Schoolhouse Rock
Fixing the education system.

Sept. 4 2008 1:49 PM

Cleaning House

A reader who spent the last five years teaching in Los Angeles and Chicago writes,  

You’re right that the next fight in education is all about the teachers. We need to pay them better. But there are so many ineffectual teachers out there that it is difficult if not impossible to weed them out.

What you have yet to mention is the difficulty in weeding out those teachers. You have talked about rewarding teachers who are "successful," but on what grounds will that success be measured? Testing can only measure so much, and some subjects (the phys ed teacher for one) aren’t tested in any meaningful way anyway. If testing cannot or does not measure the success of a teacher, then that puts power into the hands of the principals, which can be incredibly dangerous.

I agree, it’s a difficult question. But some useful answers are emerging. The best research I’ve read about teacher quality is a paper from 2006 by Robert Gordon, Thomas Kane, and Douglas Staiger.  

They make five points:

1) We don’t know yet exactly how best to measure teachers, and the federal government should give R&D money to the states to test out some different methods.

2) That said, it seems that some measure that combines growth in test scores—how much a teacher raises his students’ scores over their scores the previous year—with more subjective measures like principal evaluations will actually give us a pretty accurate picture.  

3) How can we tell it’s accurate? Because teachers who do well in one year by these measures tend to do well the next year, too. In other words, in any given school, there are teachers who consistently do well and teachers who consistently do poorly, and it’s not all that hard to figure out who’s who. ( Though it is hard to predict ahead of time, at hiring .)

4) We should offer bonuses to teachers who perform well by those measures—in the top quartile, say—though only if they’re willing to teach in schools with a lot of low-income students, where they’re needed most.  

5) Even though bonuses are nice, the more effective way to use the evaluations is to fire the bottom quarter of teachers. This is less politically palatable. But these teachers are the ones, Gordon and his co-authors say, who do real damage to the students they teach, and they tend to do that consistently.

The authors have a neat firing idea—they make it the default. So a principal simply couldn’t continue to employ a second-year teacher who performs in the bottom quartile without sending a note home to parents explaining why this low-performing teacher deserves to keep his job.   

It’s not a solution we’re likely to hear on the campaign trail any time soon. Pro-layoff politicians don’t last long. But, politics aside, what these authors are proposing is a valuable and natural flipside to a bonus system. What good is paying the high performers more if the low performers are still hanging around, mishandling another classroom of kids every year?

Sept. 4 2008 11:06 AM

The Bonus Lottery

It’s one thing to talk hypothetically about merit pay for teachers. It’s another to actually put a merit-pay system into practice.

Under Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became one of the first states to experiment with merit pay. In 2006, after years of negotiation, the state created a new compensation system to reward successful teachers. Each district was offered additional state funding if they opted into the plan. Districts were given some flexibility in how to measure student success, but standardized-test scores had to make up at least 60 percent of the formula. In February, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times found that in one urban district that had opted to take the deal—Hillsborough, which includes Tampa and its suburbs—"merit" checks were going in overwhelming numbers to teachers at affluent schools.

[O]nly three percent of the educators deemed worthy of the $2,100 bonuses worked in the low-income schools that struggle most, where at least nine in 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And almost two-thirds taught in A-rated schools, where they arguably were least needed.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to work.


But just because merit pay didn’t work in Florida doesn’t mean it can’t work, period. A more effective merit-pay program wouldn’t reward every successful teacher, it would reward teachers who succeed with those students that are hardest to teach. And it also might define "success" in a more creative way than Florida does. One thing most teachers seem to agree on: they hate being judged on their students’ test scores alone. If you ask current teachers about a deal like the one in Hillsborough, most of them say no thanks. In the teacher-compensation study I mentioned yesterday , researchers surveyed teachers in Washington state and found that 83 percent of them opposed merit pay, including almost 60 percent who "strongly" opposed the idea. But the survey defined merit pay very narrowly, as a system that gave bonuses only for standardized-test gains. If we could come up with a more flexible system, the number of teachers opposing change might start to fall.

I got an e-mail yesterday from a reader, a former New York City teacher, making the case against judging teachers by standardized tests alone. (She asked to remain anonymous, "in case my old principal actually learned how to use the Internet.")

In the school where I used to work, I would be alternately canonized and demonized each year, as we compared not how each student had progressed each year, but how one eighth grade compared to the grade in front of or behind it. The year our eighth grade went from 400 motivated kids to over 500 "challenging" students, test scores fell, and I was told not to be creative in my classroom, "at least until after the test."

The next year, the eighth grade shrank to 250 students, and a good group of them, at that. When test scores for that class were higher than the previous eighth grade, I was praised to the heavens as if I had actually had anything to do with the increase. If my performance review and job security were tied to that kind of a measure, I’d be terrified, and would demand a salary equal to two or three years what I actually deserved just to build in security for my inevitable firing.

Accountability nuts get nervous when teachers say they want to be judged by more flexible standards than test scores alone. And for good reason—without some kind of objective measure, it would be way too easy to design an accountability system that could be gamed, where teachers were rewarded based on "parental satisfaction" or some equally vague measure, or where sub-par teachers received bonuses along with high-quality teachers, out of a sense of "fairness."

Still, the Florida system—bonuses based only on test scores, and no extra compensation for working in high-needs schools—clearly isn’t working.

Sept. 3 2008 1:21 PM

Teacher Pay, Green and Red, Too

The fight over the compensation of teachers is in many ways a fight over the nature of teaching itself. Is it a skilled profession, like law or medicine or finance, in which those who succeed in a competitive marketplace receive high compensation? Or is it a public-service job, like being a police officer or a firefighter or a civil servant, in which the exchange is job security and ample benefits for a commitment to serve the public? Right now, most teacher contracts are like civil-service contracts: You get gradual and steady raises based primarily on how long you’ve been in the job. Most of the benefits come on the back end, in retirement and in the years leading up to it.

But the "army of new teachers" that Obama has pledged to bring into the system may not be so crazy about a civil-service job.

Earlier this summer, a research group in Seattle called the Center on Reinventing Public Education came out with a new study on teacher compensation. The graph below, taken from the study, shows the results of a simulation for "what a single white woman with a technical degree from a selective college would earn inside and outside of teaching at three points in her early career." When this imaginary woman graduated in 1994, she would have earned $3,561 more as a teacher than outside of teaching, because of a starting salary guaranteed by a union contract. By the time she was nine years into her working life, though, she would have fallen behind her peers, making $10,203 less as a teacher than if she had followed another career path.

So, how do you restructure compensation to make teaching more attractive to that archetypal selective-college graduate? Do you pay all teachers more? Provide other benefits to compensate for a smaller salary? Or do you restructure teacher pay so that high performers earn more than their colleagues?

In Washington, D.C., right now, the fight over teacher quality is being debated at the negotiating table. Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor, has been in office only a little more than a year, but already she has become one of the most important education officials in the country. Not "important" in the sense of "powerful"—D.C. is a pretty small school system—but important because of the sweeping reforms she is trying to put in place.

Back in July, Rhee proposed a new contract for the city’s teachers. As the Washington Post reported at the time,

Under the proposal, the school system would establish two pay tiers, red and green. … Teachers in the red tier would receive traditional raises and would maintain tenure. Those who voluntarily go into the green tier would receive thousands of dollars in bonuses and raises, funded with foundation grants, for relinquishing tenure.

In other words, red for traditionalist civil servants, green for merit-pay rebels.

The bonuses and raises Rhee proposed were unusually large. Even teachers who chose the safer option would do pretty well. But not as well as the greens. As the Post noted , in the red tier, "a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of service who makes $56,000 could receive $73,800 by 2012." If that same teacher chose the green tier, she could be making as much as $122,500 in that year. (Currently, the average teacher salary in the country is $47,600.)

The downside of choosing the green tier: You give up tenure and spend a year on probation. If at the end of that year the principal decides that you haven’t proved yourself, you’re fired, no matter how long you’ve worked for the system.

It’s a revolutionary idea—last week, a columnist for the Post wrote that the proposed contract, if accepted, "would be a watershed event in U.S. labor history." D.C.’s teachers are divided on whether it’s a good deal. The leader of the local teachers union seems to be leaning toward taking it, but other union officials are firmly opposed . The union local’s vice president, Nathan Saunders, told the Post in July that the deal would be "a tremendous step backwards for teachers as dignified professionals. … It is the purchase of valuable rights for cash."

Of course, that’s kind of what being a professional entails: giving up the kind of job security and stability that you get if you’re a wage laborer in exchange for a whole lot of money.

Sept. 2 2008 11:52 AM

All About Teachers

The new school year begins today in New York City, where I live, and in many other cities around the country. (Though no school this week in New Orleans, where I was reporting during the spring and summer, because of Hurricane Gustav.)

For many returning teachers, this is an uncertain moment, and not only because they’re facing a brand-new crop of students. There is a growing sense out there—in labor negotiations, at conferences, and on the campaign trail—that the next big debate in the politics of education is going to be about teachers: how to attract them, how to compensate them, how to evaluate them, how to fire them, and, perhaps most importantly, how to get good ones in front of the students who need their help the most.

Barack Obama, in his speech at Invesco Field in Denver last week, sketched out the broad outlines of a possible new deal for teachers. He said that, as president, "I’ll recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability."

Beyond this basic tradeoff—money for accountability—Obama has been vague about exactly how a deal might work in practice. But others have plunged in. Jonathan Alter, writing in Newsweek in July, told Obama that he should

offer federal money for salary increases, but make them conditional on differential pay (paying teachers based on performance and willingness to work in underserved schools, which surveys show many teachers favor) and on support for the elimination of tenure. And the next time he addresses them, he should tell the unions they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance—or face extinction.

  Matthew Miller, writing in the Wall Street Journ al in the same week, had similar advice for the candidate. Obama, he said, should

go beyond vague talk of modest pay reform and offer a bold new "grand bargain" to reshape the profession. He should make a $30 billion pot of federal money available to states and districts to boost salaries in poor schools, provided the teachers unions make two key concessions. First, they have to scrap their traditional "lockstep" pay scale. In this scheme, a physics grad has to be paid the same as a phys-ed major if both have the same tenure in the classroom, and a teacher whose students make remarkable gains each year gets rewarded no differently than one whose students languish. Second, it has to be easy to fire the awful teachers that are blighting the lives of a million poor children.

Miller’s language is perhaps over the top—teachers in low-income schools aren’t all "awful," and even many of the substandard ones might well turn into above-average teachers with a little more mentoring and training and support.

But somewhere in there, the outlines of a new deal for teachers seem to be forming: more money for less job security. Will this deal appeal to teachers themselves? That’s a separate question—more thoughts on it soon.

Sept. 2 2008 11:50 AM

Welcome to the Blog

For the month of September, Slate has invited me to blog about schools, education reform, parenting, and poverty. I’m an editor at the New York Times Magazine , where I’ve written cover stories, in recent years, on school reform in New Orleans , on the achievement gap and charter schools , and on the Harlem Children’s Zone . I’m also the author of a new book , Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America , that will be published next week.

I fell into these subjects more or less by accident—I started reporting on Geoff and his project simply because I found his ideas on poverty so intriguing. But as I worked on this book over the last five years, I came to appreciate that I had stumbled into a particularly fertile moment in education, with heated political debates, surprising scholarship, and promising initiatives underway around the country.

I’m hoping to use this blog over the month as a place to explore some of those ideas and developments, as well as news from the presidential campaign and elsewhere. If you’ve got comments or suggestions for me along the way, please send them to me at . Thanks for reading.