Sunday, December 11, 2011

Government Behind the Scenes

There is an old saying that one should not watch the processes of sausage-making or legislation-creation, since both are sickeningly messy. But we ignore our legislators at our peril. While we can choose to remove sausage from our diets, no one can avoid the effects of legislation.

Our term-limited state legislature has fewer and fewer “old hands” every year, leaving more room for lobbyists to write the laws that get enacted. And write them they do!

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by major corporations and conservative foundations (see for a donor list), drafts model bills for state legislatures. These bills, of course, serve the interests of the big donors behind them. Many thousands of such bills have been introduced into legislatures and hundreds a year are enacted into law. As far back as 2002, Mother Jones was exposing this practice (, yet few citizens are aware of the wide and deep influence of this organization.

The “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force is Mickey Revenaugh; he is co-founder and Senior Vice President of Connections Academy — “a leading national provider of virtual public school curriculum, technology and school management services.” Let me clarify: he and his business stand to make a lot of money from virtual (that is, on-line) schools. Should I be surprised, then, that virtual schools are the latest panacea for what ails American public education?

I have written before about my concerns regarding Senator Patrick Colbeck’s Senate Bill 619 to allow unlimited K–12 Cyber Schools. These schools could be run by anyone from anywhere, enrolling students from all over the state. There would be no “pilot program” to test the concept, despite its miserable failure elsewhere.

Let me detail that failure in Colorado, quoting and summarizing liberally from what Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network found in a joint ten-month study, published in October 2011 at Their analysis found that

  • Half the on-line students leave within a year, often further behind academically than when they started.
  • On-line schools produce three times more dropouts than graduates.
  • Millions of dollars go to virtual schools for students who have left them.
  • Traditional public schools then must educate students who come from on-line schools mid-year while receiving no funding to do so.
  • “Although most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students, their scores on statewide achievement tests are consistently 14 to 26 percentage points below state averages for reading, writing and math over the past four years.
  • “Students in online programs who took state reading tests in both 2009 and 2010 saw their proficiency rates go down.
  • “Students making the switch from traditional public schools to online also saw their scores drop.”
  • The state’s annual report found that “achievement of online students consistently lags behind those of non-online students, even after controlling for grade levels and various student characteristics,” including poverty, English language ability, and special education status.

Is it just me, or does this sound like an unmitigated disaster? Why, oh why, would we want to emulate it?

I brought this up at a recent panel discussion on How Michigan Learns, featuring former Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins, Public Sector Consultants specialist in education policy Michelle Herbon, and Executive Director of The Center for Michigan John Bebow. These panelists did not perceive a difference between using the Internet in education (as students involved in project-based learning do, or as in individual blended courses offered at a traditional school) and full-time virtual schools. Opposition to the latter does not mean I want to keep our students off the Internet and confine them to paper and pencil. But I do think we should learn from others’ mistakes, rather than replicate them. And I think we should be suspicious of where this idea comes from and what profit motives may be behind it.

And then there are the other, equally unsavory, possible motives.

Our legislation is not being written only by ALEC. Another big player is the Mackinac Center, which appears to lobby just as much as Common Cause, but it does so in secret and in violation of its non-profit legal status. The Rochester Citizen recently published (at an extended email conversation last June between Representative Tom McMillin (R-Rochester), the new chair of Michigan’s House Education Committee, and three Mackinac Center employees to craft the since-enacted legislation regarding teachers’ contributions to their health insurance costs. Individuals have a right to write to and try to influence legislators, no matter who they work for, but I have never had one of my representatives email me with anything like McMillin’s “my ability to impact this discussion could be assisted by hearing your thoughts..soon (and again, this is off the record - ok?)” And when one of the three Mackinac Center employees notes that “Our goal is outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA,” then I really question the true motives and intent behind the entire discussion.

This is how our laws are being made — in secret, in consultation with groups who have secret agendas, who are funded by very wealthy organizations and individuals with priorities that most citizens do not share. I find this not a little frightening.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Meddling with School Elections

Governor Snyder has received and will likely sign into law Senate Bill 427/House Bill 4005, requiring school board elections to be held only in November in even years. The sponsors say that this will save money, but that should not be the only consideration.

I remember when my then-State Representative Phil LaJoy sponsored the elections consolidation legislation that limited school election dates to four times a year. I had no problem with that, but the law also took these elections out of the hands of school districts and turned them over to city and township clerks — which would supposedly be much more efficient. For a district like Van Buren Public Schools, which straddles two counties (including all or parts of the City of Belleville and the Townships of Van Buren, Canton, Sumpter, Ypsilanti, and Van Buren), this was a mistake.

Our elections now cost the district three-to-four times as much as when we ran them ourselves. So you can understand that I am wary of legislators (and one sponsor is my current State Senator, Patrick Colbeck) promising once again to save us money!

The rationale is that off-year elections have lower voter participation than those in even years, when state and national offices are on the ballot, too. Indeed, the just-concluded November 2011 election saw a turn-out of about 15% of the electorate. I would assume that elections on the other three allowed dates have a similarly lower turnout. I could understand a rule that most elections, and certainly those for regular school board selections, should be held in November, when people expect to be voting. But there are good reasons not to further constrain school elections by limiting them to every other year.

My real concern is that this will force us, every other election, to elect trustees to four seats at once: a majority of the school board of seven. It is not good at all to allow the routine prospect of the election of a majority of newcomers at once, but it is especially dangerous at a time when we are in desperate financial straits. Until they have served, prospective trustees simply do not understand public school finance, which is so different from the business practices of other organizations. We must annually adopt budgets before we know what our revenues will be (because predictions of student count have been so unreliable during this prolonged downturn) and with no control over those revenues. This is not an enterprise for the inexperienced! All one must do is look at the severely term-limited legislature and the many bills that have had unintended side effects or have had to be fixed after enactment to see the down side of inexperience in governance.

Another worry is how easy it will be for the traditionally non-partisan school board elections to become politicized. We already saw that in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools this fall, where a local Republican club endorsed and paid to campaign for a slate of four PCCS board candidates. It will be disastrous for both public education and communities if this politicization becomes routine. I believe that it is the very prospect of electing a controlling majority that encourages that politicization.

This is, in my opinion, a solution in search of a problem. Most of our component municipal entities hold November elections in odd years anyway, for city offices or routine tax renewals, which is why we moved our school elections to every November. If city and township clerks do not wish to run elections just for the schools, that responsibility could be returned to the schools. I am unaware of any fraud or other mismanagement of such elections in all the decades they were left in our hands.

Considering the likely deleterious side effects of these bills — high probabilities of both putting inexperienced trustees immediately in charge of school districts and encouraging the governance of schools to become partisan — I wrote to strongly urge the governor to refrain from signing this plan into law. There simply is no compelling reason for the state to be micromanaging school districts any further.

If this plan does become law, it might be wise to change the term for trustees from four to six years, to prevent such a turnover all at once. I cannot predict what effect this might have on the pool of candidates willing to make the longer commitment. But I can imagine it would worsen the problem of “buyer’s remorse,” where voters regret electing someone and are then stuck with that person for six years. I can imagine that that would encourage recall campaigns at a time when boards all over the state are forced to make very unpopular cuts to people and programs. And recall campaigns are very upsetting and divisive for communities.

Did the legislature really think this through? What was the compelling reason for meddling once again in local control?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The New BHS in the Old Building

For the second year in a row, Belleville High School Principal Michael Van Tassell began the school year with a State of the High School analysis. This report demonstrated with data the progress made toward the school's two primary goals: increased academic achievement and an improved school culture to support that.

The cultural values of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility at BHS start with the adults. The Four Non-Negotiables for staff are (1) we will not use humiliation, (2) we will not argue with students, parents, or staff, (3) we will not yell, and (4) we will not be critical of previous teachers or schools. Staff accept where teens are and look forward to what can be done from now on to help them better achieve their goals.

In a random-sample survey this past summer of the full range of students and their parents, when asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how well BHS exhibits a culture of Trust, Respect, and Responsibility, respondents gave an average rating of 7.7. The average rating for how well BHS provides High Levels of Learning for All was 7.3.

The school culture has changed demonstrably. Discipline referrals declined 46% from 2009–10 to 2010–11. There were fewer thefts, assaults, and fights, and fewer reports of insubordination. In 2010–11, 40% of staff wrote zero–5 pink slips (discipline referrals); 78% wrote 10 or fewer for the year. Some 33% (578) of the student body participated in the Privilege Program, which requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, 95% attendance, and no suspensions for a marking period. The Peer Mediation program, started at mid-year, conducted 70 mediations.

About half (37) of the high school staff spent their own time last summer (significant time, for some) without compensation developing their professional skills. BHS has dived into the Reading Apprenticeship program to address the foundational skill for all learning: 11 teachers attended RA training at RESA; 12 attended RAISE training. Recognizing the importance of student engagement, BHS staff is determined to incorporate project-based learning wherever possible; 21 teachers attended two-day training in PBL. Seven staff members spent much of the summer on training for our New Tech program. Five were trained in the new hands-on biology curriculum. Two studied Layered Curriculum for special education students. The math department chair attended a U. of Michigan program and brought back software to enhance and individualize math instruction.

Regarding the goal of High Levels of Learning for All, BHS has yet to achieve this. In 2009–10, it did not achieve Adequate Yearly Progress due to inadequate English Language Arts performance by the Students with Disabilities subgroup. In 2010–11, it did not make AYP due to inadequate Math performance by the Economically Disadvantaged and African American subgroups. It did meet 18 of 20 participation and proficiency targets. As the No Child Left Behind deadline approaches (by 2014, all subgroups are to be proficient in ELA and math), fewer and fewer schools will be able to make AYP. (Only 60% of Michigan high schools did so this year.) That is why the Secretary of Education specifically invited states to apply for waivers from this requirement and the attached penalties.

Test scores and AYP status, of course, are not the only measures of student achievement. Particular emphasis has been put on ninth graders at BHS, pre-targeting those most at risk for failure with extra opportunities for success and closely monitoring achievement to enable early intervention. The number of freshmen failing English went down a stunning 60% in one year; algebra failures declined by 21%; biology failures were down 36%; world history failures down 22%. Using the Measures of Academic Progress test data, 50% of ninth graders made a full year of growth in reading and 57% a full year of growth in math. While there is clearly room for improvement, Explore test data showed us that 64% of incoming ninth graders were “not ready” in reading skills and 76% were “not ready” in math. (Note that only about 50% of BHS students have been with the district from kindergarten.)

BHS personnel created and have been refining a menu of options for failing students, depending upon the diagnosed reasons for failure, and ranging from mentoring by assistant principals to action plans for disciplinary issues, to E2020 individualized programs, to completely reworked “credit recovery” classes. Within classes, teachers are making heroic efforts to assess frequently and adjust teaching strategies to adapt to the needs disclosed by assessment.

Many other initiatives are bearing fruit. Parent involvement at the school has increased dramatically. We went through several variations of school security personnel until arriving at one that worked well. The new Fusion-based web system has opened new opportunities that teachers are taking advantage of. Special twelfth-grade assemblies and seminar days are offering targeted information that may once have been found in electives, before those were squeezed out by the extensive Michigan Merit Curriculum requirements. Significant changes are being instituted in special education support classes and co-teaching within regular classes. The new, later schedule has already reduced tardiness.

Within the school as a separate, self-contained program is New Tech High, an entirely project-based, interdisciplinary approach to high school that will eventually serve up to 500 students in four grades.

In other words, staff has not waited for the new building to create a new Belleville High School. Pride and productivity are in the air. And, despite all the financial pressures on the district that translate into lower pay for employees, morale is high due to the incalculably valuable sense that great things are being accomplished and that there is more progress in store.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Internet schools: a terrible idea?

When I was laid off by the University of Michigan in 2002, I had six months of unlimited access to Michigan Virtual University. This seemed like the perfect time and opportunity to upgrade my skills, so I tried three information technology–related courses. They were so terrible that I never completed any of them. Although self-paced, computer-based instruction should have been easy for someone familiar with the subject matter and used to working all day on a computer, I found them more frustrating than enlightening. The only detailed complaint I recall today is that they insisted on my getting the right answer in a particular way. For example, I had to do things using function keys rather than keystroke shortcuts or menu options. This makes no sense: if I can accomplish the task correctly, what difference does it make how I choose to do so? Years of learned behavior became a handicap rather than an advantage. This experience left me wary and suspicious of “digital schooling” as a substitute for traditional instruction.

My suspicions were also fed by reading about early classroom implementations of computers in which they seemed to be used most often as “digital ditto sheets.” Anyone my age will recall the smeary purple ditto sheets that too often delivered “drill and kill” experiences rather than useful, targeted instruction that actually reinforced skills. If the exercise is that poorly conceived, the medium will not help to engage the learner for long.

So, I approach Senator Colbeck’s Senate Bill 619 on Cyber Schools with some trepidation. His bill would allow unlimited cyber charter schools to enroll unlimited numbers of students from anywhere in the state with the sole qualification for the applicants that they “demonstrate experience in delivering a quality education program that improves pupil academic achievement.”

I have a few questions about that experiential qualification. What kind of pupils? Does success with upper-middle-class students mean one will be equally successful with at-risk children? What kind of improvement? Improvement over what or compared with whom? Most children will, no matter what, learn more with time; how much more is enough? If a sponsor has managed to run a preschool wherein the pupils make progress, does that make the organization qualified to run a cyber high school?

I worry about this because it is much more difficult to produce high academic achievement with some students than with others. We hold all of our children to the exact same standard now, ignoring the fact that some are born with many more advantages than others.

Census data from the 2010 American Community Survey shows that Michigan, along with every other state, experienced a another decline in real household income from 2009 to 2010. Our median household income remains some ten percent below the national average. Even in relatively affluent Canton, it dropped nearly 14% in one year. When you hear the complaint about how many Americans pay no federal income taxes (although they pay plenty of Social Security, sales, and other taxes), that is because of how little money they make in the first place! When you hear the complaint that our very wealthiest people pay a huge dollar amount of taxes, that’s because they’re the ones with the enormous wealth! If you compare the USA internationally, only Mexico exhibits a larger gap between richest and poorest, and only Russia exhibits more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Nearly a quarter of Michigan’s children under age 18 are living in poverty. It is very well documented that American public schools produce students who score near the top worldwide — IF you remove the children living in poverty from every tested nation’s scores. Our disappointing scores overall are directly related to the high (and increasing!) proportion of our children who are poor.

What do you suppose might happen if a poor teen is offered a computer and subsidized Internet connection so that he can enroll in a cyber school? Since any such school would receive the 2011–12 state minimum funding of $6,846 per pupil, it could well afford to provide these to its students. After all, it need not provide transportation to a building that is lit and heated, cleaned and maintained, or staffed with a reasonable ratio of teachers. Why, the teachers it does provide may not even have to meet any traditional standards, since SB 619 is tie-barred with SB 618. Among other things, that bill would allow for the sub-contracting of teachers from a for-profit agency.

So, we are looking at a literally golden opportunity for someone to make money by going through the motions of providing education through cyberspace. With some unspecified level of experience in improving academic achievement, a for-profit entity can be paid about as much per pupil as any regular school or district, with no requirements related to what, exactly, a quality digital learning experience should provide. And, if the teachers, too, can be a source of profit, so much the better!

Am I being too cynical?

It just seems obvious that a student who is not doing well in a traditional school with in-person attention cannot be expected to do better using unfamiliar technology, via software that may be as poorly designed as that I encountered, with only a quite possibly unqualified and over-committed instructor to help. It would take a year or two to evaluate results and close down operators who cannot “deliver a quality education program.” An “unlimited” number of lives may be blighted meanwhile, but plenty of money can be made during that time.

I must point out that NONE of the nations whose students perform the best on international exams reached that level by privatizing schools and de-professionalizing teachers. Yet a “free market” of schools and “loosening of regulations” that require teaching credentials are routinely touted as the cure for what ails American education. Now, Senator Colbeck’s bill would open the public’s purse to a completely unproven model: cyber schools. To my knowledge, only one such school in Michigan has a two-year track record available for analysis: Westwood Cyber High School in Wayne County. Its students achieved an ACT composite score of 15.6 (of a possible 36) in 2010 and 16.1 in 2011. While that trend might qualify as “improved academic achievement” as defined by SB 619, I hardly consider it a raging success worthy of unlimited replication on the taxpayers’ dime.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Liberty, death panels, and school funding

The following may seem a bit disjointed, but I have been thinking a lot lately about social obligations and how we can function best as inherently social creatures. Increasingly, I find myself seeing and wondering about a certain selfishness that has infected our society. I find the libertarian focus on personal liberty above all other values to be, at its core, selfish. I see the narcissistic inability to empathize or to appreciate other points of view as a pathological self-centeredness.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an American, and I know from living abroad just how unusually individualistic our culture is. I was raised to kowtow to no man, to feel free to express opinions that might be unpopular or even considered treasonous in a less open society. As a typical American, I find it difficult and constraining to cater too much to the sensitivities of others—as, for example, the Japanese routinely do, to a point that seems ridiculous and dysfunctional to people not raised in that culture. They are so careful and indirect and overly polite that it can be impossible for a non-Japanese person to figure out what they are trying to say.

I am much more forthright, and I treasure the personal freedom my culture provides. But I also think our society is going downhill as more and more of us refuse to acknowledge that we are a society—that we have social bonds and obligations that do and should trump personal prerogatives. It feels as if the line between freedom and responsibility has moved too far, as if we no longer owe anything to others.

Oddly, these musings were prompted by a lot of reading about out-of-control medical costs, about our pursuit of longer lives—if not immortality—at nearly any cost. I am well-acquainted with the costs, since my late husband fought a very expensive fight with Stage IV cancer for nearly three years. I still feel uncomfortable with the magnitude of those expenses, even though their cost to society for a man in his fifties is likely outweighed by all the years of retirement and Medicare expenses that will no longer be required for him. In the midst of the fight, I made the decision to pay for expensive magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans that were not covered by the insurance we were fortunate to have. These were just (four-figure) scans, mind you, not treatment. I was so desperate to know whether the regular scans were showing tumor progression or radiation necrosis in his brain that I was ready to mortgage the house (and my own future) to find out.

So, I have an idea of how hard it is to make rational decisions about how much medical treatment is too much. And, take my word, we definitely crossed that threshold at some point. No one should have to die the way he eventually did, and death is not actually the worst thing that can befall a person. What this means is that I am more receptive than most to the notion of controlling access in some objective way to the most expensive medical interventions. Not all deaths are premature. Not all are preventable. Some delays are not ultimately worth the cost even to the one whose life is prolonged.

Yet we cannot even talk about this in a rational way. Some call this notion, of limits to care, “rationed care” or “death panels.” I think of it more as a way to talk people down from our irrational fear of death. No matter how many resources we pour into the problem, the mortality rate for humans will always remain 100%.

And we aren’t simply afraid of death. Perhaps even more, we fear incapacity, pain, and indignity. Many say their ideal would be to live life at full bore and then die suddenly and painlessly. But, if we did not have to face the slippery slope of diminishing capacity, would we ever accept death at all?

I am past 60 now, and I know how limited horizons wonderfully concentrate the mind. I am conscious of having finite time to make a difference in the world, to leave a legacy of some kind, to perpetuate myself somehow through good works. Would I feel the same urgency if the signs of my own mortality were not creeping up on me?

Now, finally, let me bring this back to matters of education. One sure path to perpetuation—of values, beliefs, traditions, collected wisdom, even hopes—is to have children. And spawning them is not enough. We must nurture and educate them, pass on our best habits and values, and point them toward the possibility of transcending our own accomplishments. That is our true immortality.

And to live on in that way, we must sometimes put our children before ourselves. This applies both to our personal families and to our collective children, since they pick up the baton from us as a community and carry on after we’re gone.

Even before we’re gone, we will depend upon them to police our streets, provide our medical and personal care, run our organizations—and maybe even support the charities that support us in old age and infirmity. Even the childless among us must count on younger generations to keep society running smoothly for our benefit.

The stunning rise of child poverty, both nationwide and in our own community, indicates that we are not nurturing this generation as we should. Statewide, the proportion of children under 18 living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level rose 36% from 2000 to 2008. Some 31% of Michigan children’s parents lacked full-time work, which certainly explains the poverty. Our state is now lumped in the “most poor” quartile along with the traditionally impoverished Deep South and Appalachian states. And it seems safe to assume that the proportion of poor children has increased further since 2008.

Census figures from the 2005–2009 American Community Survey estimate that 12–20% of children in the western part and 20–30% in the southern part of the Van Buren Public School district live in poverty. Poor children have more needs to be met when they arrive in school, but we must do that with fewer resources every year. Per-pupil funding has increased by the grand total of $100 over the past eight years—an average of 0.17% per year.

So, I ask you: are we fulfilling our obligations to future generations? Are we preparing them properly to replace us? Are we leaving a legacy to be proud of as we bow off the stage?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Evaluating Teachers’ Performance

The Michigan State Legislature has decreed that all public school districts will, beginning this fall, annually evaluate all teachers and principals in a way that considers student growth over time as a significant factor, translating that growth into satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings of the staff members.

On the face of it, the plan sounds reasonable: why not measure educators’ performance to a significant degree by learning outcomes for students? After all, good learning outcomes are arguably the primary purpose of schooling, are they not?

My question would be whether this is the best way to achieve them. There are other issues, such as the reliability of our testing methods for determining student knowledge and skill levels, the difficulty of evaluating teachers who do not teach tested subjects, and the efficiency of trying to improve teaching with threats rather than professional development and support. But today, I want to consider the simple cost of such evaluations and a different way to spend that kind of money to better achieve our goal of student learning.

What will it cost?

To start with, we can throw out the MEAP tests for this purpose. In order to fairly evaluate student growth over time, we need to test them at the beginning of each year to establish baselines, and at the end of each year to measure growth. To give it an educational as well as an evaluation role, it would also have to be given several times during the year, to enable course corrections and interventions if they are not doing as well as expected.

You can get an idea of what this will cost by what the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) has just committed to spending for norm-referenced Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) testing:

  • $62,856 annually for K–2 testing (plus Scarlett MS)
  • $49,491 annually for grades 3–5 testing
  • $51,611 annually (starting next year) for grades 6–8 testing
  • $31,500 for the new server space this testing will require (one-time expenditure)
  • Unknown but significant amount for new computers required for middle school testing
  • An estimated $50,000 in two years to pilot software for another evaluation model

That amounts to about $164,000 per year in just K–8 testing costs, after a significant investment in computers and servers to handle it, followed by another significantly expensive software pilot, presumably leading to a much more expensive broader implementation later. This is not chump change. Can you say, “unfunded mandate”? Note that districts are supposed to come up with the funds for this evaluation system at the exact same time that our per-pupil funding has been cut by $470 and our retirement costs have increased by 18% (including the one-year reprieve in rate increase).

My understanding of the NWEA testing is that it is actually efficient and useful. Because it responds dynamically to student input, the difficulty level adjusts up or down to give a good estimate of just what each individual student knows and can do. And because it is computerized, with nearly instant results, it provides specific information that is useful to teachers.

The next step

But testing — whether for teacher evaluation or to allow timely adaptation by teachers — is only part of what we need. It may diagnose a problem but does not solve it. Suppose a child is not learning or a teacher does not seem to be teaching effectively — then, what? To pursue our goal of student achievement, we need ways to help teachers do their job better: professional development that works. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, has an innovative way of coaching teachers who need help. Its Peer Assistance and Review program formally mentors both new teachers and veterans who are underperforming, according to their principals’ evaluations.

Intensive help in the form of modeling, planning, coaching, and reviewing instruction is provided for a year by experienced and highly qualified Consulting Teachers. CTs induct new teachers into the school culture, providing practical tips and demonstrating what good teaching looks like. They also provide struggling teachers with intensive support and assistance to improve their practice. CTs are provided the same Observing and Analyzing Teaching courses offered to principals. After a three-year rotation in the CT position, they return to the classroom — with improved leadership and communication skills now available to fellow teachers who are not in such dire need of help.

After these year-long interventions, a PAR panel of teachers and principals reviews the CT data and report and evaluates whether staff are meeting the district’s six standards of effective teaching: commitment to students and their learning; knowledge of their subject and how to teach it; maintaining a positive learning environment; continually assessing student progress and adapting instruction to improve it; commitment to continuous improvement in their practice; and exhibiting a high degree of professionalism. The panel then recommends that teachers be returned to the regular professional growth cycle, be given a second year of support, or be dismissed.

While the point of the system is not simply to find and fire “bad teachers,” teachers who need to improve but do not are, in fact, dismissed. According to a recent New York Times recap of the PAR program, panels have voted to fire 200 teachers in the past 11 years, and 300 more have left rather than go through the PAR process. (Keep in mind that school districts in Maryland are county-wide and therefore very large; MCPS has nearly 150,000 students.) For comparison, in the ten years before PAR, only five teachers were fired.

What is more important, though, is that hundreds of new teachers were effectively mentored through their always-difficult first year, and hundreds more struggling teachers were helped to become the effective and professional instructors that all children deserve. Moreover, the program’s careful design, and equal panel representation of teachers and administrators chosen by their unions, have resulted in real trust and buy-in by all parties. The program is seen not as merely punitive but as a genuine opportunity to improve professional practice. Even before that trust was built, a 2004 report found that most tenured teachers who were put into the program were grateful for it afterward, acknowledging that it made them better teachers.

In other words, the PAR program improves student outcomes by improving teacher practice. Yet it does not meet federal standards for school improvement.

Elevating means above ends

Federal school improvement grants awarded through Race to the Top are intended to accelerate student growth, but the program is very specific about just how this must be demonstrated. Specifically, districts are required to evaluate teacher quality by means of students’ test scores, just as Michigan now requires. Montgomery County PS, already getting results the rest of us would envy, had to turn down the $12M it could have gotten from Maryland’s RttT grant. As its superintendent noted, “We don’t believe the tests are reliable. You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”

Well, that horse is already out of the barn here, I’d say. Tests are moving, metaphorically, from “the important thing” to “the only thing.” We seem to have forgotten their point.

Another way

Suppose, instead, we diverted some of the additional money we will now have to spend on testing to a proven professional development model like PAR. A handful of master teachers delegated to coaching new and struggling staff on an ongoing basis could do more than define the outlines of a problem, as testing does. Instead, they could actually solve it. Building better teachers produces better student achievement. Is that so hard to believe?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fooling Ourselves

How our motivations remain hidden even from ourselves

I have been reading David Brooks’s masterpiece, The Social Animal, and now see many things with newly opened eyes. Brooks has synthesized a huge amount of recent research into neuropsychology and chose to communicate it in an extremely readable “story” format. This device is an act of pure genius, it seems to me.

We all know the limitations of “do as I say” as a means of teaching life lessons. Every parent has tried and failed to help children learn something the easy way. Simply put, telling others the lessons we have learned does not work — it does not prevent them from learning things the hard way just as we did.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot pass on our accumulated wisdom to others. To do so effectively, instead of telling them the conclusion, we must share the whole story. Narratives immerse us in the full experience that resulted in learning. A good story lets us feel the same emotions that the participants did, and that emotional context is what made the lasting impression on their memory.

This is why we enjoy and can learn from others via novels, dramas, and even campfire story sharing. We go through a vicarious, foreshortened version of the storyteller’s experience. It lets us empathize deeply with those unlike us or experiences we will never have. The story need not even be a long one for this work.

For example, this morning I was reading a newspaper article about something happening at Arlington National Cemetery containing this phrase: “At one grave was a baby's sonogram.” Did you experience the same visceral reaction as I? I instantly filled in the story: some military man’s widow is pregnant, and this is the only way she can share the news with him. I doubt you have to be a former military spouse, as I am, to get a jolt over the life-altering sacrifices going on around us, largely unremarked, every day. This is the power of story.

The point of the book: we don’t really know ourselves

Brooks cites utterly convincing evidence that the majority of our feelings and reactions remain unconscious. We do things for reasons we do not see or understand, and our conscious, rationalizing mind tries to explain them after the fact.

Complex and sophisticated decision-making goes on all the time below the level of our awareness. We constantly sift through the data from our senses for important clues to guide our behavior. Where do I need to be in a second or two to catch that ball? Is that person’s smile genuine or devious? Does the speed and trajectory of that truck give me time to cross the intersection safely? Is that approaching dog a threat?

How we assess and prioritize all this data depends upon our lifetime of previous experiences. The trained athlete can calculate and predict the ball’s behavior. Our vast store of human interaction data helps us judge the authenticity of a smile. A practiced driver knows how quickly that vehicle will close with his. Our past acquaintanceship with dogs informs our understanding and expectations of them. But all these sophisticated assessments are unconscious. We are impelled to act in certain ways without realizing why.

This explains so much. Why we impulsively do things that we know are not good for us. Why we cannot simply resolve, consciously, to change our ways and stick to that decision. Why some folks are confirmed cynics or persistent conspiracy theorists, certain that no one else can be trusted. Why others are naive and overly trusting. What we have experienced, especially repeatedly, is what we expect to happen.

One interesting implication re conflict of interest

Then I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Harvard and Notre Dame business professors on ethical blind spots. Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel wrote the new book “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It.” They note how hidden influences on behavior let us behave unethically without realizing it.

From Bernie Madoff on down, many perpetrators of financial fraud have had a disconcerting tendency to rationalize and excuse the most egregiously wrong behavior. Madoff told The Times that banks and hedge funds were “complicit” in his massive Ponzi scheme, that they “had to know” that something wasn’t right. He was deluding himself that he is not responsible, and he was (correctly) pointing out that his fraud was obvious but ignored by others who benefited from it.

The professors cite research that substantiates this idea. Many experiments reveal that a focus on group goals produces an “ethical fading.” We overlook transgressions and conflicts of interest when it is in our interest to do so. For example, long-term attorneys and auditors, having invested in and developed a relationship with clients, are no longer objective in their advice. They unconsciously tell the clients what they want to hear.

The really interesting data reveals that “sanctions, like fines and penalties, can have the perverse effect of increasing the undesirable behaviors they are designed to discourage.” When people face fines for wrongdoing, they tend to cheat more, because they see the situation as a financial rather than ethical dilemma. When there is no fine, they are more conscious of their ethical responsibilities and behave better.

If fines don’t work, how about transparency? In recent discussions about how to deal with conflicts of interest, I have held the opinion that the important thing is to disclose them: as long as they are not hidden, then others can judge our actions and motivations. But other research “found that disclosure can exacerbate such conflicts by causing people to feel absolved of their duty to be objective.” Yikes.

Think of the implications here. Fining BP will not only not prevent a repeat of the behavior leading to the Gulf oil disaster, it may actually encourage it. [I’m not ignoring the absolute benefit of fines to pay for the damages and clean-up.] Having public officials declare their conflict of interest before a vote may actually set them free to vote with bias. Even, dare I say, financial penalties for not achieving high enough test scores in schools may actually encourage cheating.

Bazerman and Tenbrunsel believe we need safeguards that prevent misbehavior rather than threaten to punish it. In their field, they recommend strict division of responsibilities to minimize ethical conflicts. Auditors should only audit. Credit-rating agencies should not be financially intertwined with those they rate. And I’m leaning toward conflict of interest policies that require more than disclosure. Perhaps office-holders should not be allowed to have some kinds of relationships — or should abstain from voting when they do.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

Rising poverty and wealth inequality are threatening the health of our nation and our democracy. Why aren't we all talking about this?

First, let's establish where we are

As Paul Krugman noted earlier this month, “one-sixth of America’s workers … can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job…. Unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.”

We are told that cuts in corporate taxes and in government spending will produce the new jobs we so desperately need, but nowhere has this actually been shown to work as advertised. This is classic supply-side economics but, with so many un- and under-employed, our problem is lack of demand. If more people had more money to spend, businesses would be hiring more workers to produce what they want to buy. Business costs are already moderated by historically low interest rates, and the profit levels and cash on hand of the largest corporations (more than $2 trillion, in one estimate I found) have rebounded to pre-crisis levels. Yet they are not hiring in significant numbers, because demand lags.

What about small businesses, often touted as the real job creators in our economy? Entrepreneurs need working capital to get started. From 2001 to 2003, cuts in capital gains, dividend, and estate taxes amounted to more than $3 trillion, yet there is little evidence the proceeds of these cuts (since extended) have been invested in job creation. The Small Business Association of Michigan recently surveyed its members, asking how they would use the money saved by no longer paying businesses taxes, as Gov. Snyder’s plan proposes. Only 48% said they would add employees. While 51% said they would buy new equipment, that can often lead to an actual loss in jobs, as it did in the auto industry. And a full 50% reported they would “realize the profits” — which creates no new jobs, of course.

For at least a generation now, political leaders have preached the religion of supply-side economics, yet wealth and income disparities have grown exponentially.

How’s that “rising tide” working out?

According to the adage, a rising tide lifts all boats — we all benefit when the rich are allowed to get richer. And richer they have gotten. Last December, Sen. Al Franken quoted the Economic Policy Institute to note that “during the past 20 years, 56 percent of all income growth has gone to the top one percent of households. Even more unbelievable — a third of all income growth went to just the top tenth of one percent. At the same time, middle class families have done decidedly worse. When you adjust for inflation, the median household income declined over the last decade.”

The disparity grows, yet Americans habitually and significantly underestimate the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S. A nationally representative random sample of respondents surveyed by Harvard Business School researchers “vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%.”

This is not what we want. In the same survey all demographic groups exhibited a surprising consensus on the “ideal” distribution of wealth. They all approved of some inequality, but their ideal was far more equal than the current level, and “far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution.”

What has this to do with education?

Americans believe strongly in offering all the opportunity to do better in life, and they recognize that educational opportunity is the key to changing one’s economic circumstances for the better. Our rising child poverty rates are directly related to our difficulty in erasing student achievement gaps.

Just as we are in denial about growing wealth disparity, we seem blind to the fact that more children are poor. Census data from 2000 showed more than 23% of children in Wayne County lived in poverty. By 2008, that percentage had risen to 29.3%. By 2009, 59% of school-age children in the county qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. [See for many such statistics.]

It is not an excuse to note that poor children need much more help to overcome the disadvantages of starting further back and having less support at home. Their preparation and support for learning must be greater than that required by more advantaged children, yet funding inequality in education persists and, by some measures, is getting worse. Children from wealthy families routinely enjoy better schools — with more resources, lower pupil-teacher ratios, better-paid staff, and better-equipped buildings — in addition to their advantages at home. Poor children tend to need much more but to get much less.

The results are documented in our national results on the international PISA achievement tests. National Association for Secondary School Principals researchers disaggregated the 2010 results by income and issued a report entitled “PISA: It’s Poverty Not Stupid.” When comparing apples to apples — other nations and American schools with equally low poverty rates — our students were first in the world.

It is our poor students who perform poorly. The reasons why are no mystery: poorer nutrition (starting before birth), poorer health (especially high levels of asthma), poorer attendance (due to poor health and chaotic households), higher incidence of drug use and violence in their homes, higher rates of homelessness, lower quality child care, fewer books in the home, and so on and so on. All of these handicaps affect not just preparation and and support at home for academic achievement but — more importantly — children’s ambitions, motivation, and sense of what is possible for them.

All of those things can be overcome, but not by magic. Blaming and penalizing teachers for not being able to work miracles without extraordinary resources will not help. (Why would anyone want to work with our neediest students if their pay and job security depends upon their working miracles?) Further cutting already-inadequate funding to schools with high-needs students will not help. Turning to charter schools, whose overall track record with poor children is worse than that of public schools, will not help.

What will help is a serious commitment to provide for needy children what their households cannot, so that they can catch up with the wealthier children who start out so far ahead of them. Such a commitment requires money, time, and effort. Anyone who tells you there is a magic shortcut is selling you a bill of goods.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just why are teachers unionized?

As I write on Feb. 22, it has been interesting to view the revolt going on in the Wisconsin State Capitol, with public employee unions and their supporters protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s non-negotiable demand that they be stripped of collective bargaining rights. The monetary issues involved (increased contributions and copays for pensions and health benefits) have already been agreed to by the unions. But the governor insists he will not compromise on essentially killing the unions, which would have no purpose if they cannot bargain collectively over work conditions.

There are several intriguing aspects to this battle. For one, if the state cannot bear the financial implications of unionized public workers, why were police and firefighter unions exempted from the demand? One cannot help but notice that the exempt unions are the ones whose members have been more reliable supporters of Republican causes and candidates, whereas the targeted unions have more often supported Democrats. Union PAC money is almost the only potential counterweight to the now-unlimited funds available to candidates from corporate interests. Recall for a moment just who caused the Great Recession that undermined our security and nearly bankrupted our schools, cities, and states. In an era when income disparity has set new records evoking the Robber Baron period of our history, it is a useful distraction if the majority of us can be set at each other’s throats over who is being pushed to Third World living standards faster. (Pay no attention to the obscenely rich behind the curtain!) Are all these concerns irrelevant to the dispute? Likely not, but they are not my topic for the day.

I want to write about a particular target of the governor’s demand: teachers’ unions.

Why are teachers unionized anyway? Aren’t they professionals, and don’t we associate unions with protection for blue-collar workers from dangerous working conditions? You have to know something about the history of American public education to understand the difference it made to have teachers’ unions.

Pre-college teaching used to be a largely female profession, because teachers were paid so little their income could only supplement, rather than actually support, a household. Teachers who did try to support families routinely took minimum-wage summer jobs for the extra income. (I know this from the teachers I worked with every summer during my high school and college years as a waitress. We earned 25 cents an hour plus tips. They all had at least one master’s degree.) The best and brightest young women were often attracted to teaching when there were few other opportunities for them. Now, in an era with every work sphere open to them, most women with several degrees will expect a professional wage. In right-to-work states like Arizona, the starting salary for public school teachers of about $26,000 certainly discourages people with other options from entering the profession.

But decent wages and benefits are not the only reasons teachers had to organize and bargain collectively.

Before unionization, teachers were treated much like children: their behavior on and off the job had to be above reproach from the most conservative elements of society. Single women teachers, for example, had to live in chaperoned environments such as approved boarding houses. If they lived on their own, who knows what immoral trouble they might get into! Not so long ago, marriage — a hallmark of adulthood — automatically disqualified a woman from teaching. Even after married women were allowed to remain as teachers, they were routinely excluded once they were obviously pregnant.

Beyond those plainly indefensible restrictions, however, the entire system of public education conspired to keep teachers — both male and female — subservient. They were subject to the whims and prejudices of administrators and school boards. A parental complaint about a reading assignment, a grade, or something said in class could get them summarily fired. There was no respect for their professional expertise, which could be overridden by school boards with no educational credentials or experience. (In some ways, that lack of respect is ascendant once more, now that so many believe our most needy and vulnerable students can best be taught by Teach For America participants with five weeks of training and zero experience.) Authoritarian and paternalistic administrators expected quiet compliance and punished “insubordination.” Those we expected to help our children grow into adults with initiative and independence of thought and action were, themselves, treated like children.

If we truly believe that K–12 education is more than just child care, then we must treat its practitioners like the professionals they are. They must be empowered to continuously improve their practice as research and experience show us better ways. They must have the protection of due process to insulate them from the vagaries of public opinion about what and how to teach. The return of public shaming (as when the Los Angeles Times last summer created its own system of ranking teacher effectiveness based upon test scores and published the names of those they deemed ineffective — leading to at least one teacher suicide) is a throwback to that repressive model from an earlier century.

So, even though I have never been a union member nor lived with one and was raised in a very non-unionized part of the country, I can see clear reasons why teachers, in particular, would want to protect the unions that protect them.

But protection of members is not the only useful function unions serve. Educational lobbyists and union PACs are the only powerful advocates to counter the now-enormous influence of wealthy philanthropists and foundations in the fight over public education reform. Few members of the public seem aware of just how much a few extremely rich folks have changed the priorities and methods of reform. Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates and Eli Broad have no training or expertise in education, for example, but they have exercised barely checked control over where funding for public education is directed. (A brief example: charter schools in New York City are gifted with much higher per-pupil funding and allowed to restrict the number of special-education and English language–learning students, who are dumped in nearby regular public schools, which are then deemed failures for not producing better results with less funding and more needy students.) Parents and other community members may have concerns over these policies and priorities, but they are not organized to effectively advocate against them. Teachers’ unions are. When they are stripped of that capacity, the debate will be completely one-sided. We will all suffer for it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Academics Aren’t Everything

It is repeated like a mantra in K–12 education that our focus must be on “improving student achievement.” I doubt that anyone disagrees with that as our primary goal. But I think, sometimes, that our focus on academics alone may be a mistake.

Why? Because it leads us to concentrate too much on curriculum and teaching and not enough on building better students, future workers, and human beings. We need to pay attention to the nonacademic skills and habits that are just as important to success in school, on the job, and in life.

My perspective on this is informed by nearly 20 years of work for a university and for a nonprofit organization in education outreach — that is, outside groups and individuals trying to help K–12 schools achieve their mission. Over those years, these outreach activities evolved from teacher in-service, push-in classroom activities, drop-in tutoring, and group tours and events for children to almost all one-on-one mentoring. Our focus changed as we realized what was really needed: not just changes in curriculum or teaching methods, but changed students.

Over and over, we saw students from the least supportive backgrounds succeeding through sheer determination, while others with many advantages languished. The difference in outcomes was all about personality and character — and traditional academic support does not teach those vital attributes.

University researchers are now demonstrating that “noncognitive indicators” can predict young people’s success in college and on the job. (See, for example, Michigan State University’s Group for Research and Assessment of Student Potential.) The number one predictor of success is “conscientiousness.” When a teen works hard, perseveres through difficulties, shows up regularly, and completes work as expected, he or she will almost certainly do well.

The critical step is that teens must learn to take the initiative, to realize that no one else can determine where they will go in life. Mentoring is one route to that kind of “eureka!” moment. The programs I have worked with have had as their primary goal this transformation of children into self-motivated adults.

While many teens have accumulated appalling deficits in basic skills, they need much more than subject-matter tutorials. They need help with analyzing their motivational problems, with learning to set study schedules, with devising strategies to get out of the deep holes in which they find themselves. Many have no clue, for example, how to deal with being in over their heads except by denial: ignoring homework, cutting classes, and flunking out. They need to be led through determining what can be salvaged, and negotiating with teachers and counselors over the best step to take next: intensified tutoring, makeup work, alternative assessments, changes in sections or entire classes. They need to become convinced that they are not just victims, that there are things they can do to improve their situation. Moreover, they need to learn that only they can rescue themselves. Mentors can diagnose and work on gaps in basic knowledge, can provide hand-holding and confidence-building, but the students must internalize the fact that no one can pour knowledge into them. They are the only ones who can guarantee their own learning. This realization transforms them in a way that no amount of factual knowledge ever could.

I also know, however, that high-quality, long-term, one-on-one mentoring is very difficult to arrange and to sustain. It is not, however, the only solution to the passiveness that holds so many young people back.

We are now learning ways to structure project-based learning and various kinds of team-based learning to encourage just this kind of social-emotional development. The New Tech High program, for example, which we hope to begin at our high school next fall, offers one such format for developing truly college- and job-ready students. The program site I visited last fall in Indiana offered grades for “work ethic” and “collaboration” as well as for content mastery. One could not receive an “A” without behaving in a dependable and conscientious way. Letting down the team prompted conferences that were very like performance reviews on the job, leading the student through a self-analysis of how he or she had failed and what to do differently. The student-created cultural code also discouraged absenteeism, intimidation, theft, and other bad behavior that will not be tolerated in college or work environments.

The key to the success of this program, I believe, is treating students more like adults (and teachers more like professionals, but that’s another topic). People tend to rise to meet higher expectations, after all. Children and teens can grow enormously through taking on more responsibilities. They gain poise and are empowered by success in completing real-work projects and presenting their results. Nothing builds self-esteem and confidence like accomplishing something you thought was beyond you. Challenge and collaboration, when carefully structured, can allow students to risk failure by aiming higher.

You cannot excel if you never try. Trying and succeeding whet one’s appetite for more. Enthusiastic and self-motivated students can’t be held back.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Teacher “Accountability” Systems

“Value-added” performance measures, which purport to rate teachers by whether a year of their instruction produces a year of learning gains in their students, are the new high-stakes method of deciding who goes and who stays in K–12 education. In pursuit of competitive grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), most states (including Michigan) adopted requirements for the use of “effectiveness data” in determining compensation levels for teachers and principals. This data is also, increasingly, being used to justify firing “ineffective” educators. I will limit myself here, for reasons of space, to discussing such performance evaluation schemes for teachers. I have a several concerns about them.

Are they accurate?

Can we all agree that the point of any teacher evaluation system should be to improve the quality of teaching? If so, then such systems must, first of all, be accurate in their analysis of the existing quality. If they do not, in fact, fairly represent the strengths and weaknesses of teacher performance, then they are worthless for the purpose of improving it.

This — the blatant inaccuracy of the evaluations — is the root reason for teacher anxiety and loathing regarding the “accountability” systems to which they are increasingly subject. While many such schemes advocate “multiple measures” of effectiveness, too many are based exclusively on students’ standardized test scores. The error rates in such data are simply unacceptable for high-stakes decisions. I imagine that teachers would not fear evaluations that mistakenly offer them extra help in improving their professional practice, but they would find it unacceptable to lose their jobs over bad data. Wouldn’t you?

Answer to the above question: Student test scores are imprecise measures — they do not fairly and accurately measure student learning outcomes. The U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Methods Report “Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains” [Schochet & Chiang, Mathematica Policy Research, July 2010,] concludes that typical value-added performance evaluations of teachers are unacceptably imprecise. Specifically, “in a typical performance measurement system, 1 in 4 teachers who are truly average in performance will be erroneously identified for special treatment, and 1 in 4 teachers who differ from average performance by 3 to 4 months of student learning will be overlooked.” And that is assuming the use of three years’ worth of data; the reliability is approximately half as good for only one year of data. These error rates, they note, are greatly understated by certain assumptions, such as that students are randomly assigned to schools and to teachers. There are no controls, therefore, for differences in resources among schools or for differences among student cohorts.

The authors reference “findings from the literature and new analyses that more than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under control of the teacher. Thus, multiple years of performance data are required to reliably detect a teacher’s true long-run performance signal from the student-level noise.”

Moreover, the paper’s authors note that error rates they analyzed are only one factor (they list six others) that must be taken into account in designing and using appropriately any value-added estimators of performance. Not attending properly to such features in design and application makes the use of such schemes for high-stakes decisions both ineffective in achieving their stated purpose and manifestly unjust.

Do they improve teaching and learning?

The inaccuracy and unfairness of judging teacher performance almost entirely by student standardized test scores is only one problem with value-added performance evaluations. If we are truly interested in improving educational outcomes — and that is the point, isn’t it? — we must also consider the collateral damage they do.

• They undermine collaboration, which effective schools must encourage. Scoring teachers in ways that make them compete against one another inhibits or even discourages the sharing of lore and techniques that can make everyone better teachers. I recall the havoc created under Jacques Nasser at Ford several years ago when engineers were force-ranked in their evaluations (my late husband was coerced into doing some of the ranking then). This zero-sum game, in which one person winning meant another losing, penalized working together and encouraged sabotage of colleagues. It has taken many years to recover from the damage done. Is this the aim of folks who want schools to be “run more like a business”?

• They distort educational decision-making. Which classes students are placed in (should they be challenged or slotted where they can safely deliver higher test scores?); which students are held back or eased out of a school (dumped by charters or shunted into “alternative” schools); what is emphasized in classes (only what is tested); what level of thinking is encouraged (rote memory versus analysis or independent thought) — practices are encouraged that explicitly undermine good education.

• They are contradictory and inconsistent. On the one hand, today’s reformer bloc assumes that anyone can teach — or can administer a school or a district, for that matter. They find solutions in recruiting and placing “outsiders” through Teach for America or via the Broad Superintendents Academy, for example, with brief training and no experience. Yet the punitive teacher evaluation systems are predicated on the assumption that firing “bad” teachers and principals will improve schooling. There is no sense that these people, who have committed time, money, and working years to their professions, can or should be helped, instead, to improve their practice.

I recognize that public education is inherently political, in that we ultimately do what the people want. That does not mean, however, that those of us on the inside cannot try to change the tenor and direction of the public conversation. I deeply believe that the punitive tone of today’s education reform talk undermines the putative aims of reform. Blaming allegedly incompetent educators for all that is wrong in our society may get the rest of us off the hook (and, I add cynically, may serve the unstated interests of certain politicians and of certain corporations that benefit enormously from public spending on testing, textbooks, software, distance learning, et cetera ad nauseum), but scapegoating will not fix those problems. Never has and never will.

What would work?

I cannot stop at stating the problem but must at least make reference to my own preferred solutions. Teacher performance schemes are not all the rage just because we, collectively, want to blame teachers for things not under their control. All of us and all of our children have experienced at least one truly terrible teacher in our lives, and all of us would like to spare others that experience. So, how should teachers be evaluated?

Classroom observation is a time-honored way of seeing how teachers actually teach, even if it is rarely done often enough or with enough specific, useful feedback to make a difference. Teacher Larry Ferlazzo writes that effective observers “know our school, our students and me — and [have] judgment and skills I … respect. I know they are genuinely concerned about my professional development. They understand that helping me improve my skills is the best thing they can do to help our students…. These purposeful visits have produced detailed and helpful feedback that has made me an even better educator.” The Mathematica report notes that “value-added measures and principals’ assessments of teachers, in combination, are more strongly predictive of subsequent teacher effectiveness than each type of measure alone” [emphasis added].

Multiple data points regarding student assessment are required for valid measurements of student learning. A single set of pre- and post-tests annually is insufficient. Teachers working together to create common curricula and assessments for the same classes can not only assure that all students get the same exposure to a subject, but also help one another jointly improve their classroom practice to achieve similarly high levels of learning. This kind of professional collaboration actually does produce the result we say we want from performance evaluation systems: teachers helping one another to consistently become better at their craft, so that students can perform better not just on tests but in life.

For the point of the evaluation is not just to find out how well or how poorly teachers are performing. It is — or at least it should be — to make them better. If we do not believe that teachers, too, can learn, then we do not believe in education at all.

Note: the statistical mathematics used in the Mathematica study cited goes beyond any “expertise” I developed in a single statistical methods course 40 years ago, so my analysis is subject to error. The conclusions that are not direct quotations may be inadvertently misrepresentative.

Publication URL corrected 8 Jan 11.

May 2011 addition: you have got to see this animation summarizing Dan Pink’s Drive work on motivation and incentives!