chuckle when Guthrie said that he has been opining — via his music and that of others — on the same issues for decades. And the issues — problems facing working Americans, corporate greed, the concentration of wealth in this country and so on — never seem to go away or get much better.

An example: He received enthusiastic applause when he mentioned Wisconsin and the fact that thousands were taking to the streets there and elsewhere to protest the legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and workers.

Do the street protests really matter these days? Did they really ever matter?

I’m all for peaceful protests — which as best I can tell has been the situation at least up to this point in Wisconsin and Ohio. But I am becoming more and more convinced that the protest that really matters is the one that people make — or not — at the voting booth. If you don’t vote, it’s tough to complain when elected officials actually lift themselves off their collective thumbs and do something.

Saying all that, I understand why teachers and other public employees are going to have to take some cuts in pay and benefits. The perception, wrong in my opinion, is that they have it better than other workers in the private sector — and people aren’t going to support pubic employees as they watch their own retirement savings, house values, medical benefits and middle-class jobs sliding down the rat hole.

So Guthrie is right. It’s a positive sign that people are willing to get out and protest. But the important protest comes at election time.