Friday, December 31, 2010

How much is a good teacher worth?

I was forwarded this article from the Huffington Post on the value of a good teacher.   I've been doing alot of thinking about this lately.   What is the value?    And does it do us any good to think of teachers in these market based terms?

How much is a good teacher worth? Some would say they're priceless, but recent findings in the National Bureau of Economic Research's The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality, is a bit more exact. The report, written by Eric A. Hanushek, suggests that quality teachers with 20 students are worth $400,000 more in the future earnings of their students than an average teacher, annually.
Should teachers think of their value in this way?   Should the public?  It's nice to think I might impart a little value on my students' lives.   However, I've never really considered it to be a pecuniary one.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist has spent some time considering these questions in one of his books, Predictably Irrational.   In chapter four on social norms, he considers the problem when social norms and market norms cross paths.   It's  a fascinating read that has me thinking about what I do at work and why I do it.   A summary of the chapter is below:

I know that there has been a lot of work put in to change the way society thinks of teachers.  Mostly it's been a market based approach.   Teachers after all, have long been undervalued in the market.   So to attack this inequity it makes sense to demand more compensation.   I appreciate that this path has lead to more pay for teachers.   I wouldn't be one if that were not the case.  However, I think there may also be some negative consequences of this framing.   Teachers are not quite revered in American society.   Was this different 30 years ago?   100 years ago?   I don't know.    Would the public think differently about teachers if they weren't constantly asked to think about teachers' salaries?   What about teachers?  I do not think we want teachers thinking about their hourly or minutely contributions in terms of it's market value.   This leads teachers to come late and leave early.  But I think these are important questions to consider when thinking about evaluation systems that will create a better work place environment.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Testing and Evaluation

An interesting and balanced article in the New York Times today about  the practice of using student test data to rank teacher quality.   It's a practice that I believe has potential in the field of education, but also serious limitations.   My biggest concern, is that it is now used simply as a proxy for honest and robust evaluation, most likley because it is easy to use.  I can hear it now, "I don't want to let you go, but I can't ignore the data."  True feedback about effective teaching will not come on a printout derived from an algorithm.  Make no mistake, I believe teachers should be accountable, and that there needs to be serious coversations about the role of seniority and tenure within the field of education.   We need to understand what makes a quality teacher, and how quality teachers are different from less effective teachers. Testing may be a part of how we come to that understanding.   But it should not be a replacement.  To a large extent, I feel the current emphasis on testing is the result of resistance by teacher unions to offer up more cost effective and robust solutions that are available.   Create that system, and the need for testing and the negative externalities associated with testing diminish if not disappear.

Here's a bit from the Times' article:

“I feel as though I don’t exist,” she said last Monday, looking up from playing a vocabulary game with her students.

Down the hall, Deirdre Corcoran, a fifth-grade teacher, received a ranking for a year when she was out on child-care leave. In three other classrooms at this highly ranked school, fourth-grade teachers were ranked among the worst in the city at teaching math, even though their students’ average score on the state math exam was close to four, the highest score.

“If I thought they gave accurate information, I would take them more seriously,” the principal of P.S. 321, Elizabeth Phillips, said about the rankings. “But some of my best teachers have the absolute worst scores,” she said, adding that she had based her assessment of those teachers on “classroom observations, talking to the children and the number of parents begging me to put their kids in their classes.”

More thoughtful conversation about VAM over at Stories from School.   A conversation that makes me that much more confident that if teacher-leaders made decisions about school reform, we'd be much better off than we are now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some common sense

The reform movement has focused so far on  student testing as a way to evaluate the quality of teaching.  Through the use of value-added methodology, teachers can be evaluated based on the "additional learning" they contribute to a students overall progress.   It controls for out of school factors such as family income and race in order to try and isolate the teacher effect on student learning.   While still imperfect, the process is able to "rank" teachers' effectiveness, albeit with a rather broad range of uncertainty.

This testing based approach has so far been received with a rather wide degree of skepeticism from many teachers and their unions who represent them.   And increased reliance on testing is indeed laced with problems.   States often don't have the quality of resources to make high quality tests.    Testing takes time- often at the expense of instruction.    And high-stakes testing also has the effect of narrowing the focus of instruction.

However, as I read this article from the value-added proponent LA Times, it struck me that if teachers and their unions were able to come up with their own system for determing teacher quality- this testing fetish would likely go just as fast as it came.   The fact of the matter, is that the public, as well as many teachers, are ready to consider the quality of teaching that is going on inside of school buildings.   Too many parents have had bad experiences with ineffective teachers.   Too many teachers know that not every teacher works as hard as the next.   And too many administrators know what teachers and parents know but are unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it.   Testing takes these stakeholders out of the equation.   Testing provides an "objective" approach for evaluatiing teachers.

If teachers want to avoid the testing wave, they must embrace their own systems of reform.   We must embrace evaluation systems that offer more than a dichotomous satisfactory/unsatisfactory rating system.   We must encourage and strive for excellence in the classroom- and reward those who are not only the highest quality, but who take on extra responsibilities.    We can no longer simply ignore teacher quality, unless that is, we want our quality to be determined by student performance on a test.   We do so at our own peril.

Quality teaching matters- much more so than new programs or initiatives.   So the question is, do we want to recognize this quality or have someone else, or something else, do this for us?  From the LA Times:

Since 2003, Markham has had dozens of the district's least effective instructors, as measured by the analysis of their students' progress on standardized tests. Seventy percent of the school's English and math teachers have ranked well below the Los Angeles Unified School District's average in effectiveness. Fewer than 10 Markham teachers have been in the district's top 20%, and most left the school within three years.

There are thousands of Markhams across the country, schools whose low test scores have triggered wave after wave of reform efforts over decades, mostly in vain.

"It's not a lack of new initiatives, it's too many initiatives, and no sense of what's working," said Robert Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C., think tank Education Sector who has studied turnaround efforts at Markham and other schools. "They don't use data to inform those decisions — they use a gut feeling or get marching orders from higher up."

 The LA Times, rightly or wrongly, can make claims about teacher quality in a way that teachers can't.   It is time for this to change.  It is time for teachers to decide what quality teaching is.   And when we do, not only will teachers be better off, but the public and the students we serve will be better off.   The choice is ours.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Where the Teacher Unions will go

Here's a little bit from Professor Gary Anderson of New York University that I found at the Huffington Post.   Where might the future of education and unions lie?   According to Anderson, with Peer Asssitance and Review (PAR):

So teachers unions must continue to defend teachers' wages, benefits, and pensions, but they will be vulnerable to attack if they allow themselves to be defined as roadblocks to innovation and protectors of bad teachers. Perhaps more ominous, many working class Americans who failed to protect their private sector unions are now turning on teachers, whom they view as overpaid and with fat pensions.

One approach that has begun to change the image of teachers unions is Peer-Assisted Review or PAR. It involves peer evaluation of teachers that addresses teacher induction and development as well as due process issues. The peer evaluator and teacher meet with a board made up of district administrators and union officials who ultimately decide on the outcome of the peer-evaluation. This system not only allows for a more collegial form of evaluation and support, but also involves both the district and the union in decisions about teacher quality. This system has also been shown to be more effective at identifying incompetent teachers and either making them better or moving them out of the system. More in depth information on PAR can be found in Jennifer Goldstein's book, Peer Review and Teacher Leadership: Linking Professionalism and Accountability, and on the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.
PAR may be the future, but the steps taken so far in Montgomery County fall woefully short of an effective system.   The foundation is in place, but we have not taken the next steps to strengthen it.   The best way to stregthen it would be for Montgomery County co cut administrators out of the evaluative process altogether.   They are unable to offer supports that teachers need.   They are unable "to show" teachers how to teach.      They are unable to use the PAR process as it was intended, because they find it too tedius to place teachers in the system.   The system needs to be implemented by teachers from beginning to end.  It needs to be  more complete and continuous.  Trust me when I say this: if teachers were in charge, the evaluation process would be far more effective than it is now.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jerry Weast on Evaluation

Superintendent of Schools Jerry Weast on evaluations in Montgomery County (with thanks for the Parent's Coalition for bringing it to my attention):

Attitude reflects leadership

National Board Certified teacher, David Cohen, recently left the following comment on my blog.   David is part of a group of accomplished teachers who write a policy blog out in California.   We have been having a conversation about, well, conversation.    We both agree that teacher evaluation systems around the U.S. need some revamping.   The question that we have been exploring, I suppose, is how we communicate and accomplish that goal.  Here is my response to his original comments:

A part of our disagreement, I believe, is that like many of us, I write a local blog in the context of a more national discussion on reform.   Montgomery County, where I teach, has traditionally been considered a rather progressive union (loaded phrase). Our professional growth system is based on the 5 National Board Standards plus a 6th (professionalism). We have a peer evaluation system in place for novice and tenured teachers who receive an unsatisfactory evaluation. However, what this means in theory and practice are often two different things.  In theory, principals refer teachers to the peer evaluation system when the need arises.  In practice, few tenured teachers are given an opportunity to take advantage of the system.   It is viewed as a punishment- and a way of removing teachers- not helping them develop.  Meanwhile, we still continue to utilize a seniority system that does not effectively encourage or reward professional growth.  I feel the pulls of mediocredom every day.  

Now, I can go into my union and suggest subtle changes to the system but unless we can come to agreement that there is a problematic culture in place we're not going to be able to attack the serious issues that are preventing us from moving forward. I've said this before to you, but when there is more incentive to coach football after school than to develop mastery lessons- there exists a problematic culture. That's not to say that after school activities are not an important part of being a teacher- I used to coach myself- and personal relationship building is a crucial part of teaching- however, when coaching is valued more than a quality lesson- something is amiss. How do we encourage teachers to meet regularly, to observe each other, and to think about taking their teaching to an uncomfortable place? It's funny, but the one thing that the Tennessee study on performance pay concluded- of all things- was that teachers in the study were more likely to collaborate:
The only other significant differences were in collaborative activities, with treatment teachers replying that they collaborated more on virtually every measured dimension. 
They wanted to see what was so "good" about teacher x.... even though they didn't really believe that the tests their students took accurately measured how effective a teacher they were.   Now, we can argue over whether "merit pay" is the way to go, but I think there is a more important point here.   When we value quality teaching, we are more likely to take efforts to become quality.  If we have "master" teachers who are paid more, or who are even just recognized as a master without the extra pay- people will be more inclined to look at that teacher and figure out how to become one. You don't learn how to become a teacher when an interloper comes into your class and tells you how you could do it better. You become a better teacher when you reflect about your practice. I think there is no better way to do that than to watch high quality instruction. Unfortunately, I don't know of many places where instructional leaders are in a classroom, let alone in a classroom with an open door policy.

Now- perhaps this doesn't excuse the way I beat the drum on issues of seniority. I've been accused of attacking veteran teachers.   I've been accused of being pompous.  And I see how some may interpret my ideas in this way.   But when you go to a union and ask for change you best not go with a purple feather duster in your hand (mine at home is purple).

That said- I'm often offended by the way my union defends our current professional growth system as a "model system"  to be destroyed by RTTP reforms. The implication is that there is no way to improve our system- which I passionately resent.    We defend, defend, and defend.   If we reflected half as much as we defended we'd be much better off.   Many of the wonderful teachers in my and other buildings agree that seniority is a problem.   However they are not apt to engage in a fight to change.   Do these teachers have a voice?   Or does it take the Rhees and Kleins and Duncans of the world to make that point for us?

So I suppose I'll put away my drum when I feel like we're headed in the right direction.  I admit that may be to my own detriment.   But I will certainly consider my messaging- because I believe in due process- and I believe in professional growth- and I believe in teachers.  And perhaps my drum is beating on the wrong points.

But let me just say this- and perhaps this is my downfall- most of my postings have been reactionary in nature: and attitude reflects leadership.  The lesson might be that I stop reading about my leaders and do more talking to them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What are we fighting about?

On April 15, 2010, a teacher whom I taught with in my days at Neelsville Middle School was murdered.   I didn't know Brian Betts very well.   But  Brian was one of those people.   If you were around him, you were impacted by him.

Eight or nine years ago, Brian forward me an editorial that appeared in the Gazzette regarding the "extreme" salaries paid to teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools.   Some lawyer from such and such who wrote a semi-regular column.      He went on to explain that teachers, when you added in their benefits, made some extraordinary amount of money, all at tax payer expense.  I was new to the system then, and had a strong emotional reaction to his argument.   I wrote a response based on the premise that I never would have been in education had it not been for the ability to make a livelihood - without the ability to raise a family.   At the time, MCPS was probably the only place in Maryland where teachers were compensated with relative fairness.    Simply put,  compensation was why I chose to teach.   It is why I ended up in Montgomery County.

I did not send my reply to the editors, but to Brian.    He said two words in a return email.   "Send it."

I didn't.

On April 16th I started this blog.   And I don't know much, but I do know this:  Our schools- MCPS, Maryland, the nation- they can do better.   I have no patience for grandstanding.    I have no patience for data manipulation used to distort truths or to reach individual ends.    Our schools are not bad.   Our teachers are not the enemies.  But if you're not improving, you're doing something else.  

So I ask, what are we doing to make our system better?   What are we doing to make teachers better?   Are we putting in place costly programs?   Or are we investing in the one in school factor proven to matter most: a quality teacher in every classroom.

It's time to make our schools better.   It's time to identify problems, and create solutions.   But we can't do that if we won't engage in an honest analysis of the problems.   Want to stop the emphasis on standardized testing?   Determine the problem- then proffer solutions.

Of course, I'm not sure that we all acknowledge the existence of a problem.    Obviously, the "reform" movement does.   This group of expert teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality does.   Many teachers I talk with do.  Could it be that ALL these people are simply anti-teacher? 

There's a need to push forward to improve our schools.   There is great work being done.  I see it everyday.   But there is need to think about how we can do it better.   I'm not talking about taking over schools, or firing people, or making sure everyone has a voucher.   I'm talking about ways to come together and make things better.

Teachers must do more than ask for more money and more benefits.  We must do more than claim we are under-appreciated (even if there is a degree of truth in these claims).   Instead, we must continuously monitor our own growth and consider how we can improve that system.   When we do that- the money and benefits will follow.    But first we must first build concensus on the problems.  Only then can we determine how to fix those problems.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A reply

My wife recently accused me of having the emotional IQ of an ant.  She is so generous.  David Cohen of InterACT, a group blog from Accomplished California Teachers, left this comment worthy of its own post.   He has more tact than my wife.   My response coming soon.

Hi Mike, On the broad strokes I agree with you. We need a change in those personnel practices in schools. However, my approach might be different. I'd suggest that the quest for a system that helps us fire bad teachers is the wrong approach. Instead, I'd ask what changes in evaluation practices will improve teaching and learning across the board. My answers are contained in the ACT report on teacher evaluation, which can be found at our website. (Not to suggest that I am the originator of those ideas, but rather that my opinions are reflected in the work that a large team of teachers put into that report). We want an evaluation system that is flexible, ongoing, and growth-oriented, one that helps each teacher identify and address aspects of their practice that need to improve. For schools currently evaluating most of their teachers on the "drive-by" model - an annual observation by an administrator who may or may not know your content area - this would represent an improvement that I submit would improve teaching and learning across the board. So you need to sell that step on its own merits. If you present the new system as the means of finding bad teachers, you inhibit the use of evaluation as an honest tool for improvement for all, because you encourage teachers to cover up or minimize any weakness. Okay - once you have a better evaluation system, then you can open negotiations on a number of matters of hiring and firing. Again, I wouldn't bill it as the new way to fire bad teachers, but rather, open up a spectrum. The teachers who excel in these evaluations and demonstrate other professional accomplishments should be in line for different types of jobs as "master teachers" (coaches, mentors, evaluators, teacher-administrator hybrid positions, curriculum development, training, etc.). Instead of "performance pay" that rests on test results, you'd have a chance to pay more for teachers who have a demonstrable ability to add more genuine educational "value" to the work of their schools or districts. Then, as a last step in the discussion, you're in a reasonable position to say that if we have a system that can do all of this, it should be fair game to negotiate the use of poor evaluation results for personnel decisions. I won't speak for John Norton individually, but as a member of Teacher Leaders Network, I feel comfortable stating as generality that many of us would agree with your long term goals, so I hope no one reads your blog as having posited us as your foils in this debate. I just don't think I'd open the conversation with "let's get rid of seniority" because a fair alternative must be in place. If the alternative is using state test scores in any way, no thank you. I welcome scrutiny of my teaching effectiveness by other means; they must address a more complete spectrum of my teaching, and do so in a way that effectively identifies my unique contributions to student learning. State tests earn an F on both of those criteria.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Digging holes

Funny analogy here, on Valerie Strauss' blog by guest writer Kevin Weiner from the University of Colorado at Boulder,  about the standardized testing movement.   I'd add this to the anology:

If you're standing next to someone digging a hole, do you just yell at them to stop digging until you can no longer get out?   Or do you take a step to the side?   I don't think the teaching profession need be burried by the testing movement.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Teaching and the moral authority

I've had several discussions with teachers lately about their beliefs on seniority.  And I would just like to say this: there are many, many teachers who do not think seniority is an effective way to compensate what teachers do.   However, many of these same teachers think its not worth the time or battle to change it.   They are busy enough as it is (with good reason).   Many think the current system is broken, but have a natural fear about the unknown.   Some fear the only other option is a test based system that turns the profession into a factory rather than a place where teachers can exercise autonomy and professional discretion to create mastery level lessons that engage all students.   This is, after all, the very serious danger of relying too heavily on student tests to measure teacher effectiveness. 

Our fear and complacency, however, has and continues to have too many unintended consequences.   Not the least among these is that "reformers" have now taken control of the decision making process.   I read continuous admonitions, such as a recent one by blogger and expert teacher David Cohen, regarding our part in the reform movement:

The millions of us who actually do the teaching and provide the education apparently do not need to be won over.  Our buy-in does not matter in debates about the educational policy and leadership.
When we take no active part, it's no surprise that as a professional community we are not enamored with the new evaluation systems that are passed on to us.   In many parts of the country, this has meant student achievement data in the form of value-added modeling becoming as much as 50% of teacher evaluations.   Some of these new systems have had more teacher support than others.

This post, by John Norton, and published in Teacher Magazine, details the many experienced teachers who now seem "tired" with the profession.   While I don't think the "tired" teacher was born with the advent of Value Added Modeling, it's important to realize that teachers and their unions, have the unique power to dampen the calls for outsider reform.  We have the power to reform on our own- to realize the changing time and tide- and to improve our profession and reclaim what we rightfully understand and know how to do better than any other segment in our society:  teach.  We can complain and become disgruntled, tired, veteran teachers, or we can choose to listen to valid criticisms with an eye toward fixing the problem from within.  This begins, in my opinion, with the acknowledgement that a once necessary and valuable seniority system created to ensure fairness for all employees, in particular women, has in the long-run resulted in unintended consequences for our profession. 

In defending a compensation system based solely on seniority, we relinquish the moral authority which teachers have long enjoyed when it comes to discussions about education and compensation.    Teachers have benefited from a long history of improved compensation in many, if not most regions across the country.   Some may credit unionization, but I do so only with an equal tribute to the moral authority that teachers have long held in the argument for more pay: teachers are important to a well functioning society so we must pay them accordingly.   The result, has been the backing from a willing and able public- willing to raise compensation for a public good any market based system will under-value.  While teacher compensation has improved, I do believe there is some way to go on this front.  But our public backing is only as good as the foundation upon which we build it.   And the long-run viablity of our cause has now taken on a second phase: teachers deserve more not because of the job we do, but because we are highly skilled, motivated professionals.  Not only do we do an important job, but we do it well. 

Increased pay and compensation can only continue if we are recognized as a profession with the ability to continue to change our nation.   This means holding ourselves to the same high expectations that we hold the students that we teach.   Therefore, we must demand a highly effective teacher in every classroom.  And the public, through their children, know all too well that this is currently not the case.   A dichotomous evaluation system where 98% of all teachers are rated satisfactory, and 2% are rated unsatisfactory, cannot improve our schools.  A system that pays the effective teacher the same as an ineffective teacher cannot improve our schools.   A system that will fire a strong and nontenured teacher before a tenured ineffective teacher cannot achieve those ends.  Unfortunately, this is exactly the system that has been created by seniority rules.   

Some teachers say our profession is under attack.   They say it's vital for hard-working, misunderstood teachers to defend ourselves from know-nothing reformers who have little, and sometimes no educational experience.  We are victims.   I say we need to fix what is broken, but to defend senioirty is to lose the very moral authority that has brought us to where we are today.    I prefer to see this as an opportunity.

Let's not waste it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

More on Evaluation

Haven't had much time to read this report from the National Education Policy Center on teacher evaluations and what they might look like.   Looking forward to it.   But it seems based on the premise that evaluations should not be overly dependent on any one data point. 

And this article from Newsweek which takes a bit more firm stance on evaluation:

“If you’re rated unsatisfactory two years in a row, you’re gone,” says union chief Clements. “If your rating is ‘needs improvement,’ your salary freezes, and if your performance doesn’t improve in a few years, you’re gone too. We think most people want to do a good job, and being confronted with data that you are not doing a good job is hard to ignore. People either change or leave.”

I might feel better about a seniority system if I knew not every teacher was being passed along from year to year.

Monday, December 6, 2010

An argument for seniority

A thought provoking critque of the movement away from the seniority system in Teacher Magazine:

My district has had massive teacher layoffs the past two years, with resulting increased class sizes. Layoffs were not based on seniority, degrees or accomplishments, but solely on student test scores and teacher evaluations. Furthermore, the district is proceeding with a pay-for-performance plan, which will go into effect at the latest in 2014. It is not following any kind of best practices research in its structure. Pay would be dependent solely on teacher "effectiveness," which every indication suggests will be based primarily on test scores.

I know that all of this is causing our most experienced, most accomplished, most prepared teachers to rethink their plans for work versus retirement. I also know that absenteeism among teachers is on the rise. At my high-needs schools, most of our teachers are very young, and I am the only nationally certified teacher. We have already had seven teachers resign since school started in August.

I've never before questioned my commitment to teaching the way I am now, and I have never felt so discouraged about the profession in general or the future of my school district or the welfare of and opportunities for our students. I'm not really ready to stop working, but I'm starting to think I've lost heart for teaching. I don't know if I can get it back.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A defense of seniority?

Here is a commentary from Schools Matter that appears to be a defense of seniority.  It's funny, but the defense of seniority is often linked with a defense of experience.   As if the two were somehow the same concept.   Teachers improve with experience.   Research confirms a correlation.   This is therefore the best way to compensate teachers or to make hiring and firing decisions.  It's an akward argument to me.... like a person arguing that because IQ is correlated with better teaching, we are therefore simply going to measure IQ and compensate accordingly.   From the article:

 The Times mentions, in passing, that "seniority is largely unrelated to performance." The research on the impact of seniority that I have seen is based on the use of standardized test score improvements, otherwise known as value-added measures. Nevertheless, the results are interesting. In an interview (The New Advocate, "Teacher seniority under fire "September 12, 2010), researcher Michael Hansen said that improvement between year 3 and 25 was four percent, which he regarded as "trivial." But if valid, it means that more experienced teachers are slightly more effective. The only reason to ignore seniority as a criterion for retention in hard times is financial.

Pensions in Maryland - A request

Looking for some good information on the Maryland State Pension system.   If anyone can direct me to some data- that'd be helpful.

Seems to me there are some common sense solutions that could be put into place that would not substantially effect the standard of living of state employees when they retire.   While I'm not exactly sure how a "defined"contribution pension system turned into such a reprehensible idea, I'm sure we could make some adjustments to the defined benefits pension system to make it more viable in the long-run.   Personally, however, a penny in my own bank account is worth more than two in a state's bank account.   It appears this makes me a minority within my own union once again.

Edit: Found this- about Maryland state pension's underperformance relative to other states.   Funny it took 10 years for the state government to find out they were wasting money.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Progress needed

So here we have another example of the central flaw in our educational debate. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sits down with Bill Gates to talk about education and the reform movement he has embraced. Alter writes this article entitled A Case of Senioritis. Clearly, Gates' beef is one of seniority, right?   Alter writes:

 After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?

In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: “Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’

It's a piece about creating change through the end of the seniority system.   It is a moral issue.   And it's why that if I had to take sides- I take sides with Gates.   Not that I fully embrace his ideas for education reform- but he does understand and attempt to solve a central problem.   The education profession is indifferent to quality.
Dianne Ravitch, who has made a second and very profitable career of  "defending"  educators from the so called attacks of Gates, responds directly to some of the rhetorical questions posed by Gates on Valerie Strauss' blog, The Answer Sheet.   Ravitch pokes some pretty serious holes in the seemingly logical solutions proffered by Gates and other reformers.   But how many times do you think Ravitch uses the word seniority in her response?

Not once.

Why not?  It seems to me it's a losing issue.   Ravitch thus focuses her attack on Gates' main solution, testing:
I don't hear any of the corporate reformers expressing concern about the way standardized testing narrows the curriculum, the way it rewards convergent thinking and punishes divergent thinking, the way it stamps out creativity and originality. I don't hear any of them worried that a generation will grow up ignorant of history and the workings of government. I don't hear any of them putting up $100 million to make sure that every child has the chance to learn to play a musical instrument. All I hear from them is a demand for higher test scores and a demand to tie teachers' evaluations to those test scores. That is not going to improve education."

Ravitch may be right about testing.   Testing students too many times, in too many subjects could have serious ramifications.   And value-added modeling in its current form, likely poses more questions than answers. I suppose that's why she spends so much time talking about testing rather than seniority rules; the battle over testing is, as Gates would say, a moral one.  And it's grounds where Ravitch may have the moral authority.   So I would like to take this argument backward- to what I believe is its foundation.  Is there agreement between Ravitch and Gates on seniority?  If we can agree, perhaps we can find new ways to pay and evaluate teachers.   A system that is more effective than the one used now, and one that will not turn the measure of teacher effectiveness into a test taken by students.   Or maybe the two don't agree, and seniority is the best way to go after all.  Either way, I think we could all benefit by an explicit answer.   So here is a new rhetorical question for Ravitch to answer:

Is the seniority system the best way to compensate teachers for their hard work?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How we got in this mess

Teachers, their unions, and others all want to know how we got into this educational mess.  Dianne Ravitch spends day and night defending educators from the "reformist" voices of Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and the like, who argue for the use of  student achievement in teacher evaluations.  The reformists say we need to look at the "value-added" that a teacher brings to the classroom.   My union (along with others), cries foul, and goes here there and everywhere to testify.  They regurgitate claims that value-added modeling used to measure student achievment gains is huey.  And they take up the fight against movies made by directors who know more about global warming than education.  But why?   Why has this turned in to an all out war on education?  How did we get here?   Why are we still here?

Clear the air, and you'll realize this  fight is one that should have been over long ago.    The real fight is over seniority based rules that pay the most tenured teachers more money than the most effective teachers.   The same rules call for new teachers to be fired before the least effective teachers.    They are calls for reform that have fallen on deaf ears for many, many years.  They are calls for reform that were ingored.  But they are rules that could have been, and should have been, addressed by the unions themselves.   Had simple but thoughtful reforms been made or even attempted, the foundation upon which "reformers" built their castle would have fallen into the sea.  But like an old stubborn mule, the unions, led by the eldest teachers that control their ranks and benefit most by the imposition of the rules they defend, refused to change.

The result, is a fight that never had to be.   A fight that has now morphed itslef into an us vs. them fight over the use of testing.  We're fighting over the rediculous standardized test data that was released to the public by a newspaper more concerned with selling a few papers than fixing education.   We're fighting over the relaibility of value-added modeling- a topic about which most teachers and politicians and common folk care to know very little.   We're fighting over the merits of movie directors and chancellors of education.     It's a fight that never should have happened.   But it's a fight on grounds where the unions- and Diane Ravitch-  stand a much better chance of winning.   

Don't be fooled by what you hear and read today.   The real fight is over seniority.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reactions to new Baltimore City Contract

So I spoke with Liz Bowie over at the Baltimore Sun earlier this week.    She wrote this article about the new Baltimore City contract.    I'm not exactly looking for a job in Baltimore City- as it sounds based on some of my quotes.   I love my job.   And my students.   I'm not going anywhere for the time being.   I'd much rather my own school district rewrite it's evaluation system to include some of the tenents found in the BCSS contract.   There's room to create something better than what we've got in Montgomery County.   Much better.   And I think Baltimore took a step in the right direction.   Kudos to the city and its union.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why Teaching Experience Really Matters

Enjoyed this comment about teacher evaluations in Valerie Strauss' blog, the Answer Sheet.

It is frustrating to see this issue argued in black and white terms. It is silly for Mr. Gates to say that advanced degrees and experience does not matter. Obviously, experience and advanced degrees can make a great deal of difference in the effectiveness of a teacher.

BUT NOT ALWAYS. That is the crux of the problem and I think what Mr. Gates is getting at (albeit in black and white terms). I would become infuriated watching veteran teachers relying only on worksheets to teach first graders or screaming at children as a 'behavior management system'; some even had masters degrees. And they were paid more than I was, even though I was taking the same population of students with lower test scores and surpassing their students scores within a month.

It is exceedingly difficult to measure teacher effectiveness, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. As a teacher, I want some way to show that I am being effective (and I teach a very difficult low-income population). Watching ineffective but experienced teachers should make us all angry. We all want the best and the brightest in the classroom; we shouldn't settle for ineffective teachers. We should be rewarded for experience and advanced degrees, we should ALSO have some way to be rewarded for effectiveness. Its not easy to measure, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.
Posted by: acasey3
November 23, 2010 4:04 PM

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Does seniority matter?

Well.   Kind of.   I'm not exactly sure what Valerie Strauss attempts to argue here except to say that as teachers teach more their effectiveness increases.   That's not news, although there seems to be an insinuation that Arne Duncan and Bill Gates don't believe this.     I'm pretty confident they understand this.  However, the question is not whether teachers get better as they teach more.   They do.   The question is whether or not the current system in place encourages teacher responsibility, leadership, and quality.   Or, do we have a system that is indifferent to these things.   And if it is indifferent to those qualities, is it 1) more or less likely to attract people with those characteristics or 2) more or less likely to help those already in the field develop them?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The value of Value-Added

Here's a study from the Brookings Institution you won't find on the MCEA blog.  Jay Mathews brought it to my attention and he does a good job summarizing the study which focuses on the reliability concerns associated with value-added modeling.   The main idea is that just because a teacher's "percentile rank" might fluctuate year to year- does not mean it is a worthless piece of information.   They compare a teacher's percentile value-added rank to a baseball player's batting average which has similar year to year fluctuations.   Would you make decisions about the current year based on the batting average from last year?   Well, you'd certainly keep it in mind.  From the executive summary:

We believe that whenever human resource actions are based on evaluations of teachers they will benefit from incorporating all the best available information, which includes value-added measures. Not only do teachers typically receive scant feedback on their past performance in raising test scores, the information they usually receive on the average test scores or proficiency of their students can be misleading or demoralizing. High test scores or a high proficiency rate may be more informative of who their students are than how they were taught. Low test scores might mask the incredible progress the teachers made. Teachers and their mentors and principals stand to gain vast new insight if they could see the teachers’ performance placed in context of other teachers with students just like their own, drawn from a much larger population than a single school. This is the promise of value-added analysis. It is not a perfect system of measurement, but it can complement observational measures, parent feedback, and personal reflections on teaching far better than any available alternative. It can be used to help guide resources to where they are needed most, to identify teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and to put a spotlight on the critical role of teachers in learning.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pink and Teacher Motivation

I've completed reading Daniel Pink's, Drive, an inside look at what motivates people to perform.  His thesis is essentially that we are all motivated to perform if given the right combination of autonomy and purpose to complete a task.   On the other hand, he argues that extrinsic motivators often accomplish the opposite of their purpose, especially when the task is complex and requires creativity.   Rather than motivate, extrinsic "carrots" can narrow our focus, and turn enjoyable tasks into a job that we are unmotivated to perform.   Pink does a good job- and I believe much of what he says.   Allow teachers automony, provide them with a sense of purpose, and you are more likely to create a master teacher.   Agree or disagree- this book should probably be required reading for anyone considering new evaluation systems and pay scales based on teacher quality.

However, one statement got me thinking about teaching- and the seniority system of pay that currently dominates the field.   A system where the longer you teach, the more money you earn in a single year.  Pink asserts the following:

Of course, the starting point of any discussion of motivation in the workplace is a simple fact of life: People have to earn a living.   Salary, contract payments, some benefits, a few perks are what I call "baseline rewards."  If someone's baseline rewards aren't adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance.   You'll get neither the predictability of extrenisic motivation or the weirdness of instrinsic motivation.   You'll get very little motivation at all.

But once we're past that threshold, the carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.   Mechnaism designed to increase motiviation can dampen it.   Tactics aimed at boosting creativity reduce it.   Programs to promote good deeds can make them disappear.  
My question is whether or not our current system of pay  meets the requirement of  "fairness" Pink asserts is a prerequiste of  what he calls, motivation 2.0.   A system that does not reward increased responsibility by paying more,  but instead punishes it by increasing your workload.   A system that rewards teachers who take jobs as coaches- often at the expense of missing meetings required by those teachers who do not coach.   A system that says if you would like more money- you should leave your job early and find something else to do.   This does not seem like a "fair" system to me- and it leads me to wonder, "what type of teacher would find it fair?"   Is it a teacher who is not interested in leadership or responsibility?   Is it a teacher who has always wanted to coach athletics?   And which type of teachers leave the profession, or never enter the profession, because this is the type of pay structure that exists?

Maryland teacher's unions, and especially my own union, MCEA, are currently fighting tooth and nail to prevent a new evaluation system that would base 50% of that evaluation on student achievement data.   This new evaluation system proposed by the Maryland State Department of Education  is not likely to fix our educational problems.  It is replete with problems just like our current system.

However, if teachers, and the unions that represent them, were more proactive in addressing the failures of pay systems created more than thirty years ago, you wouldn't have politicians and state school boards trying to mandate changes to local school districts.   If we had teacher-leaders brain storming and researching in an effort to create pay scales based on leadership and responsiblity, instead of rewarding those who do just enough to get by, then perhaps we'd all be happy.   Perhaps we'd transform our schools and our profession.  And perhaps my union wouldn't  have to spend time defending our current broken evaluation system, from another, equally broken system proposed by politicians.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Washington Post on Pinsky

The Washington Post editors are questioning the role of state senator and MCEA staffer, Paul Pinsky, in the latest round of infighting between the Maryland General Assembly and Maryland State Department of Education.   It just so happens I think the General Assembly is right: MSDE has regulated beyond what is allowed by the law.   But the Washington Post is also right.   There should not be MCEA staffers voting on education bills.   I'm not sure MCEA staffers should be serving on the Maryland General Assembly at all.  Granted it's not illegal, but I for one do not want my elected representatives directly employed by lobbies- even if they are lobbying on my behalf.   Rumor has it newly elected Eric Leudtke will soon be an MCEA staffer as well.   I'd call that some political machinery at work.   The best part is, no one else seems to think this might represent a conflict of interest.   Or maybe they just don't know.   From the Washington Post:

We also hope that this latest - and most egregious - example of a lawmaker refusing to recuse himself from an issue where there is a conflict of interest prompts the General Assembly to do something about its lax ethics rules. Essentially the only thing required is disclosure and an assertion that the lawmaker can overcome any conflict. No doubt Mr. Pinsky brings valuable expertise to the discussion, as he argued to us. But that does not obviate the evident conflict when Mr. Pinsky, a union organizer for the Montgomery County Education Association, plays a leading role on an issue that directly affects his employer

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My note to MSDE

 Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) recently celebrated a decision by a committee of the Maryland Genearl Assembly (chaired by an employee of MCEA) to block a  Maryland State Board of Education regulation calling for student achievement data to be 50% of teacher evaluations in Maryland.   The Maryland state law called for student achievement data to be a "significant" factor.    I agree with my union that 50% is too much.    I disagree that our current system is the 7th wonder of teacher evaluation systems.  Here's what I sent to state board members.

Dear Board member,

I am teacher in Montgomery County who has spent a considerable amount of time researching evaluation systems.. I take issue with my union on a number of issues, which I detail at However, I implore you to consider the following regarding evaluation systems:

1) Any new evaluation system should seek to more readily identify ineffective teachers. 2) Value Added Modeling, though limited, is particularly useful in identifying those teachers who are ineffective, but only when used over a 3 year period. 3) Conclusions reached by student achievement data, due to reliability concerns, should be corroborated by other evidence of teacher quality. 4) An evaluation that relies heavily on flawed student achievement data is just as arbitrary as a system pays teachers based on seniority. 5) New evaluation systems should promote rewards based on teacher quality, teacher responsibilities, and areas of need. In our current system, new teachers often carry the heaviest load(no classroom, most teacher preparations, toughest population of students) but are paid the least.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.


Mike McCabe

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The problem with seniority

The debate over evaluation systems has turned into an "us vs. them."   It's the crazy politicians vs. the crazy unionites.   According to the crazy politicians, the crazy unionites obstruct reform to defend the worst teachers among us.   According to the crazy unionites, the crazy politicians have ill-concieved notions of effective teaching that will foster competition instead of collaboration, and narrow teacher focus to a set of poorly designed test questions that tell us nothing about what we really want to know.

The politicians, motivated by short-term goals and "I told you so" data points, want quick and instant reform before the next politician comes along with a new plan about how to save education.   The unionites, controlled by the activist and most often politically extreme that control their ranks, seek to protect the jobs and salaries of the existing employees, often at the expense of the creation of a superior and professionalized workforce.    They value the status quo.

And so the reform discussion devolves into debate, less about the public interest, more about  self-serving "talking points" each side hopes will allow them to "take the hill" a la Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders.  Debates have victors.   Discussions do not.   Discussions involve compromise based on the strength of argument.   Debates involve rigid positions which define compromise as a sign of weakness.  A number of bloggers have now directed me to Don Sutton's post on the value of "Strong Opinions, Weakly Held" which highlights the importance of being able to both argue vehemently and concede graciously.  Crazy politicians and crazy unionites have mastered the first half of this equation.

Which brings me to a teacher's solution to the curent call for reform.   This group of expert teachers came from all over the country, and from both political parties.   They offer guidelines for education reform that should make any school district think twice about their current system of evaluation and compensation.   Chief among these reforms, in my mind, is a way to weaken the seniority system; a system that rewards longevity in place of leadership and responsibility.   From The Center for Teacher Quality report:

Reward leadership, not seniority. Qualified teachers who take on additional responsibilities — mentoring novices and peers and preparing new teachers, creating family- and community-outreach programs, serving on advisory councils and the like — should be paid for their time outside the classroom. The number of years on the job should not determine who gets tapped for these leadership opportunities; demonstrated ability should.

When the debating stops, and the discussion begins, it should begin here- with common sense reforms made by teachers who know the system, and understand how to fix them.   We need to reward teachers who lead.   We need to reward teachers who are experts in their craft.   We need to reward those who help other teachers become better at their craft.   And we need to reward those who take on added responsibilities, not fewer ones.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Performance Pay report

Taking a look at this report from the Center for Teacher Quality.   It details a different way to think about teacher compensation- one that goes beyond Value Added Modeling on the one hand or simple seniority on the other.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

MCEA Members For Reform - Voices of Teachers

Aileen Woolley is a social studies teacher at Sherwood High School.  This is her addition to the reofrm conversation.

Hi Mike-

You have gotten me thinking about merit pay. I am for it. My reasons are personal in that it would work for me and public – it should work for our profession.

For me, I want to be in a profession (like most other professions) where results and strong performance are rewarded. I don’t want any more “atta girl” kudos or notes from parents or notes in my professional file. I am not a volunteer to be thanked – I am a worker whose pay should be commensurate with the results I achieve. Surely we have education administrators and specialists who could create a fair evaluation standard that would not be dependent on one measure (like testing results), be as objective as possible, and flexible enough to be tailored to the particular job description of a particular teacher. For me, it would cause me to be more reflective about how I teach and more determined to be at the top of my pay possibilities. It would empower me to further change and experiment and search out credible strategies in all that I do.

For the teaching profession it is important to attract the best and the brightest. In the U.S. we are not. A recent study showed that teachers come from the bottom 2/3s of the graduating college class vs. the top 1/3 in other countries like Japan and Finland. Who would be attracted to teaching today? Obviously, not many of the high flyers. With the negative reputation of teachers, noncompetitive salaries in many regions of our country, and pay increases not in one’s power, no wonder promising students scoff at me when I approach them to think of a career in teaching.

It is a competitive world, it is a critical job – let’s roll and make changes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Evaluation? NO. NO! NO!!!

MCEA (and then MSEA) says no to new evaluations required by the new state regulations.   They say yes only if they don't have to change.    I"ll concede the MCEA point on too much testing when MCEA and MCPS admit they can do a better job than they currently do identifying ineffective teachers.   If they can't do it better, the testing provides an objective meausure for evaluators to move in that direction.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

School Reform Debate

The current debate over school reform seems to have divided itself into two irreconcilable camps: the Rhee and Klein types chirping about the evil unions blocking reform at the expense of students across the country, and the Diane Ravitch and union sympathizers crying afoul as teacher names are published in newspapers without so much as a wink of recognition that the standardized tests that produce these lists are not only unreliable, but are single handedly ruining any chance of improving our education system.   What do these two sides have in common?   They're both wrong.   Or I suppose if you're an optimist- they are both right.

As someone who doesn't care about power- because I have none- I think I can speak on this subject with atleast some degree of authority.   The sides described above are concerned about what's best for education just like our United States Congress is concerned about creating a nice well-rounded bill that reflects sound judgement rather than partisan politics.   So I'll do my best to dissect both sides of the argument.   A few items I'll try to discuss of over the next month- maybe after the elections.

1) Teacher unions have not been effective in policing their own profession.
2)  There are outside the classroom factors that have a large impact on what goes on inside the classroom.   But they are not an excuse for what goes on inside the classroom.
3) Due process is not an all or nothing proposition- it can coexist with fair and robust evaluation systems.
4) Value Added Modeling has the potential to be a useful feedback tool, but has severe limitations.
5) Standardized testing is not the root of all evil- nor a cure all- but when done 50 different ways in 50 different states- creates an extraordinary amount of wasted resources in the form of duplication.
6) Pay for performance will not likely impact student acheivement- however seniority rules protected by unions likely do more harm than good.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Evaluation?

Want to really close the achievement gap?

Want real school reform?

Identify ineffective teachers (a small minority)  and replace them,   due process provided, with effective and  instrinsically motiavated teachers (a large majority).

Is that what happened at Broad Acres Elementary School?

The Board of Education has the power to do this.  From the MCEA teacher contract:

 Process for Changing the Evaluation System: The current unit member evaluation system, including the instrument and the teacher evaluation system booklet of the Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Maryland, (also known as the Professional Growth System Handbook) shall not be changed without following the procedures set out below:
1. Preceding the proposed implementation of any proposed changes, the Board shall notify MCEA of its desire to change the evaluation system.
2. Thereafter, the parties shall confer in good faith over the content of any proposed changes in the evaluation system, until agreement is reached, or until 90 days following receipt by MCEA of notification that the Board desires to change the evaluation system. The conferring teams shall be headed by the chief negotiator for each party.
3. If no agreement is reached within 90 days following receipt by MCEA of notification that the Board desires to change the evaluation system, the Board may unilaterally implement changes in the evaluation system.
We need Board members who are willing to question what's best for education in Montgomery County- not rubber stamp the latest program.   Build and attract the greatest professional staff of teachers in the United States- and watch real reform happen.   Not a pipe dream.   A decision.

Board of Education Summary

I think this article over at the Gazette does pretty good job of summarizing the Montgomery County Board of Education elections.   

Also, another report on Martha Schaerr, this time from the Washington Post.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Board of Education- Lisa Lloyd

Some position statements from Lisa Lloyd's relatively new website:

"Evaluate the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program, to ensure that it is providing both the support and assessment to teachers as was intended, or whether it is being used inappropriately to remove teachers. If the teachers are satisfied, then it is doing its job. If not, it needs to be reworked."
The Peer Assistance and Review program is run- in part- by MCEA.  If teachers don't like this- then we've got a serious problem.

Also this- the printing of illegal campaign materials.   Whoops.

Rotten Apples

 I am not affilliated with nor do I embrace the political ideology of  this group in anyway.   Period.   However, as one of my friends recently said, 'I find voting the Apple Ballot "convenient.'   I think a whole lot of people find that same thing.   Time to change that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Montgomery County Board of Education- League of Women Voters Responses -

From the League of Women Voters:  Pulled the Race to the Top question as that seems to get closest to candidate beliefs regarding a new evaluation system that more effectively identifies underperforming teachers.
Shirley Brandman:

“RACE TO TOP": Race to the Top's worthy goals of college/career readiness and measuring teacher effectiveness by student achievement are already part of our Board's existing reform efforts. We should now strive to preserve our successful professional growth system and not change what works just to chase funds.
Lisa Lloyd

Did not submit response.

Judith Docca

"RACE TO TOP": The premise of "Race to the Top" is to improve the academic outcomes for all students. I have concerns about using test scores to evaluate teachers because of the differences in student cohorts each year. Working collaboratively with staff, parents and the BOE will strengthen planning instruction.
Mike Ibanez

"RACE TO TOP": Maryland is eligible for $250 million from President Obama's RTTT. How much of that money will come to MCPS is unsure but the consequences for county schools could mean dumbing down curriculum standards, linking teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores, and more teacher union concessions.
Mike Durso

"RACE TO TOP": I have some concerns with " RaceTo The Top ", especially as it ties school systems -states to a fairly restrictive set of guidelines. Though student progress as measured by test scores is one indicator of teacher effectiveness, it is not the only factor. There are many other variables involved.
Martha Schaerr

"RACE TO TOP": Although I commend the state BOE for participating in the Race to the Top program I believe the state’s strategy needs to be focused more on empowering parents by giving them the information and tools they need to help their children succeed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

MCEA Members for Reform- Voices of Teachers

More from the series on other teachers in MCEA who believe our current evaluation is not quite right. We don't all have the same ideas, but we agree that the current system can and should be changed- even in Montgomery County- where many many great teachers teach. Many thanks for all who participate.

I’m concerned that the current system does not distinguish among teachers based on their performance. To say that one group is “not meeting standard” and another group “meets standard” lumps together people with a very broad range of skill, experience, and effectiveness. I would propose adopting a new system in which teachers are compensated based on their demonstrated competence in their respective fields. There are plenty of observable, measurable behaviors that a trained observer *who is an expert in your field* (i.e. not a generic administrator) can readily identify. So I would advocate for paying teachers based on skill attainment, not mere longevity. And CPD credits? These are useful only insofar as they impact the teacher’s behavior.

I would also question the wisdom of paying all teachers the same salary. I happen to think my discipline (mathematics) is especially challenging to teach, and requires unusual efforts to teach well. Each level (ES, MS, HS) and each discipline comes with its own unique challenges, but I don’t believe the same level of effort is required across the board to produce the same level of success. So it seems unfair to me that all teachers get paid the same.

James Key

Math teacher, Sherwood High School


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Montgomery County Board of Education: Michael Durso vs. Martha Schaerr

Traffic to this site is up heavily as the election approaches so I'd like to take some time be clear about my intentions for readers who might approach this blog with something of a healthy skepiticism.
1) I believe voters should make educated decisions in the upcomming elections.
2) I do not believe the Apple Ballot encourages citizens to make independent decisions- especially given that  MCEA did not interview any of the challengers for Board of Education.
3) I am a member of MCEA.
4) My primary agenda item is improving education- namely through the creation of a new more robust teacher evaluation system that more readily identifies and removes ineffective teachers.

Onto the elections:

Michael Durso has proven to be the one current member on the Board of Education willing to question the policies of Superintendent Weast and the other generally supportive members of the Board.   He was also one of two Board members to ask for more time to consider an MCPS parternship with Pearson Education.  The Board was provided 48 hours notice to vote on this contract- a contract with the potential to have lasting impact on the county and the way it does business.   Healthy discord on a Board of Education is a must, and Michael Durso does not appear shy about voicing his opinion.

Durso's responses to the MCEA questionnaire prove he is a reflective practitioner that he does not reject ideas out of hand.  He serves on the board of a DC charter school- proof positive that the charter school movement does not have to be the front line enemy of public schools.   In my estimation, these are the type of thinkers our county needs on the Board of Education.   He appears driven by ideas rather than politics.

Challenger Martha Schaerr has some excellent ideas about how to reform evaluation systems in Montgomery County.   I'd like to put aside her apparent social conservative history as it would likely be a singular and dominated voice on the Board of Education, but that's not in my make-up, and Durso has already proven he can be a powerful minority voice when he deems it appropriate. 

Durso earns my unequivocal support.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Broad Acres Elementary and the case for Reform

I was recently asked what I thought about Broad Acres Elementary school, an elementary school in Montgomery County with a farms rate exceeding 90% that was faced with the possibility of a state takeover almost 10 years ago.  However, the school went forward with an innovative solution:  union and mcps officials agreed to work together in order to find a workable plan to raise test scores.   In the agreement, all teachers who agreed to stay at the elementary school promised to "officially" work an additional 15 days a year.   The principal and school staff then worked together, often with teachers leading the way, to implement a number of programs and strategies to raise scores.   Two thirds of the teachers agreed to stay on, and another 1/3rd opted out, moving to other schools.   The results have been nothing short of extraordinary.

The Tom Mooney Institute wrote a report describing the turn around at Broad Acres Elementary.  It was all a little too “union congratulatory” for my liking but when it got to the meat of what went on there was a lot of interesting bits.   In particular, I was intrigued by the empowerment of the teachers in the decision making process.   Teachers seemed to over-ride principals.   And I loved the part where teachers were doing walk-troughs in lieu of administrators.  This type of ripe feedback, provided not as a stick or carrot but as a way for intrinsically motivated teachers to learn about and improve their craft is largely missing in the professional growth system currently implemented in Montgomery County. And I don't know all the details- but in the very least there is some anecdotal evidence that the school- by allowing teachers who had the motivation to work more hours and with greater autonomy- could have a substantial impact on their students.

But we also need to consider which  1/3rd of teachers opted out of the school. Was it the most effective teachers who just wanted to teach in a less challenging environment?  Was it the least effective teachers who couldn't stand the thought of working another 15 days a year?   Was it a combination of those and other variables?   My intuition is that this variable had more of an impact than anything that when on inside of the school once this core group of teachers left.   Further, I wonder why this model was not implemented in other schools in Montgomery County.    Yes it is costly, but not near as costly as some of the other programs implemented across the county in budget building years from 2000 to 2008.   Anybody have thoughts?

My skeptical thought- get rid of the least effective teachers in a building- and replace them with just average teachers- and watch real educational reform take place.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Montgomery County Board of Education- O'Neill vs. Smith

Montgomery County Board of Education candidate Patricia O’Neill has become all too distant from Montgomery voters to deserve reelection. Consider the following:

O’Neill has no reelection website. This is the access point of choice for many constituents in the 21st century, but O’Neill is the only incumbent that has made no attempt to establish this connection. I recommend voters visit Karen Smith’s website at

O’Neill completed a 15 question MCEA election questionnaire in just 651 typed words. Perhaps this is a lesson in efficiency, or perhaps she does not feel it necessary to spend much time communicating with the public or earning the ever important Apple Ballot recommendation. Regardless, with these several words she was able to win the endorsement of MCEA.

I emailed her opponent Karen Smith my own three questions (Smith was not asked by MCEA to complete a questionnaire). Smith answered the three questions I posed with more than 700 thoughtful and well organized words. I asked O’Neill to answer the same three questions via email but she did not respond. Lest you think I’m bitter- I intend to endorse three other incumbents who did not directly respond to my questions.

When O’Neill has communicated to the county she has preferred to communicate to citizens via editorials and press releases that often tout data of dubious educational value. For instance, she celebrated a rise in the average SAT scores in 2010 as if had nothing to do with the historic drop in SAT participation. In fact, over the last 5 years the percentage of graduating seniors earning a college ready score of 1650 has actually declined. The Gazette has reported similar concerns about the data frequently championed by O’Neill.

Lastly, O’Neill has proved to have a narrow and unyielding policy agenda despite valid and conscientious concerns voiced by the public. When some questioned the speed at which a new contract between a for profit education company and MCPS was recently finalized and approved by the Board of Education, including two of its own board members, O’Neill simply replied that some people will always say ‘no’ and “maybe they ought to run for Board of Education.”

When you have served on Board of Education for more than 12 years, I’m sure you become very well connected and have a keen sense of how to get things done. But I wonder if one is likely to forget how that seat was earned in the first place- at the foot of the people. From what I have researched and learned of Karen Smith voters should rest assured- your voice can still be heard loud and clear should you choose to vote in the upcoming Board of Education election.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Baltimore City Rejects new Pay for Performance Contract

Baltimore City Public School teachers recently rejected a proposed new contract that would provide across the board raises and allow some teachers - atleast one per school- to make more than $10,000 a year more than previous years.   Perhaps to no surprise, much of the discontent came from the more senior teachers- who perhaps had the most to lose without guaranteed year over year step increases. Younger teachers, who could perhaps rise up the salary ranks more quickly, were more supportive of the potential changes.  

One issue that must be addressed in any new evaluation system, is how principals and assistant pricipals will be evaluated.   If the rest of the nation is like Montgomery County, it is harder to get rid of a bad administrator than it is to get rid of a bad teacher.   And some of these bad administrators are the ones being asked to conduct the evaluations of teachers.   Not exactly reassuring.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jerry Weast- No new evaluations

Kudos to the Parents Coalition for digging up this document- a letter to the Maryland Board of Education expressing his view on the new evaluation system that will go into place throughout the state.   He sounds his more reasonable tone yet when arguing agaist the state system, in particular when arguing about the ability to effectively put in place such a wide reaching system in such a short period of time.   However, he sounds the same tired tone when he talks of how effective the current evaluation system in Montgomery County is- the one that removed (or made to resign or retire) over 400 teachers  over a TEN YEAR PERIOD.   How many teachers has Montgomery County had during that time?   Well, it's 10,000 in one year.... so over the course of 10 years maybe 13,000?   More?    Not sure.  

Michael Durso, current candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education, recently said this about Weast's use of data:

The reputation of the school system, and the reporting of statistics and test scores, have been more tied into the personality and the image of [Superintendent Jerry Weast] as our leader, than the students and teachers who are impacted even more," Durso said. "We always haven't been as candid about some of our shortcomings, as opposed to publishing our positives.

Read more at the Washington Examiner. 

It's time to talk about ways to improve our current evaluation system.