Regime Changes?

When former Democratic Hill aides are teeing up the teachers’ unions like New America Foundation’s Mary Ellen McGuire does here in USN, could it mean the zeitgeist is irreparably against them?

Also, some must-read Willingham on choice.   And, Matt Ladner and some colleagues game out a teacher pay scheme to give high-performers six figures.

21 Replies to “Regime Changes?”

  1. Does this set up unions or does it set up TFA, which places young inexperienced teachers in high needs schools?

  2. I’m sure that blaming it on the unions will get them to agree to fix the *comparability loophole.* Not.

  3. One thing I rarely hear people talk about on sites like this one is teacher training. Nobody argues that our least experienced teachers serve our neediest kids. But nobody also points out that this could easily be mitigated by improving teacher training.

    That Ms. McGuire uses a medical model for her narrative lead is telling. Why not have internist/residency programs for young teachers? Schools could easily partner with local institutions of higher education thereby solving the needs of both parties: districts would get a steady supply of graduates and schools of ed would have permanent placements for them.

    We spend a lot of time talking about teacher quality and how poor it is. But we devote little or no time to talking about teacher training. I wonder why this is?

    It would seem, in a nation obsessed with grand reforms, that reforming the source of quality teaching would be first on the list. Yet it is probably last. This leads to me ask a simple question: Who stands in opposition to better training for teachers?

    Here are a few ideas:

    1. PEOPLE WITH OTHER POLICY AGENDAS. There’s only so much bandwidth for change, and changing the way we train teachers would be a huge task. Other reforms like testing, standards, vouchers, charters, merit pay, etc., might be crowded out.

    2. PEOPLE WHO STAND TO BENEFIT FROM WEAK TEACHERS. I’m thinking here of two groups: the educational publishing industry and the educational technology industry. The publishers make their money by selling textbooks and other materials that – quite frankly — are only needed by poor teachers. Don’t you remember getting a little excited in junior high or high school when you found your social studies or science teacher didn’t follow the book? Don’t our best teachers use many of their own materials? And to better effect? Second, the educational technology industry has bet it’s bottom dollar on the fact that bad computer software can beat a bad teacher hands down. So far, they are well on their way to winning. But even they know they can never find a piece of technology that will even come close to the effectiveness of a well-trained teacher.

    3. STATE LEGISLATORS AND PEOPLE AT THE DOE WHO DON’T WANT TO FACE THE HIGHER ED BACKLASH AGAINST CHANGING TEACHER TRAINING. It’s true: strong leadership would be required at both the state and the federal level to even begin changing the way we train teachers. But isn’t that what “no-nonsense” guys like Barak Obama and Arne Duncan are supposed to be good at? Don’t we elect our state legislators to make the tough decisions? When are we going to stop playing “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf of state teaching colleges?” and get down to the all-important business of bringing teacher training up to the level of legal or medical training? We train all kinds of young people for all kinds of things. We even train high school kids for really tough jobs like being in the military. We certainly don’t back down there when it comes to rigor or high expectations? Why are we so afraid to make teachers — and those who teach them — toe the same line?

    The answer to the problem of education in America is standing up in front of chalkboards all across the nation. Unfortunately, nobody wants to help them learn how to do their job. We’d rather just complain about it instead.

  4. Willingham misses a bit on the difference between a decision-maker who is irrational (“economic rationality” means consistent efforts to maximize a function) versus one who is uninformed.

    For example:

    He says “one can imagine parents feeling that their child seems to be doing fine in his school, even if averages are low.”

    If the parent is correct that the child is doing well, then it’s rational. If the parent is incorrect, he’s not irrational, he’s misinformed about his kid.

    Another quibble is DW’s argument that “The No Child Left Behind Act allows parents to pull their children out of failing schools and enroll them in another school that made AYP. The frequency with which parents do so is less than 2%. Arguably, for some of the 98%, nearby schools were no better.”

    There’s another strand besides the lack of good schools nearby. Many of the 98% simply don’t know they have the right.

    As someone who interacts with a lot of these parents, I’d say almost ZERO of them know of that right. The Boston Globe did an article a few years back on this: they can’t behave rationally because they don’t know their rights.

    Here is a brief excerpt from a news accounts about such a parent…

    * * * *
    The mother wanting to transfer her son out of a lousy school is Maria Fenton of Dorchester, whose story was told by Megan Tench in The Boston Globe last week.

    Fenton’s son Michael attends one of the 44 Boston public schools recently designated “underperforming.” Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act enacted last year, that gives her the right to transfer Michael to a better school. But the Blob is doing its best to make that impossible.

    The letter telling her that Michael’s school was failing gave her just four days to select a different one.

    But when she called the school to ask what her choices were, no one could tell her. She asked for the number to the Boston School Department and was told she couldn’t have it. So she got the number on her own, then called the superintendent’s office seeking information.

    Her messages were never returned. She tried to get a list of Boston’s high-performing schools, but was told no such list exists. When she eventually did come up with the name of a good school, she was informed no seats were available.

  5. Willingham is a very smart man who has done great work. But I think he mischaracterizes the problem: We wish that parents would choose AN EDUCATION for their kids but all we have to offer them is A SCHOOL. As Willingham well knows, the two are not the same.

    First, let’s be honest: in most districts there are few, if any, meaningful differences among schools. Choice is virtually meaningless in today’s school “market” because education does not operate like a market at the K-12 level (except in very rare cases of highly specialized schools). Second, the choice a parent is making is for their kid, not for some mythical “average” kid. And yet, the only information a parent can get about a school is how, on average, certain kinds of kids perform on tests that really aren’t very meaningful to most parents. (Nor, as it turns out, are they statistically accurate in many cases; but that’s another story altogether.)

    Parents don’t make bad choices about schools, as Willingham suggests. They make good choices for their families. Keeping kids close to home is a good choice. Keeping siblings together in the same building is a good choice. Staying where you know at least a few of the teachers is a good choice. The idea that parents act against their own interests is the same silly argument the Democrats can’t understand about why so many people in the Heartland vote Republican.

    To Conservatives, choice is the engine that drives the market for competition among schools. Then all we have to do is let the Invisible Hand wash over the system for a generation or two – and voila! – our kids will do math like South Koreans. The problem with that equation is that education is not a market, schools are too alike, and desks are not as fungible as currency or credit.

    There is no skills test for parenting. And parents – all parents – make thousands of decisions about the well-being of their children. I don’t think it makes sense to argue about whether or not parents can pick a good school when most schools couldn’t tell themselves apart if they traded buildings.

    The problem here is twofold: a lack of transparency about how schools work and what really goes on in classrooms; and a lack of organized parent education regarding what a good school looks like and what a good education requires.

    The truth of the matter is that our states don’t want to tell the truth of the matter. If parents saw what I see every time I visit a school; if parents heard what I hear behind closed principal’s office doors; if parents experienced what I experience when I observe teachers teach a “regular” lesson and not a pre-arranged “put on” for their evaluation; then we would see some real choosing in action.

    But our states hide behind all kinds of excuses (and test scores, which tell us next to nothing about how a single new student might do) and our schools go out of their way not to help parents understand what goes on in their kids’ classrooms.

    I’ve done many parent nights where the teachers actively work to suppress turnout and to reduce my effectiveness. They don’t want parents to know about new training or new methods because they have no intention of using them. I’ve heard principals tell me they are sure they would lose their jobs in a heartbeat if parents really knew about what went on in particular classrooms or why certain kids got assigned to certain teachers (weak parents) while other kids didn’t (strong parents).

    So we have a long way to go before school choice is really much of a choice at all. In the meantime, I don’t think we need to worry too much if parents are making “bad” decisions. The truth is that most have only bad decisions to make.

  6. If we are to ever solve the problem of teacher pay, I believe we must get away from the concept of “merit pay” and move as quickly as possible to the much simpler concept of “pay” itself. In the real world where I work, I get “pay”. I get paid a certain amount of money for my work. This is as true now, when I’m a consultant, as it was when I had my first job as a dishwasher. Every single job I’ve ever had has had this simple concept called “pay” attached to it.

    The notion of “merit” is simply a function of being given the opportunity to do the work to begin with and then continue thereafter if one is successful. Or, if I’m in a profit making venture – or pre-arranged pay-for-performance contract – I may receive a bonus. But at no time will I ever receive “merit pay” for my work. (If you’re thinking my “bonus” is “merit pay”, I’ll explain why it’s not in a second.)

    The problem with “merit pay” is the very concept itself. Why shouldn’t education use a payment model that already exists in the world today? There are many, after all.

    We could pay teachers like all other professionals: an amount would be set aside for the position they seek and they would negotiate with the person hiring them for more pay, better benefits, or other aspects of the job that were negotiable. (If nothing was negotiable, nothing would be negotiated.)

    We could pay teachers like government workers using the “G” system. Higher “G” jobs would be assigned higher levels of pay. (I’m not a big fan of this but it’s probably better than the current seniority-based approach.)

    We could use the same models used by policemen, firemen, and other civic employees. This would base pay on rank.

    And finally, what I would most like to see, we could pay teachers the way we pay doctors, lawyers, and professional athletes: complete and open negotiation with those judged to be the most talented receiving the most lucrative contracts.

    I see no problem using any of these payment models, or any other payment model that has proven worthy in our society. What I object to is the ridiculous notion that teachers are so special – so timid and unable to ask for what they deserve – that they require a “protective” payment model all their own. I mean, isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to get rid of?

    The current seniority-based model is more or less unique to education. And yet, many people want to augment this model – rather than throwing it out – with the concept of “merit pay”. “Merit pay” is supposed to be an incentive. But it is not. Why? Because in most cases, no one knows who is going to get it until after the work is done.

    Unlike a salesman or stock broker who can chart his progress as the year moves along, “merit pay” recipients can’t tell whether they will be judged meritorious or not until the school year ends. In this sense, at any point during the year, “merit pay” cannot incent a teacher to work hard or do more. As such, it is completely unlike a pre-arranged bonus or other contractually-based pay-for-performance arrangement. It is, in fact, a cruel perversion of the whole idea of incentive pay. A teacher could extend herself all year long and not receive an extra penny. Worse yet, at no time would she be able to gauge her performance relative to the goal.

    As we ponder the merit of “merit pay”, let’s pose a few simple questions: Why would we let anyone teach whose performance was less than meritorious? If we’re going to pay better teachers more money, why do we have to call it “merit pay”? In the real world, don’t we just call people who make more money people who make more money? Or people of a higher position within an organization?

    We could easily create different levels for better teachers within a school or district, and each level could have attached to it a different level of pay. For example, student teacher, apprentice teacher, teacher, master teacher, instructional coach, building instructional leader, district instructional leader, state instructional leader, etc. As for raises, there would be two options: move up a rung or negotiating. Both would, I think, be healthy things for our schools. Imagine, for example, if principals had to pay out of their own budgets for their teachers. Wouldn’t they be more eager to get rid of bad ones and to promote good ones? When the state is the paymaster, no one is served because “no one’s” money is being spent. There’s simply no accountability at all.

    So-called “merit pay” is problematic for many reasons. But worst of all is the reason that it perpetuates indefinitely the broken system of seniority-based pay. It’s really just a contrived add-on to a broken system. Why would people think that this could solve the salary problem in teaching?

    So far, “merit pay” simply hasn’t been very successful. It has only shown modest gains in a few studies, and the best conclusions are that in order to be successful it has to be significant (15%-20%+), ongoing (3-5 years+), highly selective (only a few can get it), and fairly dispensed (who’s gonna say it’s fair?). This seems needlessly complicated to me and, again, far more complicated than any of the pay schemes we use already in our society. It also seems easily rigged or, when budgets tighten, conveniently discontinued.

    If we want to make teaching more competitive, why reinvent the wheel and then attach it to a broken car? We have many examples of professions in our society that are already competitive with ready-made, real-life compensation systems that have stood the test of time. Teachers want to be treated like professionals. Let’s pay them that way and see what happens.

  7. GGW
    I agree with your specific points about the information that parents lack—I’m sure you’re right, and wish I had thought of that point to include in my blog post. I do still think that my basic point is probably right. . .even in the face of complete information, many parents will not choose schools in a way that will improve school quality (if we define school quality by student learning). As I mentioned in the piece, one could argue that the *real* point is to let parents select schools according to the features that they value. I have no argument with that point of view, but it’s quite different than the idea that school choice will inevitably improve school quality (defined by student learning) because parents won’t want to send their kids to low-quality schools.
    Steve Paha
    You are my new best friend because you said I am smart. More seriously, I agree with some of what you’ve written, but not all. Most pointedly, I disagree with the contention that parents don’t act against their own interests. They almost certainly do, at least some of the time. As I noted, people act against their own interests (as they themselves describe their own interests) in financial matters, romantic matters, medical matters. . . why would school choice be any different? So Iagree that there is a lack of transparency about how schools work and about outcome measures, but I disagree with the proposal that, if that information were available, parents would act in a way that is consistent with their own interests.

  8. Matt Ladner is correct that performance pay is coming, but calling it a revolution?

    His own report undercuts the hype. The Goldwater Institute plan is explicitly modeled on South Korea. And its evidence that the Korean educational culture can be replicated in the US is based on ONE SCHOOL.

    The report’s conclusion correctly explained the difficulty of transplanting Korean methods to inner city American schools, “Many of these (poor American) students will be unprepared to do the rigorous work required of them in the future; as well, they will be unaccustomed to a disciplined school environment with high expectations set for them. Providing substantial pay for incredibly effective teachers will hopefully improve this situation. Again, however, we call for an incremental approach.”

    Regarding Willingham who always is astute, I won’t be a hypocrite and cite his work to criticize charters (that I support in a wimpy sort of way.) My response is “so what?” Parents, like all of us are “predictable irrational.” It’s a reminder, though, that we should go slow on charters. Especially in education, we have to respect peoples’ rights to make good and bad choices. But we need regulations to make sure kids don’t get hurt too bad by bad choices. (By the way, my support of performance pay and charters is not based on a rational analysis of the evidence. I support them because young educators do, and I don’t want to be fighting the next generation.)

    Its always nice to check out a brief, simplified story like in US News and noticed the comments by people who aren’t necessarily preoccupied by “comparability” and other inside baseball issues. Until we create conditions in inner city schools where young teachers can survive, and that includes the need for a capacity for assessing discipline, the teacher gap will grow. A decade ago, my school had the best attendance for teachers in the district because then we were forty-somethings. Now, 3/4ths of us have missed six weeks or more in the last few years due to illness. I’m the only person in my department who hasn’t had cancer. Why? Schools like mine chew up and spit out young teachers. Create an environment where a young teacher does not have to be a cop while also learning how to teach, and we can create equity.

    I see that Willingham has answered objections in a persuasive way. After all, American constitutional democracy is based on the wisdom that Willingham explains using cognitive science. We humans are Hobbesians as well as Lockeians, with a lot of other quirks thrown in. But if every person is so imperfect, why would one person seeks to rule others? Again, school reform needs modesty.

  9. John-

    Our proposal is not based on the South Korean model, rather the South Korean model is used to illustrate the importance of emphasizing teacher quality over class size. We cite inner city Catholic schools as a domestic example of the same phenomenon.

    We developed our proposal by asking what a high quality school model would look like if we took the value added research down to the bottom of the rabbit hole. The McKinsey Report did however take the approach of looking at successful international models. In the end, you wind up in similar places.

  10. Matthew,

    How many successful examples do you have to illustrate your model as something thay can realistically bring an educational revolution?

  11. Fair enough, Mr. Willingham. Actually, I was reading a book just today on the neurological basis of choosing things. And, yes, we all make choices, from time to time, that seem to go against our best interests. School choice should be no different as you point out. However, what the brain research shows is often that the mind doing the choosing is choosing for neurologically understandable reasons. So perhaps the whole notion of school choice is a bit marred, shall we say, by the normal, if imperfect, ways we choose anything.

  12. Ladner’s assertion is that differentiated compensation will lead to a system that attracts and retains excellent teachers. I don’t work in a school, but I would suspect that like in other industries, there are things besides money that keep people in a job/profession. Shared values and competencies quickly come to mind. Most who are smart, able, want to make a difference, and continually improve themselves want to work with others who are also smart, able… I see this even in large companies where people can change working groups pretty easily — people who know what they are doing gravitate to groups of similar individuals, often leaving the non-performers together in groups of their own.

    I don’t think people don’t go into teaching because we don’t reward merit (with pay). For some it is crummy starting pay. For some it is the ridiculous certification requirements. For some it is the ever-growing standards and rules. For some it is the memory that many of their teachers and schools were, well, bad. I just can’t think that if I were a good teacher, offering me another $4000 in pay was going to keep me in a job that I didn’t like — especially when I could easily make more in another profession.

  13. John-

    The value added research suggests strongly that much of the achievement gap is related to differences in teacher quality. We have examples of programs that pair high quality teachers with disadvantaged students and get very strong results-Catholic schools, KIPP, etc.

    The problem is that the KIPPs of the world are going to run out of Teach for America kids relatively quickly. We need a financial model that will recruit teachers from the top 20% of university graduates rather than the (on average) bottom third.

    To do that, we need schools that will not only create a path for high compensation with high achievement, but which will also treat teachers like professionals rather than factory workers.


    The main idea we develop is not hand out $4,000 merit bonuses, but to identify high ability teachers through value added assessment and give them additional students to teach. After the 20th student, we propose to give teachers 2/3 of the additional revenue. A six figure salary can be achieved with a classroom in the low 30s.

  14. Matthew,

    I know that you didn’t suggest $4000 bonuses (sorry for that implication), but I can’t imagine an environment with the pay discrepancies you suggest in the article. It just doesn’t seem politically feasible. Other than sales or acting, I just don’t know many professions where you have two people doing essentially the same job getting paid such vastly different salaries without seniority being a factor.

    My point, really, is that I don’t believe that it’s necessary to introduce such pay differentials to achieve your goal of putting good teachers in the classroom, regardless of how many students are in a class. The Kinsey report, which you cite, suggests that it takes sufficient pay, but not extraordinary pay, to do the job.

  15. Matthew,

    I take it that your reply was an acknowledgemnt that you have no other successful models, and that your proposal is just a projection based on assumptions that you find reasonable.

    Again, you’ve got no real world, system-wide evidence but you do have some math models and McKinsey is available to provide some fancy grahics.

    No, the problem with KIPPs is that it will quickly run out of families who will choose that rigor. KIPP, like TFA, has a lot of good qualities, but its a niche program. It may seem logical to you that it could be replicated ad infinitum. Fusion energy is logical for other people. Until I see a single system-wide example, I’ll read your proposals as a thought experiment, albeit with good graphics.

    I’m wondering, though, about what McKinsey charges for factoids. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to consult with real social scientists and do real educational research? The savings wouldn’t boost teachers salaries to $125,000, but it would provide a Christmas turkey to those of us who are in NEIGHBORHOOD schools and understand why there is no relation between the challenges faced by slective schools, even KIPP, and the critical mass of traumatized kids left behind by the creaming.

  16. John-

    When you propose something that hasn’t been done before, yes, there are in fact no perfect matches for what you propose.


    It’s not necessarily the case that there will be large differentials in pay. The Equity Project school in New York is paying a base salary of $125k to all of their teachers.

    What we have proposed in a blueprint for a new school, not a gosplan to impose on existing schools.

  17. Matthew,

    Thanks. I hope I didn’t sound like a jerk doing cross examination.

    Those of us who live in troubled schools get sensitive about certain things.

  18. John-

    I need to learn more about the Equity Project, as there are some obvious similarities to what they are doing and what we have proposed. The NYT said their average class size would be around 30, for instance.

    I’m curious to know whether they are planning to use one of the software products to do value added assessments. If anyone knows the answer to that question, please let me know.

  19. Matthew,

    Regarding class size, Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, which has beoome my new Bible, mentions something I’d missed in Sander’s research. The benefits of decreasing class size were greater for Black students. I can’t cite specifics because I left the book in my wife’s car.

    In my experience the maximum class size varies according to a lot of factors. Fifteen years ago with freshmen in an inner ring suburb, the maximum class size – before discipline problems went up geometrically – was about 33. Now in a hardcore inner city school, I’d say the maximum is below 30. I had a class of 43 this year, and it wasn’t pretty. Now our veterans who are effective administrators and teachers tend to say at our school that the max for “our kids” should be less than 20.

    I don’t know the number, but virtually ever educators I know first-hand would agree that there is a number, and depending on the age and at-risk status, if you cross that line the disciplinary challenges go through the roof. Classroom management skills are irrelevant. I’ve worked with some great teachers and I’m awfully confident with my skills, but I don’t recall an exception. I’ve had 70 seniors for weeks at a time, and had few problems. But 30 inner city freshmen is pushing the limits even for superstar teachers.

    Why? Changes with cell phones and the digital world are an obvious factor. But I can tell you one example of why our old 140 student total class load is no longer reasonable. I typically had 140 students last year but I had over 200 students transfer in and out.

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