Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Two Education Opinion Pieces in the Times

First, there is another education column by Lynne Varner. Class size matters — but some things matter more She tries to take a reasoned, moderate position but swings and misses.

Then, a guest column by two state legislators, Rodney Tom and Joseph Zarelli. This was probably actually written by a flak at one of the various education reform organizations, but they get the byline.

They tout a bill in the legislature SB5914, which, they say,
would require reductions in force to be based on teacher performance, not seniority; allow principals to approve teacher placements in the lowest-performing schools; and allow administrators to initiate due process to remove ineffective teachers in a timely manner.

It also would link National Board Certification bonuses to teacher evaluations after the first two years; phase in performance bonuses by adjusting salaries to reflect the latest research on improving student performance; and eliminate district salary enhancements benefiting only 12 of our state's 295 school districts.
Of course, every part of this is stupid.

* There is no valid measure of teacher performance, so we cannot use it to create layoff lists.

* There are no "low performing schools" (just some schools with a lot of under-prepared students) and, if there were, we should not grant more authority to principals who are running them.

* Administrators already have the authority to remove ineffective teachers. The problem is that the adminstrators are often the ineffective elements.

* Board Certification bonuses have proved ineffective (despite the Senators' claim that these solutions are "proven" and "research-based".

* Incentive bonuses for teachers don't work (again, not proven or research-based)

* And there is no benefit - other than savings - for eliminating salary enhancements. How does that improve student outcomes?

This column, the bill, and the Senators are simply wrong. They have identified the problem, but they have the exact wrong solution.

They could do a lot more for Washington students if they would comply with the requirements of the state constitution and fully fund education.

22 comments:

Maggie Hooks said...

Plus Danny Westneat's column about the privatization of our state colleges and univeristy: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/dannywestneat/2014693677_danny06.html

hschinske said...

I actually agreed with Lynne Varner for the most part. Reducing class size only slightly does very little, and may well not be worth the cost. That's VERY different from the ed-reform mantra about class size not mattering. If we could reduce it a LOT, hell, yeah, it would matter. It would make a *ton* of difference.

I did like Charlie's idea about reducing class size for at-risk populations. I don't know how doable that is either, but it sounds more doable than reducing it for everyone. Not so sure about supersizing classes for advanced kids; I know too many twice-exceptional kids and others for whom that would be a disaster. Even quite modest problems with focus or sensory issues can make a crowded classroom a very difficult environment.

Moreover, unless your program selects for docility, plenty of gifted kids are not that easy to manage. They may not be antisocial or violent, but they're still intense, stubborn, high-energy kids who need a lot of bringing-up. I look at my daughter E. and think of teaching a class of 35 of her, all going different ways, and shudder.

Helen Schinske

Melissa Westbrook said...

Danny did a great job on this column.

We've traveled this class size road before and while Lynne is right about wanting to spend the money in other ways, the fact is that voters passed I-728 years ago for that purposed and the money did not get used for that purpose.

Also these legislators seem ignorant of the fact that 17 districts in the state are piloting new teacher assessments. Our district passed a new contract with a 4-tier assessment system. Can they not wait and see how these things work before they create more churn? If this thing passes, does that mean all teachers' contracts in this state are invalid under it and have to be renegotiated? Great.

hschinske said...

the fact is that voters passed I-728 years ago for that purpose and the money did not get used for that purpose.

That is absolutely true, and a good point. Thanks, Melissa.

Helen Schinske

peonypower said...

The other piece that Lynne misses totally is that at the secondary level especially class size=work load. Having to grade 150 journals and having to grade a 130 journals is a huge difference in terms of time, energy, and the ability to give relevant feedback. So while 25 students vs 32 students per class may not seem like a big difference, it has real impact on what happens in the classroom when you teach 5 classes a day.

Charlie Mas said...

If we need to hold the average class size to 25 - and we do - and we want to reduce class sizes for at-risk students to 15 - and we do - then we have to accept the idea of class sizes of 35 for students working at and beyond grade level.

If my children would be in the extra-large class - and they would be - then I need the District to give with the left as they take with the right. What are the benefits - if any - to this arrangement.

The benefit, of course, is the same benefit that people pursue in Spectrum: escape from under-performing peers - the remedial lessons, the disruptions, and the peer pressure to underachieve. It is a very attractive offer.

dan dempsey said...

The Tom & Zarelli bill (SB 5914) was already presented earlier in the House by Eric Pettigrew and for precisely the reasons that Charlie listed that bill went no where.

It is incredible that one of two things must be true:

(1) These two senators actually think the public is so dull and or inattentive that we will swallow this nonsense....

or

(2) These two Senators are so dull and inattentive to what is going on in education that they actually believe what is written in SB 5914.

So which is it? (1) or (2)

Education Job Descriptions said...

I will agree with Lynne Varner what he said.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this: There is no valid measure of teacher performance, so we cannot use it to create layoff lists.

I feel like the teaching community says that because there is no perfect (the word I would use in lieu of "valid") way to evaluate teachers, we shouldn't do it, or use the evaluations in layoff decisions.

There's no perfect way to evaluate anyone in any job, but we do the best we can, and we have to. People perform better when they are accountable, and when there is something at stake.

Yes, it can be political and subjective, as in any other profession. But we find the best way to identify and reward good performance, and counsel bad performance.

What I cannot understand is making no effort at all to find a way create a meaningful and useful evaluation system. I think the teachers union should take the lead on this so that they can at least influence the way evaluations are done.

No, I'm not saying a teacher's test scores should be the sole or even a large basis for the evaluation. The principal is right there, and knows which teachers have a tough classroom, and how they are handling it. They should know who has an easy classroom, and how they are rising to do more to challenge the kids given that they have an easier year.

And when it comes to layoffs, any boss would want to keep the heavy lifters on staff, regardless of seniority, and get rid of the freeloaders. There could be a tenure component, so that if the school has only great teachers, tenure could be the tie-breaker. If you have a bad boss (principal) who cares more about politics than performance, then I'm sorry to sound callus, but "Welcome to the real world." I've seen it, I've lived it, and you just figure out a way to get along until those bosses flame out or move.

I have this argument with my teaching sister all the time. "Teacher evaluations would be too subjective." "Yeah, and your point is....?"

Having received and given hundreds of evaluations (grades) over my career, I don't see the fact that they are sometimes inaccurate in anyway offsetting the value of "grading" performance.

Mom of two sps students

dan dempsey said...

Dear Mom of two sps students,

The measures proposed to evaluate teachers by SB 5914 have been shown multiple times to be invalid and inconsistent.

Surely the multiple evaluations you have received are based on a format that has validity and some consistency. SB 5914's proposed evaluation tools have neither.

The likelihood of a teacher receiving a poor evaluation when teaching in a school with a high poverty population, which often times also contains a much higher population of students coming from dysfunctional homes, is many times greater than if that same teacher was teaching in an upper income school.

This bill would not assure every child "receiving a high quality teacher". What it will assure is a net migration of experienced teachers away from low-income schools.

As Sen. McAuliffe stated to me in commenting about the Pettigrew bill in the house. We hope to have better tools for teacher evaluation in place in three or four years, we do not have them now. This bill should not be passed.

SB 5914 makes incredibly little sense at this time. Legislators who propose such legislation are clearly trying to position something. If SB 5914 is adopted currently as written with current tools in place, it will hardly be an achievement gap closer.

T&Z state in paragraph one that an objective of this bill is to close the achievement gap. Nice words backed by little if any thought.

To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data. There is so much about classroom teaching and learning that is completely missed by the general population. Perhaps that feeds politicians proposing bills like SB 5914 to look good. SB 5914 ignores reams of relevant research.

McAuliffe has this one right at this time.

Anonymous said...

"Surely the multiple evaluations you have received are based on a format that has validity and some consistency. SB 5914's proposed evaluation tools have neither."

I wish! Don't fall prey to the "private sector does everything well" myth! It is as flawed as anything else designed and run by humans.

Nevertheless, the point is that if the teacher's union doesn't get in front of this issue and come up with something that works, they will be stuck with something that does not.

So far, I only hear teachers throwing stones about why every method floated is unfair. So come up with something you can live with. Because every profession has weak performers and those people should be the first to be laid off. And truly, even when there are no layoffs to consider, counseled to improve or counseled out of the profession

mom to 2 sps kids

Charlie Mas said...

I like what Mom of two sps students wrote. She makes a number of reasonable points and is clearly seeking a shared understanding. Man, that's great.

When I wrote that there is no valid measure of teacher effectiveness, that's really what I meant. I didn't mean perfect. I'm not expecting or requiring perfect, either. Just valid.

I know how crazy it seems that after all these decades of public schooling in America we have never really evaluated the quality of the teachers' work in a rational and meaningful way, yet that actually is the case. Incredible, isn't it?

I'm going to take exception to the claim that "People perform better when they are accountable, and when there is something at stake." That generally isn't true in the case of knowledge workers like teachers. I suggest reading "Drive" by Daniel Pink, or watching Office Space again. It doesn't really matter. You don't need that statement to make your case. The idea isn't to inspire teachers to do their jobs better, the idea is to replace seniority with effectiveness when determining layoffs.

While I cannot see any system that purports to give each teacher some sort of precise score and rank them individually (Mrs. A is an 84, Mr. B is 78 so Mr. B is laid off first) I could readily accept a broad grouping, say the four categories of exceptional, proficient, basic, and unsatisfactory. Then, when layoffs come, those in the Unsatisfactory group are laid off first - in seniority order. For me, however, after those in the Unsatisfactory category are chosen, if more are needed, we go just to seniority rather than starting in on the Basic group.

I have two concerns. First, I don't think we should take someone's job from them after we have told them that they are doing it well enough. Second, I don't want to create competition between the teachers when collaboration is what benefits the students.

Does that seem reasonable?

Salander said...

So the rationale is- the achievement gap is caused by BAD teachers.

How many BAD teachers are there?


What overall percentage of students do these BAD teachers teach?

What part of the total number of non-achieving students is this?

Jan said...

Salander -- I don't think the achievement gap is caused by bad teachers (and don't know anyone who does), but I believe there is a perception out there that only exceptional teachers will be able to make any meaningful progress in narrowing it (in a budget constricted world). I am not sure I agree with the second position -- though anecdotal evidence is certainly out there, but it is a topic worth debating. The Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire" guy is of this persuasion, I think.

Jan said...

Mom to 2 ps kids and Charlie:

First, Charlie I think your suggestion sounds an awful lot like the one that the District and the Union came up with (you know, BEFORE the District unilaterally abandoned it during negotiations for a system more to the liking of Ed Reform).

And second -- I think the unsatisfactory ones should be either (1) on a probation plan for quick improvement or (2) on their way out, anyway. So really, the bottom two tiers becomes between basic and proficient.

IF you could come up with a decent system to distinguish who is basic and who is proficient, I wouldn't mind telling "basic" teachers that they get riffed before proficient ones. But I am not persuaded by mom of 2 ps students on her analogy to the private model. In private practice, I can often choose to not work with difficult clients (who don't pay their bills, or who blame me for bad decisions that they made -- often against my advice). Teachers can't, and it would be horrible if they could. My SPED kid's test scores would make any teacher look worse -- but he learns the material, works hard, likes school, and will (I hope) do ok after graduation. Just don't ask him to perform well on any language based standardized test (if you can limit yourself to music or spatial symbols -- he will do just fine). He is relatively easy compared to other challenging kids -- and there are lots of them. How do you do a fair analysis of what is ineffective teaching, and what is other stuff? I think we maybe have to get there, but it is a heck of a lot more complicated to analyze than test scores.

Anonymous said...

Mom of 2 SPS kids does bring up some good points - but the whole discussion would be irrelevant if we didn't have "bad" teachers in the system in the first place. That is the problem we need to focus on - not how we lay teachers off. That's why I don't like the bill that's being discussed. If all of our teachers were Proficient or Excellent (or Basic if they're new), then seniority would be a reasonable way to make lay off decisions. We're only having a discussion like this because current administrators aren't getting bad teachers either help or exit slips.

I know there is a new teacher evaluation system that's been negotiated. Hopefully, once that's had a chance to be in use for a couple of years we will see some measurable and real effects.

It always seems reasonable on the surface to say that we should be able to lay off "bad" teachers first. But then I remember one of my son's favorite teachers in elementary school - who I also thought was wonderful. He performed well, worked hard - and she communicated very clearly with parents. But many of the other parents didn't like her, and some assumed that it was politics or the union that allowed her to keep her job.

And the comparisons to private industry? Not all companies lay off the worst performers by a long shot. Politics, nepotism, cronyism, personality - who the boss likes to see every day - those things impact layoffs much more than objective performance standards in most of the private companies I've seen.

For What it's Worth

Anonymous said...

Ok, let me take a crack at what I think should happen in teacher evaluations. This assumes principals are at least somewhat qualified and somewhat decent human beings. There are exceptions, certainly. But, here goes.

Teachers give principal some sort of objectives, for whatever the relevant time-frame: month, quarter, and/or year.

The annual objective might be, get the kids to this point: finish EDM, 80% of the kids are proficient at double-digit multiplication, etc. The teacher and the principal both sign off on the objectives and how they will be measured (e.g., I'm going to use this math drill worksheet and want 80% of the kids to score 90% or better by June), maybe a month into school when they both know where the kids are starting. So as principal, I might sign off on one third grade teachers' objectives stating 50% of kids will be able to do X, while the other 3rd grade teacher has an objective of Y (say, different percentages of the class achieving certain things) based on the class make-up. The teacher meets with the P. and explains the objectives, the P. can say "I think you are being too aggressive or not aggresive enough", and they come out with an understanding of where they are trying to get this group of kids this year.

The teacher's Quarterly objectives are tied to the annual ones. To get to where I want the class to be in writing at the end of the year, I need to do these things this quarter.

Once a quarter, principal observes teacher's class and they meet to see how teacher is doing. Has something come up (a fire, a tragedy, new students, loss of a star or a really low student) that might impact the ability to achieve the objectives? Should the objectives be modified? Are we on track?

Based on formal observation and informal time in the classroom, the P. identifies the T.'s strengths and weaknesses.

They come up with a plan to deal with any serious weaknesses, and the P. follows up until the teacher has developed the missing skill.

The P. ensures that the T has the chance to build on the strengths and communicates to other Teachers what's working well in all the different classes. E.G. if you are looking for a meaningful lesson in X, talk to Sue, she just completed a project that was very successful. Stuff like that.

At the end of the year the P. prepares and evaluation. They've been talking all year. They've agreed on objectives. The year is done. How'd it go? The principal gives the teacher a rating. 3 or 4 categories. The principal reviews the ratings with his/her boss, and that supervisor holds the P. responsible for both the Teacher's classroom objectives and helping the T.s resolve any serious performance problems. "You say Teacher A has problem X. Last year, you identified the same problem. What have you done, P. to help that T. improve?" or "You say all your T.s are superior. But your test scores are tanking, and parent complaints are through the roof." The P. needs to be able to explain why. There could be very legitimate reasons other than Teacher performance problems.

If a T. is unable to fix serious performance problems, they are given a "fix this" plan with specific things they need to do, and if they don't, they are out.

The principal is supposed to be the best teacher in the school, right? That principal's job is to get the whole staff humming on all cylinders. The principal must be evaluated on his/her ability to do this.

If layoffs come, the lowest ranked teachers are let go first, maybe weighted for how many years they've been ranked low (you don't fire someone for one bad year), and tenure.

Ok, school me on why this won't work.

And I will tell you from my private sector days that nothing concentrates the mind more than having to meet with your boss and report on how you are doing meeting specific objectives that you yourself set.

OK, school me on why this won't work.

Mom to 2 SPS kids.

Slander said...

Why this won't work- math is a skill based subject in which it is easy to measure progress. It is easily quantified.

What about content area subjects- should we test kids in social studies on how many dates and names they can "learn" in a particular time? Then are we testing content or memorization?

What about PE or music or drama or art? Or nutrition class? Are only some teachers accountable? That is how is system is currently set up.

In language arts should we only teach skills and only those skills that are easily measurable like sentences construction? One noun two verbs.

You seem to want and enriching education experience for your children. But you want teachers to teach like they are in China or Russia where everything is drill and practice and memorize.

Let's just get rid of literary analysis and understanding world problems. Let's test kids on how fast they can run or how high they can jump and the losers don't graduate.

Yes, there are ways for holding ALL teachers accountable but I bet you wouldn't like them.

Salander said...

I don't know where folks get the idea that "principals are the best teachers". Using that logic MGJ would have been the best teacher ever.

I have known many (if not most) principals who have never taught in a classroom or have taught for a year or two before then decided to get out and chase the big bucks.

I'm sure most of these these would love the drill and kill method as it would make their job of teacher evaluating much easier and they could then get back to the serious business of administrating.

How about we just send all our school age children to Korea where they don't dare ask questions or face a beating--after all it really is the students' fault if they don't learn.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"So the rationale is- the achievement gap is caused by BAD teachers."

Is it? It used to be because there was a life gap between students of color and white students AND that it was a challenge for teachers. I think that has now evolved to include poor performing teachers.

Mom to 2, I'm hoping that your method would be close to how we evaluate teachers.

Salander, principals are the educational leaders for their school. They are supposed to know what good teaching looks like and guide the teaching corps to get there. That they themselves might not be great teachers doesn't necessarily mean they can't be good leaders.

TechyMom said...

I've thought for awhile that a small tweak to seniority would make a big difference.

We all know that teachers get better with experience. However, currently, only time in the current district counts as seniority. Any previous experience, such as in another district, in another country, in private school, teaching college or university, etc. doesn't count. What if we counted some of that prior experience as part of seniority?

Anonymous said...

What about content area subjects- should we test kids in social studies on how many dates and names they can "learn" in a particular time? Then are we testing content or memorization?

Salander, I find your post frustrating. Why do you assume a teacher's achievement of an objective can only be measured by a test score? Maybe if the test is an essay test, but you seemto be assuming a fill-in-the-bubble test. Of course that is not what I have in mind.

Can a teacher state an objective in, say history, without tying it to a number? If you are a history teacher, what is your objective? Please tell me you have one! If you are teaching literary analysis, what are you trying to teach the kids? How do you evaluate kids' ability to do a good job analyzing a piece? You don't rely on a multiple choice test, do you? So why would you assume that your performance in teaching literary analysis would come down to a score on a multiple choice test?

One idea is that it can be a subjective measurement--say the quality of the work produced by the class in several projects, decided in October and judged by teacher and principal. Teacher brings examples of student work to quarterly meeting with P., and they discuss the success of the teaching. Maybe you teachers, who actually are in the profession, could come up with better ways. But a test? Come on.

Of course PE and Art and Music teachers are accountable. Do they have objectives? They better have. Otherwise, with no idea of what they are trying to accomplish, they would just show up each day and do whatever. I know the PE teacher at our elementary has objectives, it's obvious in the way her program runs, and I'll bet she could come up with a good way of determining whether or not she has met them. Hint: it's not the number of sit-ups each kid can do. Where's your creativity?

When developing new ideas, try "here's what I like about it, and here's what I'm not sure about, let's put our heads together" rather than what I see over and over from teachers: "That won't work. You try again and I'll shoot down that idea too."

This is what I mean buy teachers taking the lead on the evaluation issue. It's coming...do you want to design as good a method as possible or sit back and throw stones at what will ultimately be imposed on you?

I don't know where folks get the idea that "principals are the best teachers". Using that logic MGJ would have been the best teacher ever.

This kind of talk also grates. I said the P is supposed to be the best principal in the school. Teachers want us to believe that there are NO bad teachers in the profession, but every single principal sucks swamp gas and don't even get started on the admin. So just trust us, the perfect teachers, who have no need to be evaluated and improve, to do a fantastic job. But the principals, don't trust them at all, they are incompetent and political.

Can you tell I'm annoyed? This is what ordinary people hear when some teachers talk.

Mom to 2 SPS students