Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Racing to the Top"...of What, Again?

Let me give you a scenario. I'm going to use baseball, because sports analogies are the ones that work best for me, but you should feel free to substitute any other business you are familiar with. Please bear with me; I promise this is going somewhere.

A minor league ballclub hires you to be its manager. You've accrued enough experience, obtained solid credentials and references, nailed the interview, so they give you the job. You assume they hired you because you're creative, knowledgeable, competent, a good communicator, and a leader. You've got a lot of plans for how to make the team better.

However, on your first day on the job, you're told you're not going to be evaluated on any of these qualities. Your salary and job security rely solely on your ability to get your team to do one thing well: bunt.

You're not pleased with this. You know that bunting is important, and you were definitely going to allot significant time to teaching that skill- it's one of the fundamentals of the game, after all. But it's clearly not everything. There's a lot more to managing a baseball team than teaching players how to bunt, or even just how to hit in general.

It doesn't matter. The owner tells you that your acumen as a manager will be determined by how well your players bunt during a designated two-week span late in the year. Not the whole season: just this two-week window.

Here's where it gets even crazier. Naturally, you're going to have some players who are already pretty good at bunting, some who struggle, and a lot in between. Some of them will get better over the course of the season and some won't. Your first inclination would be to get rid of the ones who aren't coming around, right? After all, their bunting skills (or lack thereof) are determining your paycheck (or lack thereof).

No, the owner says. You're stuck with the ones you've got. Can't cut any of them, no matter how bad or disinterested at mastering the skill that will define you as a coach they may be. Don't get any ideas about trading for better bunters, either. Some teams have better bunters to start with, some have worse. That's just the luck of the draw.

Ok then, you think. You just won't let them play when you're being evaluated. You'll only put your greatest bunters out there, the ones who've responded to instruction best, during that two-week window.

Wrong again, the owner responds. They've all gotta play, and you're judged on how well they all do as a group.

You try to plead with him. Lots of them just don't give a damn about bunting, and there's nothing you can do to make them. They want to hit home runs, steal bases, make diving catches. Bunting is tedious, and they just don't care about getting better at it. Hell, some of them don't seem to even want to play baseball at all. They care more about ogling girls, spitting sunflower seeds, and planning how much weed they're going to smoke after practice. There is a sizable contingent that simply refuses to bunt, no matter what you say or do to them.

The owner is deaf to your pleas. Then comes the kicker: While you will be assessed completely based on how well your team bunts during their bunting challenge, the players themselves will not be affected at all, no matter how poorly or amazingly they perform.

Would you want to manage a team if you had to play by those rules? Or, to put it more generally, would you want to be in charge of a company where you had no input as to who's hired or fired? Where your performance would be based only on how well your employees grade out on an assessment that they not only have little-to-no impetus to prepare for, but also no reward nor punishment for how well they do on it?

It sounds ludicrous when put in those terms, doesn't it?

But this is basically what the proponents of merit pay for teachers are proposing. I can understand why. The education system has some pretty significant problems (although I'd suggest that there's still a lot more good than bad being done- the routine successes are just not as exciting as the tales of tragedy and failure). We all want accountability, someone to blame when things go wrong.

I'll be the first to admit that there are bad teachers out there. There are also bad doctors, bad chefs, and bad toll booth operators. People also have a point when they claim teachers acquire too much job security too quickly. I know of a few cases at my school where the students and the school would benefit from letting go of an incompetent teacher, but the obstacles to firing them were too great.

However, the biggest reason that these low-performing teachers make it to tenure is because there's so little competition for their low-paying, high-stress jobs. It's easy for a principal to get rid of an instructor in that teacher's first couple years. It's much harder to fill his/her shoes with someone who's going to do a better job, especially in math and science.

Merit pay, coming to the fore again under Obama's new "Race to the Top" education proposal, is popular with the general public. Not only does it give people a false sense of rewarding "good" teachers while penalizing "bad" ones, it lends itself to one of the great American pastimes, union bashing, when teachers' associations resist the idea.

Look, the teachers just want to get paid for holding their jobs another year! They don't care about the kids or how good a job they're doing! They just want to hide behind their union and pocket those lucrative paychecks!

In order to clarify why merit pay (at least the way it's been proposed so far, which is based on standardized test results) is a terrible idea, allow me to drop the analogy and clarify the realities of being a teacher:

1. You don't get to choose the classes you teach (although seniority generally dictates how closely your preferences are met). Some of us teach honors, some of us teach remedial, most of us are in the middle somewhere. Some years we have a batch of kids who are great, some years they're worse. Teaching isn't like any other profession. We're stuck (or blessed) with what we get, and we make do.

Teaching is also not like in the movies. There are no Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers scenarios where you can turn a whole, disinterested class around. You might be able to move one or two students per year significantly one way or the other, tops. Mostly, though, they come to you at a certain level, and they leave at roughly the same level, and frustratingly, there's very little you can do to vastly improve them. You give them the necessary tools they need to move on, you hope you can impart some wisdom, perspective, skills, and intellectual curiosity onto them, and that's it.

This isn't to say some of us aren't better at it and some worse, but think about it: I'll bet you got about the same grades throughout high school in each subject, regardless of your teacher.

And yes, it's true. Their performance on the standardized tests does not affect students in any way. My district has been trying to put the results on their transcripts (which still wouldn't mean much, but it would be a small step) for years, but the parents (who can also excuse their children from the tests; you'd be surprised how often they do) have opposed it. Talk about accountability.

2. Speaking of the parents, if you read the excellent book Freakonomics, you will see analysis shows that teachers/schools have very little to do with standardized test scores. The results are nearly entirely dictated by parent income/education level. If parents have higher expectations for their kids, the kids generally do better. That's it. No mysteries. When we lament the state of education, why don't the parents of our nation's children ever come up as being a source of the problem?

If you'll permit me an anecdote, several years back I was considering switching districts so I could start making the really big bucks. I interviewed at Miramonte High School in Orinda, owners of some of the best test scores in California, much better than anything in the district I was coming from.

I asked what literature textbook they used, and they looked at me quizzically. You see, at my school we had been getting pushed to do more exercises out of the lit book, because it was aligned to the standards and thus would prepare kids to do better on the test. Miramonte said they didn't use a textbook, only novels (no standardized worksheets included with those).

How could this be? They seemingly didn't drill taking the test, but they were doing much better on it than at my school, where it was a stated priority. If you know the East Bay, you'll know the answer is as simple as buying a house in Pleasant Hill vs. buying one in Orinda. Hint: Schoolteachers can't afford to buy houses in Orinda.

3. Teachers are collaborative; a competitive system would give them reason not to help each other out. Suddenly, if I'm vying with Mr. Johnson for dollars, am I more or less inclined to share the awesome lesson plan I made about teaching Romeo and Juliet? Does this benefit the students or impair them?

This would be particularly harmful to new teachers, who must steal at least 80% of material from others, or they simply won't survive. Forty-eight percent of teachers never make it past three years on the job because they're overwhelmed. Without fellow teacher support, that number goes up. Again, who is going to replace them? I hear a lot of people talking about what an awful job we're doing, but I don't see many in line to replace us.

Add to this the possibility of widespread fraud. How's this for insanity? We'd be the ones supervising the tests, and the ones to whom the results matter most. There are myriad instances of teachers cheating in situations where the test scores affected their jobs. They either helped students with the answers or erased and filled in the right ones themselves (thanks to Freakonomics for this info, again).

I know the argument will follow that just because teachers could easily cheat doesn't negate the idea of merit pay. But how could we ever know whose test scores are real and whose are enhanced, as long as the teachers are the ones handling the evidence? The pressure would be on to keep up with one's colleagues. In addition, there's simply no money to proctor the exam any other way.

4. The reason I compared the standardized tests (in California, it's called the "STAR") to bunting in baseball is because although it's used as the be-all, end-all of student performance for lack of other quantifiable evidence, it's not the focus of our daily routine (and here I speak mostly for English teachers). According to some, it should be. If it ever happened that teaching to the test exclusively or almost exclusively became the mandate, I'm fairly certain that I would leave the profession, and I think I speak for a lot of other teachers as well.

Again, think back to your own schooling experiences. Would you have wanted your everyday English class to replicate the STAR test? Just reading Reader's Digest-sized excerpts and then answering questions about the selection? Figuring out which of the four sentences is grammatically correct? Choosing the word that best fills in the blank? Because that's all the STAR test is, a series of multiple choice questions, spread over a two-week period.

Unbelievably, there is no writing on the exam. The STAR is theoretically to be aligned to the standards, about half of which are writing, and that's not even measured.

I tend to believe there are lots of things that multiple choice can't measure. Like Shakespeare's delightfully bawdy wordplay. Like learning about empathy from Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Like John Proctor's impassioned speech, explaining why he'd rather hang for being a witch than lose his name's integrity. Like Holden's voice as he rambles around New York City, an adolescent trying to find his place in the world. Like Huck learning the nature of friendship from a slave named Jim, pant cuffs rolled up, floating lazily along the Mississippi.

Think back now. Did any of those things make a difference in the type of person you are today, or was it your performance on a multiple choice, state-issued test? Did the teachers you considered as having the most positive impact on your life spend a lot of reading 250-word excerpts and then answering questions about the passage's main idea? Did you learn the most from an instructor who told you to turn to page whatever in your textbook and fill out the standardized worksheet, or was it someone who made these stories come to life and explained their relevance to our own existence?

How on earth does merit pay measure that?


Jonathan said...

I am leaving a comment, mainly to receive a pat on the back for reading to the end.

I agree with everything you said (seriously, and I was looking for things on which to be snarky..;-)..). Merit pay is, IMO, just too complicated to do well (too many variables in terms of inputs, as you reference).

Libertarians might argue that the issue is having a government-run educational system. I think there is merit in having choice and making the parent the "consumer", but I've never seen a good model for how it might work (vouchers in DC are apparently popular with parents, but haven't shown any difference in educational achievement).

IMO, I still think additional use of technology in the classroom is something that needs to be explored in a more sophisticated way. It may not work well for English, but I would think that an immersive, interactive Tomb Raider- or World of Warcraft-like game could teach kids a lot in the areas of math(s), science, history, geography etc. if it were done correctly. In practically every other area of industry, apart from education and health care, technological advancements have increased productivity and reduced costs.

Nolan said...

Pat pat pat. Thanks, mate. I like your ideas at the end as well. There are a lot of things we could try if we had more money. Sigh.

Jessica said...

I agree with you on not teaching to the test. That would be a nightmare.

But there's got to be SOME way to reward teachers who are being innovative and creative and are reaching their students and imparting not only knowledge but the thirst for knowledge.

I had my share of tenured teachers who were just counting down the years to retirement, alongside the engaging and thought-provoking teachers who really cared about teaching students.

And it's not hard on any campus to pinpoint those teachers who are barely getting by...everyone knows who they are.

The process of tenure and the instititution of unions does tend to protect those few individuals (though, there's at least one on every campus) who just don't give a damn.