A workable solution (Part 3 of 3)

The final spot where I’ve got to disagree with Principal Vanderhoek from my previous entry is where he says that there’s no magic bullet.  Humbly, I do believe there is a magic bullet, and it’s not that complicated.  It’s called social investment.   This hypothetical money should be spent primarily on increasing classroom staff in low-income schools.  Here are my other suggestions:

  • Reinvent the teacher role.  I have several suggestions for this:
    • Double the number of teachers and halve their courseloads
    • Separate the teacher role into its components — classroom manager, academic specialist, administrative assistant — and put multiple adults in each classroom.  Some roles could be shared between classrooms.
    • Elite teachers should be allowed to assume multiple roles, and they should be compensated accordingly.
  • Bring back tracking, but do it in a flexible way.  If a kid is not being successful in the large classroom environment, they often begin to derail the education of every other kid in the classroom.  Poor behaviors begin to eat away at the classroom culture, and before you know it, you start seeing behavioral issues spread, like a virus.  Nip that in the bud.
    • Take the struggling children out of that environment and get them the intensive academic and/or behavioral help they need.  This is where the investment comes in.  We need to pour resources into the most challenged students.  Aim to get them back on the mainstream track, and use small settings, extended school days, and year-round schooling to make it happen.  Some will make it back to the mainstream, and others won’t, but either way, if this is done correctly, we will have made a substantial difference in life outcome for the most difficult students.
    • Meanwhile, positive classroom culture becomes much easier to establish and maintain in the mainstream environment.  I believe that the impact on student achievement in the mainstream environment will be immediate and dramatic.
  • Get rid of social promotion.  We have so many children that are behind their “correct” grade level.  Stop pretending that they’re going to magically catch up.  Teach them from where they are, in cohorts of kids at the same age/grade combination–sadly, there are more than enough behind-grade-level children to make this practical.  It might take a few more years for some children to graduate, but when they do, they’ll be a lot better educated.  This applies to the kids from point #2, who are out of the mainstream.  These are the biggest drop-out and delinquency risks, and we will do a much better job retaining them in the schools if we are actually meeting their needs.  The traditional age/grade correspondence is antiquated and unimaginative, and there’s no good reason not to replace it with something that actually meets childrens’ needs.

The only problem is that I don’t believe the average American cares about solving the problem.  As I’ve said before, people abstractly care about closing the achievement gap, but for the most part, it’s out of sight, out of mind.  People need to understand that it does matter to every American.  And it’s not just about social justice, it’s also about the pocketbook.  The issue is that the failings of education are costly to our country, no matter what. Right now we’re pouring money into combating the effects of poverty through band-aid programs (TFA isn’t free), police, jails, and welfare. If we can pour the money into fixing one generation of children, we can make a substantial dent in the cycle of poverty, and it’s going to pay off in the long-run in future reductions to those other costs.  To me, it’s a no-brainer.

I guess the real question is:  in today’s Taxed-Enough-Already environment, can we muster the will to invest in our nation’s future,  or are we just going wait around to let the free market work it out?

An experiment in teacher compensation (Part 2 of 3)

A friend of mine recently sent me a video on a revolutionary charter school called The Equity Project (TEP), located in NYC:


The summary of the video is:

Katie Couric reports on an experimental New York City charter school founded on the idea of hiring the best teachers by paying them $125,000, while denying them tenure.

Let me first of all say that I think 60 minutes did a phenomenal job with the story.  They covered it from every angle, and they left it open for the viewer to decide whether the radical ideas of the founder/principal, Zeke Vanderhoek, are a promising way forward in education. Notably, TEP is not based on the idea of paying based on performance.  However, it is similar to the concept of merit pay in that it’s based on the idea that the prospect of greater teacher pay will boost student achievement.

One of the difficult things about new ideas in education is that it takes years to be able to truly evaluate whether it’s working.  So, I don’t hold it against TEP that their scores came out below average.  However, the totality of the video definitely brings up some concerns.

In the video, Vanderhoek said, “We’re trying to build a school where every teacher is a great teacher.”

Well, there’s no doubt about it, offering $125k is going to attract elite teachers, and that will probably eventually make TEP  a good school, but that’s not the issue, because we need many good schools, not just one.  The issue is that there aren’t enough elite teachers, and I don’t see what TEP is doing to create more of this precious resource.  All they’re doing is consuming, by pulling great teachers from other schools.  Their solution cannot possibly scale up; if every school offered the same deal, then we’d be in pretty much the same boat we’re in today.

Plus, how many people out there can make a career out of teaching with no administrative staff support?  As the lady said at the end, that school is like the Olympics of teaching.  It’s unreasonable to expect that we can staff every low-income school with career teachers, willing to work 90 hour weeks in bare-bones facilities with no support staff.  That money is going to bring a few more people into the classroom who otherwise would have pursued other opportunities, but it’s not going to keep them there for the long-haul.

The principal in that video fired two of his fifteen teachers after year one.  That’s more than 10% of his superstar staff, hand-selected from that giant bin applications they showed.  And he seems proud of it.  Where he sees success, I see a massive red flag.  If he can’t staff properly when he’s the only public school offering $125k, how in the world is it supposed to work if every other school was doing the same thing?


When it comes to the question of tenure, I completely agree with Vanderhoek in that people shouldn’t be guaranteed a teaching job for life once they get a couple years in.  That’s absurd.  But equally absurd is the idea that there should be no safeguards to employment at all.  His school doesn’t have contracts, so although he waited till the end of the year to make his cuts, he could have done it at any moment.  Do we really want our schools to operate like the NFL, where a team is allowed to sever your employment at any minute, for any reason?  What is missing is a sense of partnership: where is the assurance that a school will work with a teacher to get them performing at a high level?  He also seems unwilling to apply his same standard of perfection to himself.

Maybe the issue is not that we have school systems that are chock full of lazy people who aren’t cut out for the job.  I would posit that we have school systems full of perfectly normal population of human beings, ranging from capable to brilliant, most of whom aren’t cut out for a job that is absurdly challenging.

Unlike Joel Klein, quoted in the video, I’m not worried about figuring out how to get non-superstar teachers out the door.  I’m worried about how to give people jobs that are well matched to their capabilities.  The problem is that the profession is structured as a one-size-fits-all job.  Whether you’re a TFA teacher fresh out of your five weeks of training or a 3o-year veteran with a proven track record, your responsibilities are substantially the same.  That makes no sense.  Rather than waiting for one million superhuman teachers to materialize, I say we need to start looking ways to make the education work for the human capital we actually have.

A critique of merit pay (Part 1 of 3)

This entry is part one of a three-part series of somewhat-related entries I’ve written on education reform.

Merit pay is one of the big topics in education today.  The basic premise of the idea is as follows:

  1. Teachers should get paid based on performance.  It makes no sense that superstar teachers should get paid the same amount as struggling teachers.  We should incentive great performance.
  2. Teachers will teach better if they know there is financial incentive.
  3. With merit pay, higher performing individuals will be retained, and a better talent pool will be attracted.
  4. In this new environment, people will be competing to do what’s best for the children, both inside of schools and between schools, and the children will be the primary beneficiaries.

In regards to point #1, I believe that good performance should be rewarded, don’t get me wrong.  However, although the rest of the rationale seems completely logical at first glance, it leaves out important considerations.  How do you evaluate performance?  It’s one of those things where most people say, “I don’t know, but I know it when I see it”.

In education, evaluating performance is particularly difficult, both for schools and teachers.  Every school gets dealt a completely unique hand, demographically speaking.  How do you take that into account when evaluating a school?  What is the incentive to work at a more challenging school, when you know that you are far more likely to inherit and encounter unquantifiable challenges that make achieving at a high level more difficult?  What you really want is to get your best teachers to the most challenging situations, but what you don’t want is a “musical chairs” situation, where everyone is running around chasing the money from school to school.

Point #2 is premised on the idea that teachers decide how much to work based on compensation.  This may be true for some, but I know I didn’t enter the teaching profession to make money.  I had other higher-paying options, but I chose to teach because I thought it was an important thing to do.  I believe that most teachers teach primarily because they want to make a positive impact on children.  In fact, they prove it when they bring supplies to school, which they pay for out of their own paycheck.  In this way, teaching is quite different from high-stakes merit-pay occupations, such as law, sales, banking, and pro sports, where money is the primary reward.

As for point #3, say what you will about Teach For America, but there’s no question that they have proved that elite college graduates can be attracted to teaching without offering buckets of money.  In fact, TFA rejects about 6 out of 7 applicants.  People are beating down the door to get into teaching.  Granted, not all of them want to be lifelong teachers, but many of them are open to that possibility.  I can only speak to my own motivations for entering the teaching profession, but I know I speak on behalf of many other teachers I know when I say that the vast majority of us left inner-city teaching not because lack of money, but because of frustration and burnout.  I don’t know a single person who cited money as a driving force for leaving the classroom.

Would more money help recruitment?  Yes, but there are other ways to effectively recruit.  Would money help retention?  To an extent, but I don’t think it would make a noticeable dent in then 5-year retention rate.  Not to mention, teaching already does not provide very good career earnings numbers.  If merit pay is simply about shifting the same pool of money toward the highest-performing teachers, the result is going to be that solid teachers currently at the median will see a dramatic decrease in career earnings, and many are simply going to jump ship, rather than actually sticking around to hone their craft, trying to break into the money.

To me, point #4 is where the merit pay logic really falls through.  In a truly great school, everybody works together.  There’s not such thing as “my classroom”, there is only “our school”.  People pitch in where they’re needed.  It’s a communal atmosphere.  If you give each school a pool of money based on its performance, and distribute that money to the teachers based on their performance, I think you destroy any sense of common purpose.  You’re going to see far more cheating, fudging, and backstabbing on every level, and far less sharing and cooperation.  Suddenly, everything becomes about “what’s in it for me”, and “what’s best for the children” becomes an afterthought.  Those brilliant lesson plans you used to give to new teachers become your precious golden eggs.

Merit pay is not a bad thing per se.  Unquestionably, at the most hypothetical level, it’s more fair toward teachers, but what is our ultimate goal?  Is it fairness toward teachers or  I think there are many reasons to believe that it could actually have a detrimental effect on overall student achievement.  One thing is for certain, if implemented, it needs to be done in an extremely careful and conscientious manner.