Performing School Reform Backwards

An anonymous poster has challenged my defense of school unions (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) in three separate posts, ad his/her arguments are worthy of a serious response. He/she has no qualms about calling me "whining" and "greedy", so I think it's a good thing the posts were anonymous, so I can avoid the temptation to return fire in kind. The poster makes some claims which I can agree with, some which need to be refuted, and poses a larger question that should be addressed.

First off, the poster claims that because teachers are fired at a much lower rate than other professionals, this proves teachers unions are an impediment to getting rid of bad teachers. This simply doesn't follow. I don't know about the situation where the poster lives, and I can't defend New York's infamous "rubber room" model, but where I teach the process to fire a teacher is pretty straight-forward. A teacher would need to be identified as under-performing by an administrator. This doesn't differ from the model in the private business world, where a boss would do an evaluation and tell an employee they need to improve to maintain their employment. Then, they would be put on what is called a "plan of assistance", in which the areas of improvement would be identified, and the teacher would have a chance to show that they have improved. If the teacher failed to improve, they would be fired. The union negotiates the mechanism by which this is to be done, but does not try to prevent it from being implemented. Teachers know we have under-performing teachers in our midst, and we know they make our jobs harder. Teachers compose the teachers unions. We want bad teachers out. The problem is that identifying bad teachers takes time. A round of bad test scores does not show that a teacher is ineffective. Perhaps the class had low skills to begin with. Just as in the private sector, a real performance review would have to be done to see if a firing would make the organization more efficient, or if it would just be a reaction to a hiccup in the market which has nothing to do with a particular employee and would thus make the whole school or company, less effective because of the loss of talent. But administrators rarely use this mechanism. Why not? Partly, it's because it takes so much time and energy. That's not the union's fault. Identifying the effectiveness of employees takes a lot of time and energy for private sector companies, too. But they do it, or they fail. So why don't administrators? I have a theory.

But before we get to that, the poster also defends our current grading system by saying that colleges need it, and regardless of the fact that grades might be inflated, grades show who the high performers in a class were. The problem with this is that it's simply not true. It might work, if all grades were inflated equally, but when they aren't, a college can't tell if one school's valedictorian will be as successful as another school's. The grades don't tell colleges or employers what a student is capable of doing. The poster challenges me to propose a better system. I can't claim to have thought of this myself, but I'm a firm believer in what is called proficiency based grading. Imagine a college (or the student's teacher the following year) looking at his or her B grade. That might mean 1) the student did 80% of the paperwork, regardless of how meaningful the work was, or 2) the student scored 80% on tests which are different from the tests given elsewhere or 3) the teacher liked the student, but not as much as the kid who got an A, or 4) the teacher had a recurring illness and the substitute gave everyone a B, or 5) something else which might be equally arbitrary. Proficiency based grading produces a report card that looks very different. It identifies specific skills. Then, the teacher assigns a score to each one (something along the lines of Exceeds, Meets, Not Yet Met). The list of skills is long and can be scaled up to match expectations determined by the state or even across the nation. Now the college or next teacher has a concrete idea of what that student can actually do. This certainly is more time consuming for teachers, but it also saves a lot of time in the beginning of instruction, when teachers have to figure out what kids are capable of doing again each year. What is the impediment to this system? If you give that long report card to parents, by and large they ignore all the skills their students have mastered, and all the ones they lack, and ask the teacher for a letter grade. Colleges, similarly, want a GPA, regardless of its meaninglessness, rather than discrete knowledge of specific skills. Identifying what kids can and can't do needs to be a serious part of any discussion about school reform. But blaming teachers unions is a lot easier.

The poster also makes reference to the tenure system. This is a common misconception, and comes from a confusion about teachers and college professors. Public school teachers, at least in Oregon, don't have anything called "tenure". For the first three years or employment, a teacher can be fired without any reason or explanation at all. That's called the probationary period. After that time, a teacher can be fired after going through that process I described above. Or they can be fired for doing something unethical. Those firings can take place whether a teacher has been teaching for four years or thirty-five. There is a lot of good research that shows that experience makes a huge difference in teacher quality. I can tell you, anecdotally, that I'm a hell of a lot better teacher now than I was during my probationary period. But the length of my service provides me no added protection if I were to slack off and stop providing my students with high quality instruction.

One area where the poster and I agree is that "teaching is extraordinarily difficult and there are lower barriers to entry." This is caused by a simple supply and demand problem. We need lots and lots of people to do something that we both recognize as extraordinarily difficult. But the poster is also opposed to paying teachers more money (we are "greedy", after all). So, what is the solution? We could raise the barriers to entry. I had to get a masters degree to get into teaching. I paid a ridiculous amount for that degree (much of which is my own stupid fault for believing that the quality of the degree and its corresponding respect from potential employers would be affected by the reputation of the extremely expensive private university I attended). I had to take expensive tests to get my license. And yet, there's good research that is leading some school reformers to believe that, after a certain point, a teacher's educational level and test scores have little bearing on their actual performance in the classroom. So if we can't adequately predict who will make a good teacher based on test scores or education, how can we put up higher barriers to entry? These barriers would keep good teachers out as well as bad ones, according to the current research, but would prevent us from meeting the needed supply. I don't have a magic bullet on this one. Free marketers would claim that more money would solve the problem, but clearly our economy cannot bear the weight of paying teachers like hedge-fund managers. So, how can we encourage our best and brightest to go into teaching? Some countries do this by making the profession highly respected. I'm not sure if that would work, and it would certainly take a while to make such a cultural change, but if we can agree that it's at least cheaper than trying to price good teachers into meeting the supply needs so that we can more easily afford to fire the bad ones, then blaming the problems of public education on teachers unions (teachers) is a really bad way to encourage anyone to go into the field.

Before I really get into the nitty-gritty, I have to address this claim, too: The poster thinks I'm "complaining about being paid more than your private sector counterparts for working 3/4 as much time (plus 2 fewer hours a day, at least) and having the opportunity to make even more working over the summer." This shows a wildly inaccurate conception of a teacher's hours. I was complaining that some ignorant people believe that teachers get lots of paid vacation, when, in fact, we are not paid for the summers or breaks during the year. I didn't say we didn't work during those times. Nor did I say we work two fewer hours per day than our private sector counterparts. I'm not sure where the poster is from, but I don't work forty hours a week, and just because I don't get paid during the summers or holidays doesn't mean I'm not working. For example, this summer I spent that time the poster believes I could have been working taking 9 graduate credits of continuing education. Taking graduate courses is required to maintain my license. When I wasn't in class, I was developing curriculum for my own courses. During the year, I spend exorbitant amounts of time grading after school and during "breaks". In fact, last year, while our school was under construction, I stepped out of my classroom on Christmas Eve and saw that the welders were hard at work on the beams that hold up the high school's new roof. For a moment, I took comfort that I wasn't the only one working at school on Christmas Eve. Then I realized that those guys were not only being paid, but were probably getting time and a half, maybe even double time. I was not being paid at all. Now, despite what some might think, I'm actually not whining. I used to work for Merril Lynch, selling stocks and bonds. I made a lot more money and worked a lot fewer hours in the private sector. And I hated it. I chose this profession, and I do it because I enjoy it, and I'm good at it. But please, please, don't believe for a minute that teachers work from the start of the school day to the end and that's it. In fact (speaking of low barriers of entry) the only person who dropped out of my masters cohort was the guy who realized just how many more hours he'd have to work to be successful in teaching than his job as a bank loan officer (where he made more money). One of the reasons teachers unions try so hard to negotiate for more pay is not because we're greedy, but because we want to be paid a fair hourly wage that corresponds to that of our private sector peers who work many fewer hours than we do. My first year (and the first year of teaching is, admittedly, and outlier because it's so difficult) I was working twelve hours a day almost every day, and when I calculated my hourly rate of pay it came to around eleven bucks an hour. Tell me a private sector employee with a masters degree putting in twelve hour days for eleven bucks an hour wouldn't be asking his boss for a raise.

Okay, now to the grand unifying theory that explains why teachers (good or bad) don't get fired, why we can't come up with a magic bullet for falling test scores and increasing drop out rates, why school reform is stuck in an intractable blame game: We don't know what we want teachers to accomplish. I can't take credit for this theory. It comes from a friend who teaches teachers at a Willamette University. In fact, I wouldn't be completely surprised if he didn't post the anonymous comments, playing up their aggressive tone and repeating arguments he knows to be baseless just to bait me into responding. Fine, Neil, I'll repeat your theory: We can't figure out how to fix our schools because we can't agree on what they're supposed to do. We can't determine which teachers are "good" or "bad" because we can't even agree on what they are supposed to do. The poster brings up the successes of students in India (an example I frequently cite in my classes to remind my students who they will be competing against). Is it my job to make my students as motivated as Indian students are when they walk through the door? Is it my job to make sure the students are as pressured by their parents as those Indian students, perhaps by calling parents and harassing them somehow? Should I focus all my energy on making sure my students can fill in the right bubbles on multiple choice tests which may have little or no relation to the kinds of tasks they will face in college or in the workforce? Should I teach them to be critical thinkers who refuse to evaluate themselves based on numbers handed down from the government? Should I make sure they can get into a prestigious university? Should I prepare them to be successful in blue collar jobs which might be vanishing before they graduate? Should I teach them my politics, my culture, or my religious preference? If not, am I inculcating them with my political, cultural, or religious values when I tell them that education is the key to success, or that work should be done on time, or that they should follow school rules? Should I teach them to respect authority by running my classroom in an authoritarian fashion, or should I adopt the "coaching" model and allow students to direct their own learning so that they learn autonomy? Should I teach them that money is how work is measured in our society and model this by leaving school when the contract day ends and refusing to work in the evenings or during the summer, or should I teach them that money and work are disconnected and undermine these future drivers of our capitalist system? Should I prepare them to take a U.S. history test written in Massachusetts or in Texas? Should I teach them to produce the kind of writing that actually gets printed, or to write in the formulaic way that gets a high score when it's graded by a computer program?

Without answers to these questions, we can't easily distinguish good teachers from bad ones, successful schools from failing ones, or even evaluate the success of the system as a whole. The poster argues that the "law of large numbers ensures that with appropriate statistical analysis it is entirely possible to measure the performance of individual teachers." This reminds me of the scene in The Hitckhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when the universe's most advanced computer is asked the meaning to life, the universe, and everything, and responds with the answer "42". We could use statistical analysis if we understood the question, but there is no numerical measure for "good" or "bad", "successful" or "failing", when we can't even agree on what these terms mean.

So, dear poster, before you claim teachers (and you'll understand when I take that personally) have "failed America's students" and are responsible for "how much damage they have done to America's future due to their intransigent profligacy," I would expect that you have a bullet-proof and universally acceptable answer to the question of what we should be doing differently.

But if your answer is "Work harder for less and shut up," I hope you will reveal your name and some details I can use to personalize my next (far less polite) response.

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part IV

4. Teachers stand in the way of school reform.

Bunk. You tell me there’s a book I can read that will make me a better teacher; I’ll read it. You tell me there’s a conference (during my summer “vacation”) and you’ll send me there, without paying me, because it will make me a better teacher? I’ll go. I want school reform. I’m desperate for it. Just one caveat: You have to be as serious about improving the education of my students as I am, because your kids are precious, their time is precious, and my time is… well, you buy my time cheap, but the point stands.

So far, most efforts labeled “school reform” simply aren’t serious.

If we really wanted to improve student performance, we wouldn’t give kids three months to forget what they’ve learned followed by a month to review what they’d forgotten in each calendar year.

We wouldn’t delude ourselves that measuring one tenth grader’s test score against another tenth grader’s test score tells us anything of value about an individual tenth grader. Testing would measure improvement of an individual student over time, and the students would have access not just to a numeric score, but to the answers they got right and wrong, so they could actually learn from the testing experience. If we’re more concerned about protecting the property rights of the multi-million dollar test making corporations than we are about kids’ learning, we aren’t serious about school reform.

We would stop using A,B,C,D, and F as measures of student performance. They are ridiculous. They’re arbitrary, inconsistent, and subject to inflation. Worse, a D means a student has not mastered the content to a satisfactory level, but we’re sending him on to the next grade anyway. Today’s D is tomorrow’s F. Why do we use this terrible, cruel system? Because when a school tries to switch, two things happen: Parents want any description of their child’s performance translated back into a letter grade they can understand, and colleges want a GPA for admissions purposes. If we’re more interested in satisfying parents with meaningless letters and with providing colleges with fuzzy data than we are in accurately describing what an individual kid can accomplish, we aren’t really serious.

We would stop funding school by localities. It’s absolutely backwards. The kids who live in the largest houses, with the best educated parents, get to go to schools with the largest budgets. The kids who don’t have enough food to eat and may not have a single book in their home go to schools with the least means to support them. School reform initiatives that don’t address this aren’t serious.

We would give up on the stupid idea of local control. I have yet to hear a single good argument for the benefit of local control of schools. Sure, there’s the hysterical paranoid notion that the evil federal government is going to make all our kids into communist robots. Um, that falls squarely in the “not serious” column. Let’s look at the reality: Local control means a school board of elected officials who may not know a thing about education are chosen from a given community to determine what kids should learn. Despite all their good intentions, they have to spend a massive amount of their time and energy trying to keep their schools in good standing with state and federal law, and with the requirements of universities, who don’t care about what small town their students come from. In exchange for all this work, school boards can’t possibly identify a single bit of knowledge that students from our small town need in order to be successful in the working work which isn’t also essential for kids from the next small town, or the nearest metropolis. Can you imagine a major chain retailer designing itself with a CEO, a CFO, a complete board of directors, a human resources department, and an independent product line in every town where it intended to compete? I want my small town restaurants to have a unique flavor, and my small town bookstore to have a proprietor who really loves books rather than a Walmart stock-boy working on his GED, but my school does not need to provide students with different facts than any other school in this country. Can somebody please explain the merits of “local control” to me, beyond paranoid dystopic fantasy? Please?

I could go on and on about the ways our reform efforts have been piecemeal, cosmetic, political posturing, or blatant union busting maneuvers, but the one thing they haven’t been is serious, comprehensive efforts to make our schools truly competitive with our international competitors. I remind my kids every year that India has a billion people, and that their kids work harder in school, study more at night, have a longer school year, and read and write better in English than we do. Oh, and they’re multilingual. Then I ask my students, if they owned a company and could choose between an employee from India who would work for half as much, or the kid sitting next to them in my class, who would they hire? Without fail, they say they would hire the Indian student. But we continue to complain about jobs going overseas. We aren’t serious.

Education is investment. Teachers, underpaid and underutilized, have already proven themselves willing to make sacrifices for our children’s, and our nation’s, future. Complaining about unions is a means to avoid talking about the realities of the challenges we face. It’s a pathetic blame-game, and that’s a posture for people and nations who lose.

Tomorrow, Myth #5: Teachers unions prevent effective merit pay systems from being put in place.