Testing the Teachers Part 1: The Carrot

This afternoon, the president of our teachers’ union (herself a former classroom teacher at this site) came by for a pulse check and information exchange.  Hugs were exchanged, fliers distributed.  One teacher brought two bags of junk food, which were served as befits such Teacher Democracy: first, a vote was taken to determine which bag opened first, and then everyone mocked the grammatically incorrect name of one of the snack foods.  (Blazin’ Buffalo AND Ranch Doritos implies two flavors, does it not?  How exactly do you make a snack chip taste like a buffalo?)

The conversation was spirited and timely.  On a local level, we’re in the midst of contract talks; on a national level, it seems like education is in the spotlight in some very strange ways.  The meme of the hour has been “blame the bad teachers”, which is pretty much a textbook example of scapegoating.  Except many of us don’t actually have our textbooks yet, in late September, but alas, I digress.

Among the things we talked about were how we, as individual teachers in one specific district, connect to the rhetoric around us–how we can better inform ourselves about what is truly a national crisis point in education.  Yesterday, our union president participated in a national online forum on teacher pay and evaluation, and was simultaneously distressed and inspired to hear from hundreds of colleagues reacting in similar ways to similar issues.   Across the country, the script our country reads from is so disarmingly simple: fire bad teachers.  Pay more to the good ones.  But when you really spend some time where the rubber meets the road, you see beyond the scapegoating.  Fewer heroes.  Fewer villains.  And a much less clear way out.

I remember Ofelia, my autism guru and unofficial mentor teacher, a straight-shooting older woman, grizzled from a hard job and a hard life.  I went to her once when I was utterly at a loss with one of my students–couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t stop him hitting people, still hadn’t gone beyond “put one with one” in the discrete trial math program I’d xeroxed from her files.  I unloaded on her all my doubts and insecurities, all the thoughts I had about my own shortcomings with this population and how unable I felt even to pinpoint where , exactly, I was going wrong with this kid.  What could I change to make things go better?  What would happen to Ezra if I didn’t get it right?   Ofelia stopped me with a hand on my shoulder, forcing the eye contact that neither of us, as autism teachers, usually felt like demanding from others.  “Beth.  Get over it.  You’re just not that powerful.”

And Ezra?  Well, I finished up that year with him and burned out of the autism program entirely–in retrospect, this was largely because I took too much accountability for the progress of my students in a hopelessly difficult set of circumstances and simply lost the ability to keep treading water with that weight on my back.  Three years later, I learned that he (like two other students from that crazy year) had transferred in middle school from public to non-public placement because of the severity of the ongoing safety concerns he posed.  I didn’t fix him: I couldn’t fix him.   I wasn’t–we aren’t–that powerful.

If you’d paid me $15,000 to make it so, would Ezra have been a safer, calmer child?  I’m thinking of this right now because of a recent   Vanderbilt study on merit pay–the first randomized experiment to look into the impacts of compensating teachers more for improved student performance.  Jury’s in: it didn’t work.  There seemed to be a slight fifth grade bump among some of the subjects, but those kids tested no better than their peers by the end of sixth grade.  Over a million dollars later, the study concluded that merit pay, in that instance, didn’t do what either its supporters or detractors expected.  It neither poisoned the school culture nor improved student achievement; instead, “It simply did not do much of anything.”

A couple things fascinated me about this study.  One, the simple statement that, from the 296 initially enrolled, “attrition reduced the number of participating teachers to only 148”–with only one person leaving the study specifically because they no longer wanted to be in the study.  That means that, in three years,  Nashville lost almost exactly half of the middle school math teachers they started the study with.  Wonder what THAT did to student achievement?

Second, many commentators on the study raised an exceptionally cogent point: paying teachers to work harder on student achievement carries the assumption that teachers aren’t already working hard.  A representative from the Tennessee Education Association put it best: in order for that study to have shown growth tied to merit pay, “you’d have to have teachers who were saving their best strategies for an opportunity to get paid for them, and that is an absurd proposition.”

These, then, are some thoughts on the carrot–the premise that teachers will do “better” if you pay them more according to how students “perform” (scare quotes to indicate the absolute impossibility of concretely defining either term–hell, if you’ve got any extras lying around, stick them around “more” while you’re at it.)  I have some thoughts about the stick, as well, but I’m saving that for another post.

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