Coming Soon to a Screen Near You

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

“In a world where ed reformers think merit pay is the key to improving student outcomes…”

The summer’s biggest blockbuster?  Dan Willingham is about to give his patented YouTube treatment to the issue of performance pay for teachers. Tongues will wag. 

While you wait for that, check out Dan’s latest over at Britannica Blog, which takes up the question of whether ”common sense” can be taught.  The short answer:  “To some extent, yes,” he says.  Because of the complexity of human thought and how we face unfamiliar problems and situtations, smart people will do dumb things.  “But with sufficient practice, people can come to recognize the types of errors the reflective mind makes, and learn to avoid them,” Willingham notes.

Cassandra Warns the Trojans About Merit Pay

by Robert Pondiscio
April 22nd, 2009

If you remember your Greek mythology, you’ll recall Cassandra, tragically blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed by Apollo so that no one would believe her.  Think of her while reading Diane Ravitch’s latest over at Bridging Differences

Here is my prediction: Merit pay of the kind I have described will not make education better, even if scores go up next year or the year after. Instead, it will make education worse, not only because some of the “gains” will be based on cheating and gaming the system, but because they will be obtained by scanting attention to history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature, foreign languages, and all the other studies that are needed to develop smarter individuals, better citizens, and people who are prepared for the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century. Nor will it identify better teachers; instead, it will reward those who use their time for low-level test preparation.

“Is it possible to have an education system that mis-educates students while raising their test scores?” Ravitch asks. ”Yes, I think it is. We may soon prove it.”

Cassandra is speaking.  Are you listening? Do you believe her? 

I do.

Incentivize Everyone!

by Robert Pondiscio
March 18th, 2009

The normally mild-mannered Joanne Jacobs goes off on a former Oregon teacher, principal and superintendent, who writes in a letter to the New York Times that President Obama, if he’s serious about about improving education, should “lose the words ‘achievement’ and ‘rigor,’ which have no connection to the inquisitiveness, determination, creative thinking and perseverance students need for genuine lifelong learning.” 

No connection? I remain dubious about the idea that those who’ve learned little in school will become “lifelong learners” at some happy day in the future.  As for “inquisitiveness, determination, creative thinking and perseverance,” those traits usually lead to achievement in the here and now without the necessity of waiting till winged pigs are ice-skating in hell.  I don’t even think that “achievement” and “rigor” foreclose the possibility of “creative thinking.” Not unless “creative” is a synonym for “wrong” and “thinking” means “making a poster.”

Amen to all that.  Click through to the letter in the Times and the writer’s main point (if you can ignore the nonsense about rigor and achievement) actually proposes a provocative idea.

If the federal government wants to reward school success, it should split those rewards among all those who have contributed: parents; the whole school faculty, including the principal; and the students themselves. The government might also reward the community that gave its schools financial and moral support.

Each of these ideas is fraught with baggage and “moral hazard” but each has its champions: New York City has piloted a program to offer cash incentives for things like attending their child’s parent teacher conferences, for example.  Roland Fryer and others have promoted pay-for-grades schemes.  Merit pay plans are legion.  I remain skeptical about all of them for various reasons. But I’m equally skeptical about treating teachers as the only moving part in the incentive equation.   If you believe that cash incentives matter, it would be an interesting thought exercise to think through what a Total Incentive Plan might look like.

Obama to Lay Out Education Plan Today

by Robert Pondiscio
March 10th, 2009

President Obama goes to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington today to outline how his administration plans to improve education from “cradle to career,” Reuters reports quoting officials familiar with the President’s planned speech.

They said he would challenge U.S. states to adopt more rigorous standards of education, especially in reading and math. He would also explain how he plans to reward good teachers, redesign federal aid programs for students, and turn around underperforming schools.  Obama will note the large gap between the best and worst performing states with respect to reading and math, the administration officials said in a briefing.

The Wall Street Journal reports Obama’s merit pay proposal “would significantly expand a federal program that increases pay for high-performing teachers to an additional 150 school districts.” The President will also call for more charter schools and challenge states to lift limits on the number in operation, the paper says.

There’s No “I” In Value Added

by Robert Pondiscio
February 27th, 2009

If teachers are evaluated and rewarded on the performance of their individual students, what incentive do they have to be good team players?  Why prize the overall performance of their students and school over how kids perform in the teachers’ own class?  This essential question was brilliantly posed by Matthew Ladner at Jay Greene’s blog last week.

The impetus for the question was a New York Times magazine piece by Michael Lewis on Shane Battier of the Houston Rockets, who is “widely regarded inside the N.B.A. as, at best, a replaceable cog in a machine driven by superstars,” according to Lewis. ”And yet every team he has ever played on has acquired some magical ability to win.”

In basketball, gaudy personal statistics earn you megabucks and create incentives to pad you stats regardless of whether it helps your team win.  Battier, however, is a white space employee.  “The term refers to the space between boxes on an organizational chart,” Ladner explains. ”A white space employee is someone who does whatever it takes to achieve organizational goals and makes the organization work much better as a whole.”  What does this have to do with teaching?  Plenty. 

As we move into the era of value-added analysis for teacher merit pay, this article provides much food for thought. School leaders must consider carefully what they will reward, and give some consideration to how white space behavior is rewarded. Rewards should not just be based on individual learning gains- reaching school wide goals should also be strongly rewarded. Otherwise my incentive as a math teacher will be to assign six hours of math homework a night- and to hell with everyone else (see Iverson, Allen).

“There’s no reward for being a white space player OR a superstar in the current system of teacher compensation,” Ladner concludes. “Just an old player.”  The unintended consequences have been the undoing of many a school reform effort.  If Ladner’s right about this — and I think he is — the consequences may be unintended, but they will not have been unforeseen. 


Michelle Rhee Turns Down Her Bonus, However…

by Robert Pondiscio
January 30th, 2009

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had the good sense to turn down an “earned bonus” of up to 10 percent of her $275,000 base salary, the Washington Post’s D.C. Wire blog reports, thus avoiding the kind of PR nightmare afflicting various erstwhile Masters of the Universe on Wall Street.  But the Post’s blog item lets slide a curious thing. According to the terms of her contract Rhee’s bonus is based on…

 …effectiveness in ‘Student Academic Achievement and Improvement; Financial Systems and Management; School Facilities Maintenance, Improvement and New Construction; Student and Staff Safety and Security; Staff Improvement; Communications with Community and Families; and Technology.’”

Given the single-minded focus on student achievement associated with her tenure, and her oft-stated desire to tie teacher pay to test scores, why is Rhee’s bonus triggered by so many different factors other than academic achievement and improvement?

Connect The Dots

by Robert Pondiscio
January 26th, 2009

The New York newspapers are all over Joe Torre’s “tell-all” book about the Yankees, in which the former manager describes as “insulting” the contract offer that led him to quit.  The offer would have given Torre a bonus for winning the World Series, but the manager “bristled at the insinuation that he needed financial motivation to win in the postseason.”

The Wall Street Journal has a piece looking at the practice, reviled by movie critics, of giving movies zero to four stars in newspaper reviews.  Oscar hopeful and a low-ambition horror movie are all measured by the same yardstick. “It all makes for an odd scale that, under the veneer of objective numerical measurement, is really just an apples-to-oranges mess,” the paper says.

Ed Person of the Year #5: Gates Reboots

by Robert Pondiscio
December 27th, 2008

Until very recently, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s brand of school reform was largely associated with the small schools movement. They spent $2 billion turning big, “obsolete” high schools into smaller “learning communities.”  In November, faced with evidence of diminishing returns on the strategy, Gates hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete and rebooted their efforts, shifting the focus to higher standards for college readiness and improving teacher quality.

“We must give the Gates Foundation and its founders credit for their honest self-scrutiny,” wrote Diane Ravitch on  ”Most proponents of education reform defend their ideas against all critics, regardless of what evaluations show.”  In Fortune last month, Claudia Wallis summarized the Gates Foundation’s new direction, the goal of which is to double the number of low-income students earning a college degree by 2025.

The upshot is that Education 2.0 is bolder and more aggressive in its goals, and it involves even more intensive investment – $3 billion over the next five years. This time the focus isn’t on the structure of public high schools but on what’s inside the classrooms: the quality of the teaching and the relevance of the curriculum. It steers smack into some of the biggest controversies in American education – tying teacher tenure and salaries to performance, and setting national standards for what is taught and tested.

“One of the reasons to think that the Gates 2.0 plan will be more successful than version 1.0 is that the plan involves a commitment to measure results and follow the evidence rather than plow forward with a preconceived notion like ‘small schools are better,” wrote Wallis. 

Lessons Learned

“We saw that there is a big difference between graduating from high school and being ready for college,” said Gates in a speech at the Foundation’s November announcement.  “In general, the places that demonstrated the strongest results tended to do many proven reforms well, all at once: they would create smaller schools, a longer day, better relationships—but they would also establish college-ready standards aligned with a rigorous curriculum, with the instructional tools to support it, effective teachers to teach it, and data systems to track the progress.”  The defining feature of a great education, said Gates, is what happens in the classroom. 

We’ve known about these huge differences in student achievement in different classrooms for at least 30 years. Unfortunately, it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know. But that’s what we have to find out if we’re going to not only recognize great teachers, but also take average teachers and help them become great teachers. I’m personally very intrigued by this question, and over the next few years I want to get deeply engaged in understanding this better. 

Curriculum advocates, who often feel marginalized in ed reform debates about purely structural issues, were also cheered to hear Gates say “I believe strongly in national standards. Countries that excel in math, for example, have a far more focused, common curriculum than the United States does.”  He also called for better use of data to drive instruction — and as the basis for merit pay.  Gates, however, took pains to display a nuanced take on the potentially divisive issue.

There are two extreme sides in this debate. According to the caricature, one side just wants to turn teachers into commissioned salesmen, so their whole salary is based on how much the scores improve. The other caricature says that teachers don’t want to be held accountable, so they will reject any system that ties pay to performance. In truth, designing an appropriate incentive system is difficult, but possible.  We believe in incentive systems, but we understand the concern that without the right design, they could seem arbitrary or incent the wrong things. They need to be transparent, they need to make sense, and teachers themselves need to see the benefits of the system and embrace them.

“The good news is that the Gates Foundation, with its vast resources, has pledged to devote its attention to what happens in the classroom,” concluded Diane Ravitch in her essay for  “The first thing it will learn is that there are no quick fixes. If it targets its dollars wisely, exercises a measure of humility, and continues to evaluate its efforts rigorously, it can make a positive difference.”

Learning the Right Lessons

by Robert Pondiscio
December 19th, 2008

Finland, widely seen as the top-performing school system in the world, has merit pay and teachers unions and tenure.  It has school choice and a national curriculum.  “American education reformers across the political spectrum have lauded the Finns’ investments in parental leave, early childhood education, and national curriculum standards,” writes Dana Goldstein at the American Prospect. ”Education liberals point to the value the Finnish system places on teacher autonomy, while conservatives and libertarians laud Finland’s ability to coax excellent achievement out of students despite large class sizes and relatively few hours in the classroom.”

A close look at Finland “does more to quiet than to fan the flames” of U.S. education reform debates, Goldstein concludes.

The point of studying other nations’ school systems is not to find the silver bullet but to realize that there isn’t one. In the United States, the education debate has been framed as a zero-sum game. We’ve been told again and again that we need to make hard choices between labor protections and doing what is best for children. But a good education system can include merit pay, as well as strong unions and tenure. It can have relatively short school days and large classes but also national curriculum guidelines. Teachers can have autonomy in lesson planning while simultaneously being held to high professional standards. Universal day care and pre-school on one end of the education spectrum can be matched by a commitment to vocational preparedness on the other.

If the United States committed to taking education as seriously as the Finns do, Goldstein concludes, “the universe of possibilities would open up wider than most of us can imagine. That is a long-range project but one whose goal should remain in the back of education reformers’ minds, even as they fight out the day-to-day political battles sure to come.”

Banking on Test Scores

by Robert Pondiscio
October 22nd, 2008

With both presidential candidates supporting merit pay for teachers, it’s likely that the issue will affect teachers nationwide, USA Today’s Greg Toppo observes this morning in a piece that offers a round-up of pay-for-performance plans nationwide. 

“At least eight states are moving away from a traditional pay model, which increases salaries based on seniority and advanced degrees,” Toppo writes. ”Many of the pay packages are funded by private foundations. In dozens of districts, test scores already have earned teachers more money.”

The most controversial plan is Washington, DC’s which could see high-performing teachers with limited experience earn over $100,000 if they give up tenure.  George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union tells USA Today, “A lot of our younger teachers say, ‘Bring it on.’ ” Older teachers, he says, are more concerned with due process.