The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Merit Pay, Competition, and Improving Public Education

So. I’ve been on vacation for about a week now. For some teachers, vacation is a time to kick back, relax, and enjoy the warm summer weather. For me, it has been a time to amp up the job application process, not just for the coming school year, but also for the summer. I have promising leads on both fronts, but promising leads are not certain indicators of employment like they used to be.

As promised, I am going to be updating sporadically over the summer. With the adventures on hold, the subject for these posts will be quite the hodge-podge. I am going to be doing a couple of book reviews pretty soon, but for today, I am going to tackle a topic that is making its way to the forefront of public discourse: improving education in our nation.

I hope that this post will be coherent. I am not going to cite any specific research, data, news articles, or anything else in writing this. So these ideas are coming straight from my head. However, I am certain that you could easily Google any of my points and find scores of articles in agreement and scores of articles to the contrary. The inspiration for this post came from my brother Anton, who recently posted a link on Facebook regarding GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. One of Mr. Cain’s statements on his site brings up the issue of education and, as many on the right, Mr. Cain believes the key to improving education in our nation is merit pay, vouchers, and charter schools.

I respectfully disagreed with his ideas. My brother posed this question, which is what I want to focus on: “If you don’t pay based on merit, how do you recommend paying? Shouldn’t the best teachers be paid more? How do you out the bad teachers?”

First and foremost, these three questions are quite separate from one another. The most important question, though, is the last: How do we out the bad teachers? How do we identify them, and how do we remove them from the system?

What makes a teacher a bad teacher, anyway? I am certain that you could ask any random person on the street for an example of a bad teacher and an example of a good teacher, and they will readily give you both. Most reasons are incredibly subjective. Heck, I know that I am subjective when it comes to discussing my favourite teachers and my least favourite ones. I find it particularly telling that there is at least one teacher I had in high school who I loved, yet many of the students who came after me do not share this love–in fact, many will tell you that they hate him. Did he suddenly go from being a good teacher to a bad teacher?

No, I don’t think so. I am confident that he is still a good teacher. But students can either love or hate a good teacher and they can love or hate a bad teacher, as well. One of the most-beloved substitute teachers in my high school was a former ER trauma surgeon who spent his time in the classroom telling dirty jokes. The students loved him, but he definitely wasn’t a good teacher. He was just a fun adult.

What can we do to identify bad teachers? First, we need an objective rubric for evaluating. Many politicians, who are tasked with setting the standards, have turned to high-stakes testing. The logic, it seems, is that good teacher will produce students who perform well on tests.

That, my friends, is one of the biggest lies ever to arise in the realm of public education.

Here’s the problem: tests measure certain data, but not every student performs the same way on a test. There is a reason that differentiated education,  and especially differentiated assessment, is so important to education: every student is different. In addition, we have the disturbing data about tests being possible to pass by simply randomly answering questions. No, high-stakes tests do not accurately represent how well students have been taught. They only represent how well students are able to take the test. This is a constant problem in testing and my heart goes out to the men and women tasked with writing these tests. I do not believe that standardised tests should be done away with. While it may seem contradictory, I believe the data from the tests is incredibly important data that helps us process how well students are able to process the data they have been taught. Even though we need differentiation, a large enough sample size will normalise the results.

But to use tests to judge the quality of a single teacher? A teacher who has, maybe 25 students? Some teachers have even fewer students. I have been in elementary classrooms where one teacher works with the same 15 students all day, every day, with the exception of Specials (art, music, PE, library). I cannot fathom the logic that says that the test results of 15 boys and girls can accurately determine how well they have been taught, but, again, those results, when combined with the results of hundreds, thousands of other classrooms throughout the state and the nation, are statistically useful.

Education policy makers have started to recognise this dilemma, and their latest suggestion is to use value-added assessment to judge teachers. In a nutshell, value-added assessment looks at a student’s test results in May and compares that student’s results a year later. Other schools do an entrance exam of sorts in August and then an exit exam in May. The theory is that a student with a good teacher will have improved test scores, while a bad teacher will produce either stagnated or lower test scores. In theory it makes sense: students should constantly be improving and learning, so that means that they will have improvement at the end of the year if they have been taught well.

In practice, the test is written to the median. So neither the students at the bottom nor the students at the top will not make “enough” progress. A related example: As a student teacher, I worked with a 5th grade classroom of students identified as gifted. I had been given an assignment by my literacy methods instructor to tutor a struggling reader in the class. The theory was great: hands-on experience working with a student and watching him or her improve under my tutelage. The problem: the slowest reader in this class of 5th graders read at a 7th grade level. There were no struggling readers in the class. After I explained this to my professor, she insisted that there was something I could do. I discussed my dilemma with my cooperating teacher, who agreed the assignment was ridiculous. I “tutored” the girl anyway, simply by having her read to me for 30 minutes a day. She didn’t make “enough” progress, though, because she was already far in advance.

Value-added assessment, like traditional standardised tests, has a place in the education field. But that place is not in teacher evaluation. It is in student evaluation. Value-added assessment lets a teacher know where his or her students are at the beginning of the year and where they are at the end. It is another bit of data to help the teacher provide the differentiated instruction necessary to help each child.

So if you’ve stayed with me, you’ve now read over 1,000 words on what doesn’t work. Thank you for staying with me. I want to get to the solution now. Actually, scratch that; not the solution, just a solution. You see, just as students need differentiated instruction, teachers and administrators need differentiated evaluation. Teachers and administrators in individual buildings and districts need to work together to create a formal evaluation process. Some elements may include surveys, self-evaluations, and peer assessments. But my biggest suggestion is for the evaluation process to implement both formal and informal quarterly classroom observations. These were used while I was a student teacher; I see no reason why the practice cannot be extended to the entire professional. The formal observation would go something like this:

The teacher has a prepared lesson plan. The principal arranges for a day to come in and observe. The teacher gives the principal a copy of the lesson plan, and then teaches. The principal takes note of strengths and weaknesses. Afterwards, during the teacher’s plan/prep period, the principal and the teacher conference and discuss the observation: What worked? What didn’t? What will they do next? (If any of you readers are family with Michael Brandwein, you may recognise these three questions as the three basic questions of processing.) The principal needs to ask pointed questions to let the teacher demonstrate knowledge of what he or she is doing: Why did you do this? Did the students learn? Ho do you know? What is your next step? Quality teachers will be able to answer these questions. The formal observation isn’t meant to be a hindrance or an annoyance. It is an opportunity to discuss what is going on in the room.

The informal observations would be unplanned. The principal will simply stop by and observe. I would even suggest taking advantage of inexpensive technology, such as closed-circuit television, to allow the principal to observe without being seen. (This would also be incredibly useful for protecting teachers from claims of harassment, discrimination, or other misdeeds.) They can already listen in on any classroom: the PA system works two-ways and the microphone in the  classroom can be turned on from the office. The reason for unplanned observations should be obvious: we tend to be on our best behaviour when we know our boss is coming. But the boss needs to know what is going on when the boss isn’t there. This is one of the few business practices that does belong in the classroom.

Which brings me to the next part: merit pay. Now that we know how to identify the quality teachers without using test scores as a judge. Is my evaluation process subjective? Well, yeah, it is. I don’t think it is possible to objectively define something as intangible as “quality” teaching. A teacher who works well in one building may not work well in another. Education isn’t just about having the right people. It is about having the right people at the right place at the right time. We want to reward these people. The suggestion from the business community is to provide pay on a merit system: the best teachers get bonuses or incentives. It works in the professional business world, why not in the public school system?

For nearly 30 years, the United States has been trying to “fix” our “broken” education system by attempting to have public education mimic the professional world. This isn’t a matter of partisanship, either. Really, the issue has been going on since 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was issued by Congress under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It has been reauthorised every five years since. The big push to bring business into our schools, though, came under President Ronald Reagan, after A Nation at Risk, a report on public education, was released. The push continued under George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama. Reagan’s education department made suggestions for changes. Bush Sr and Clinton also made suggestions. Bush Jr started the first federal mandates. Obama wants to continue them. All of these suggestions and mandates are similar, though.

You know that saying, “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Right now, the policies are being made by politicians and bureaucrats. When all you know is bureaucracy, every solution looks like more bureaucracy. When all you have are business professionals, every solution looks like a business professional’s solution. But public schools are not businesses! They are not bureaucracies! There are things we can learn from these systems, but we have to acknowledge that the public education system is unique in our nation, and so the solutions need to be unique. You really want to know why merit pay doesn’t work? It is because teachers don’t care! They care about teaching. They are devoted to seeing their students learn, grow, and become valuable members of society. Teachers want to be appreciated, they want to be paid for their time and contributions, but they also want to be able to do their jobs. I think the way that pay scales are set up now makes sense: pay teachers more for years of service and the level of education they have achieved. Don’t pay them according to how well their students perform on tests, though. There are just too many independent variables for that to be even remotely fair to anyone.

I love the writings of Ayn Rand. I am not a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Tea Partier, or even an Independent. I am right-leaning moderate. I believe in fiscal conservative principles. I believe in the free market. And I believe in letting professionals do their work. One of my favourite parts of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged is when the government finally gets John Galt and they have him give an address to the nation. His address is meant to tell them how he is going to fix the system. His response is awesome. He steps to the microphone and he says, “Get the hell out of my way!” I think there are many educators who feel the same way every time the government and the policy makers come up with some new plan to save education.

Please, just get out of our way and let us do our jobs. Pay us what you think we are worth. Trust me, if it isn’t enough, we will find new places to work. If none of you want to pay us what we think we are worth, we will leave the schools. Have fun running a school without teachers! And while you’re at it, please stop trying to make us compete with each other! The teachers in Champaign are not competing with the teachers in Mahomet. You know why? Because the public schools are set up to serve the public, which in our nation means that students attend the public schools within the public school systems in which they leave. We don’t need the schools to be competing with each other. And we don’t need the states to be competing, either. The current administration’s “Race to the Top” program is ridiculous. This isn’t a race!

So here are my other suggestions for improving public education:

  • Create a national teacher certification program. If we really want to get the best teachers in the schools, we need teachers to have mobility. As a novice teacher in Illinois, I am certified to teach in Illinois, and Illinois only. Yes, some states have reciprocity agreements with one another, but those only go so far. A teacher can start to work in a different state under reciprocity, but then he or she has to get certified in that state, as well. A national teaching license would allow teachers to go to where the jobs are without having to pay even more money. (In case you didn’t know, it would cost me somewhere in the ballpark of $300-400 to get certified in another state, which is necessary for me to even be considered for a teaching position!)
  • Allow teachers and administrators to set the policies. Those who are closest to the system know what works and what doesn’t work. But mot policy-makers aren’t close to the system; they are just spit-balling ideas. If you must have elected policy-makers, create a system that brings professional educators in to help create the policies.
  • Get the unions on board. Right now, we are operating under an “Us vs Them” mentality. The unions are not there to be an opposition force; they are there to represent the teachers. Representation saves time; that’s why we use it. The unions also protect teachers from vindictiveness, because, let’s face it: just as there are bad teachers, there are also bad administrators. But most teachers and most administrators have their hearts in the right place.
  • Stop comparing our nation’s students to the students in other nations. The United States of America does not educate the same way other nations of the world do. If we are determined to make the comparisons, then we need to completely change our system so it looks like the others. But that is also going to require other changes, which will require more money, which means more taxes. Public education is funded by the public. However, I don’t think we need to change the system that drastically. I think the heart of the system is right. It is the way it is being pushed around and twisted that is causing the problems. So instead of comparing our apples to their oranges, let’s just compare our apples to our apples. Cleanse the vessel, and the rest will follow.

I am sure that there is more I could write on this subject. I don’t even know if I answered all of my brother’s questions. I also recognise that I just wrote almost 3,000 words. I am grateful for my profession. I would not be where I am today without the guiding hands of professional educators. I am proud to call myself a teacher. I am a professional. I believe in what I do and I do what I believe in. I welcome the assistance and the suggestions from the business community, politicians, and anyone else who has a vested interest in the education of the public. But we need to remember that the professional educators, the teachers and administrators, have the greatest impact on the system, not the policies. Even more importantly, we need to remember that we are doing it for the young people who trust us to lead them.


8 responses

  1. gfe

    One of the popular myths about education, and one of the reason there’s a push for “merit” pay, is that it’s impossible to fire bad teachers.


    For a fair number of years I was a newspaper reporter covering local education. Twice in that time I saw tenured teachers being fired by school boards — and not for anything egregious (such as the male teacher, once honored as a teacher of the year, who got caught exposing himself to a Girl Scout troop, whom I didn’t include in my total, because he resigned before he could formally be fired), but because, at least according to the administration, they weren’t effective teachers.

    In both cases there were appeals by the teacher unions (that’s their job, after all), and the process wasn’t an easy one, But it was done.

    I’m not suggesting that there are a lot of teachers out there who should be fired; I honestly don’t know how many are slackers or incompetent. But my point is that teachers aren’t immune from dismissal, even if they have tenure. (All tenure does is say that you can’t fire a teacher without good reason, which sounds reasonable to me.)

    What I am suggesting is that the quality of teaching is partly the administrators’ responsibility, because it’s the administration that has the most say in what kind of support teachers (financial, time, whatever) are going to have in an effort to improve their effectiveness. And if they let teachers get away with bad teaching, administrators have only themselves to blame. And that’s a problem that “merit” pay won’t solve.

    June 8, 2011 at 1:05 pm

  2. Absolutely! I have heard of cases where it took an administrator years to fire a bad teacher, but that was because of policies set by non-educators. Even the union reps agreed that the teacher didn’t belong there! But, by and large, quality teaching starts with quality administrators who select the right people.

    June 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

  3. Based on your ideas about merit pay, I was wondering how you felt about bonus pay for teachers willing to “go above and beyond” and take on extra responsibilities such as coaching (both for athletic and academic based competition) or being a faculty adviser for clubs.

    June 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

  4. I don’t think it is accurate to call such supplements “bonus pay” because it isn’t a bonus. It is extra pay for extra work. Teachers’ contracts are very specific about the responsibilities, duties, etc. expected in exchange for the agreed-upon salary. For me, my job description will be entirely focused upon my work as a self-contained general education classroom instructor. This means that I am responsible for teaching the core content areas (literacy, math, science, social studies) during the regular school day. If I were take on extra responsibilities, such as coaching, faculty advisement, department/grade level head, etc. those mean extra work outside the responsibilities of being a SCGE teacher. So yes, teachers should be paid extra to do extra work beyond the scope of their contract.

    However, I don’t think that taking on those extra duties merits the claim that they are going “above and beyond”–I would restrict that phrase to the teachers who willingly come in earlier and stay later to add finishing touches to lesson plans, develop special activities or projects, make phone calls or send emails in the evening, etc. They are still doing the work of a SCGE teacher, but they are working outside of the contractual hours (usually 30 minutes before the start of the day to 30 minutes after dismissal). Do those teachers deserve to be given bonus pay for what they do? I tend to think not. Those teachers who put in the extra hours (like my mother-in-law, who has been known to be at work until 2 am finishing up a special social studies lesson, which is her content-area of prime focus) do it because they want to, not because they have been asked to or required to.

    June 19, 2011 at 9:34 am

  5. scott

    One of your best posts yet! Loved all of it except for the national teachers license. You gotta let the states do things the way that works best for them. What California wants their teachers to have may not be what the people of Illinois want their teachers to have. And the states haven’t yet given that authority to the federal government yet anyway.

    July 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  6. scott

    Also, you should send this to Jason barrickman and share ultra.

    July 2, 2011 at 7:01 pm

  7. My suggestion for having nationalised education standards, certificates, etc. is two-fold: first, we claim that we are falling behind other nations, but we don’t want to use their models; second, and related to the first, is based on an old adage: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. So if we want to see a change, we need to change what we are doing.

    I haven’t thought much about the constitutionality of it, but I don’t know what the laws on certification are, or even if there are laws. The MPAA self-governs with movie ratings and enforcing policies in renting R-rated movies to minors and allowing them into theatres. Are there specific laws dictating teacher certification, or is it left up to the the various state boards and education departments to set the guidelines on their own?

    We already have certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Why not make it so every teaching license is part of national board certification? It seems like it is possible without needing any legal changes; just the decision by the states to allow the NBPTS to regulate the process.

    As far as forwarding this to the representatives referenced, I wonder if they would pay attention to the musings of a substitute teacher. I guess it couldn’t hurt.

    July 2, 2011 at 9:13 pm

  8. Okay, I decided to briefly review the law now that I posted. What we need is for every state to amend the School Code such that the issuance of teaching certificates be turned over to the NBPTS. Then every state would have the same certificate, but teachers would have to register themselves within a state. The goal, though, is to allow for mobility across the nation so that a highly qualified, skilled teacher in Texas can just as easily find employment in Hawaii or Alaska as in Maine or Florida, or any other state. Let us go to where the jobs are without having to pay for duplicate certificates!

    July 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm

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