Monday, February 11, 2013

Teacher Performance Pay

Right now, just about the most contentious issue in education circles is that of teachers' pay being based on their students' performance on tests. People on both sides of this issue seem to have a special kind of contempt for one another. Let me help the situation by unfairly caricaturing each side:

Pro-Performance Pay (PPP): "I love teacher performance pay" zealots have never set foot in a classroom and have utter contempt for teachers. They assume that all teachers are lazy, and would like to see all of education transferred to private companies, who - unlike teachers - actually know how to run a decent business. The PPP camp puts their trust in the almighty test as a tool to determine how much "real" learning happened in a classroom in any given year, ignoring the fact that the test happens somewhere past the halfway point of the year and is a total joke in terms of measuring essential critical thinking skills, not to mention kindness, worldly knowledge, and the ability to work well in a global society.

Anti-Performance Pay (APP): These are masses of lazy teachers who hide behind their unions to avoid doing any real work, fearful that a new law will actually make them get out from behind their desks and teach, which will only happen if their pay depends on kids learning something.

Overwhelmed by Performance Pressure (OPP): These are school administrators whose jobs depend on hitting student achievement targets set under No Child Let Behind and who, as a result, focus all of their (and their teachers') energies on  hitting these targets and almost none on other worthwhile endeavors such as building meaningful relationships among the school community. Progressive Ed Reformers Naughty by Nature described OPP thusly: "There's no room for relationships; there's just room to hit it [the student achievement target]."

Because this blog has, as of right now, about one thousand pageviews, I doubt there is more than one degree of separation between you and me. So, dear reader, a) I like you, and/or b) we both like some third party. I hope this (admittedly harsh) caricature above doesn't change that, because I would really like you to keep reading, understanding, reflecting, and sharing your thoughts. Most people I've talked with about this are very rational, but every time I read a story about performance pay, I see otherwise rational viewpoints comically distorted. I was going to link to some such stories, but it is just SO HARD TO NARROW IT DOWN TO A FEW LINKS because there are so many mind-numbingly alarmist or ignorant stories to choose from. It's either "the test is imperfect --> the test is evil" or "there are some bad teachers --> every teacher is lazy".* I should share at this point, maybe so you can decide if you want to keep reading or whether I represent all that is wrong with the world, how I feel about this myself: I think performance pay by itself is seriously flawed, but I do think it will help more than it will hurt.

Where are you going? Come back!

First, here's how I feel about teachers:
I am the Lieutentant Dan of teachers. My mother is a teacher (hi, Mom!), my grandmother was a teacher, and her mother before her. I grew up grading tests (hello, child labor!) Most of my friends are teachers. I am where I am today because of an improbably good run of great teachers I had in my own childhood.** Oh yeah, and I'm a teacher. I honestly believe that the way to do the most good in the world is to become a great teacher, which is why I'm still trying to become a great teacher.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently not teaching full-time, and for the last few years and the foreseeable future, you would probably consider me an "administrator" - though I really dislike the word - an Academic Dean, Principal, whatever. I love that I get to teach other teachers, but my dream job involves getting back into the classroom full-time. Also, I work for Achievement First, which is working on a system for teacher compensation that involves something like performance pay.)

Now, for a little balance: In terms of overall effectiveness (not just measured on a test, but in as broad a sense as you would care to define), teachers are all over the map. I think the distribution looks somewhat like this beauty I cooked up using Desmos and MSPaint:

The first thing you'll notice about this graph will probably depend on your background. Whereas math teachers will be bothered first by the fact that the axes aren't defined, most English teachers will probably be instantly put off by the fact that the fonts don't match or my all-or-nothing approach to capitalization. This symbolizes the greater issues surrounding this debate, in whi...just kidding; it's just a graph. What I really want you to notice is the fact that there are a whole lot of teachers doing great work - the entire part of the graph you don't see to the right of the screen predicts there will be truly outstanding teachers out there, which there are. But notice also that the graph does not stop at 0 educational value. See there, on the left, how the line continues? Yes, it's possible to add negative value to students' lives, and not just the "negative value, considering there could be a truly amazing teacher in my place" of every teacher's first year or two or ten. I mean negative value as in the teacher who watches a child smash sand into another child's eyes and says nothing because it's not her job, or the teacher who lets kids practice math the wrong way because he can't be bothered to get up from his desk, or the teacher who seems to do little but to reinforce the crippling fixed mindset her kids used to have only in small doses.

Some people would argue that we shouldn't create a system that burdens everybody because of a handful of rotten apples, but we also shouldn't let these rotten apples keep teaching our kids. I agree with those people.

The question is, then, how we can get this distribution of teachers to shift to the right, or perhaps to stretch upwards.
The distribution stretching upwards means there are more of the 'average' teachers, more slightly below average teachers, and more slightly above average teachers. It also means that there are relatively fewer really bad teachers, as well as relatively fewer really great teachers.
Shifting to the right means each individual teacher is becoming, on average, a little bit more effective.

APPs tend to think performance pay will cause the distribution to stretch upwards and shift to the left, meaning every teacher will become a little less effective and more tightly clustered in the 'new average' range. PPPs tend to believe performance pay will make teachers work a little harder, with the added incentive of increased pay, which they believe will shift the curve slightly to the right. Personally, I believe performance pay will shift the graph ever-so-slightly to the right, and will stretch it upwards just a bit. This is also the part of the debate where we need to address what we actually mean by effectiveness, and how we should measure this.

This is where the debate gets silly, and both sides act as if each caricature actually represents the majority viewpoint on the other side. I don't think it does, but I am really worried by the public discourse about this, based on the following talking points that seem to pop up far more often than they should.

Talking points I never want to hear again

PPPs sometimes say:

  1. Teachers won't work hard unless they have a (monetary) incentive to work hard.
  2. Education is no different from any other business.
  3. Blaming (meaning, here: mentioning) poverty or incoming levels is just an excuse.
  4. Charter schools: Look, they're awesome! If they can do it...
  5. The test tells you everything you really need to know.

APPs sometimes say:

  1. Every teacher is already working as hard as she can!
  2. Basing teacher pay on a test isn't fair because kids start the year at different levels.
  3. I am/was a teacher and my kids' parents don't/didn't care, so this won't work. Q.E.D.
  4. They just want teachers to "teach to the test."
  5. This measures how kids did on one day of testing, which can't possibly reflect all of the important learning that has happened over the course of the year.

My own talking points

Value-added measures look at where individual kids start, relative to the overall population, and see where they ended up, relative to the overall population. Some teachers' kids will advance more than others'. So the criticism that "my kids started out at a lower level so of course they won't perform as well", and its corollary, "nobody will want to teach in underperforming schools", are actually the opposite of what I consider somewhat valid criticisms - it's much harder for kids at the 99th percentile to show growth, so teachers who were in this merely for the money would be better off serving kids at the 25th percentile, where it's relatively easier to help your kids pass a lot of other kids in terms of test performance.

The biggest issue I have with value-added measures is an issue of sample size. This is an extension of APP Talking Point #5, but much more nuanced: On an individual level, sure, a kid could have a bad day (or - and this matters, though it's rarely mentioned - a great day.) But when you're looking at hundreds of test scores, say, to evaluate a school's effectiveness, you will get a pretty decent picture of where kids are performing on this particular test, by virtue of the law of large numbers. Now look at a teacher who teaches 30 students. Maybe two of them came from another state, so you can't compare their new state test scores to last year's state test score. And maybe three of them take modified assessments, which can't be easily compared from year to year (due to a larger issue of sample size for the norming group.) So you now have 25 students whose score on this test, this day, will determine how you are doing as a teacher. I'm not really comfortable with this, because there's still a good deal of variance. Bump this number up to 100 students and I'm a little more comfortable...which would mean, in practice, that looking at four years' worth of data should be enough to get a decent idea. This also smooths out the (overwhelmingly negative) effect of a teacher's first year, and should be enough to show some clear, statistically valid, trends.

I also think basing everything on one test is more than a little narrow minded. At Achievement First, we look at test scores, parent surveys, student surveys, peer surveys, two formal observations, and a catch-all "general" observation based on dozens of informal observations over the course of a year. I don't think we have a perfect system, but I do think we have a comprehensive system that tries to find the balance between trusting that people in the building know greatness when they see it and somewhat objectively measuring the degree to which kids actually learned the stuff they were supposed to be taught.

But perhaps the thing I like most about basing evaluations, at least partly, on students' test scores is that it is an attempt to do something to address what I think is the biggest issue of all. The old evaluation and pay-for-years-of-service system tells everybody, from the sand-in-the-eye-is-OK teacher to the transformational superstar, that they're satisfactory. There is little recognition of greatness, and less knowledge of how one is actually doing, in the grand scheme of things. This exists within a system in which teachers are observed maybe once a year and, if they're lucky, given access to a coach who will give them a journal article to read or send them to a highly informative blog about teaching or, if they're really lucky, actually sit down with them and help them improve once a month.

The tests are more narrow than we'd like, yes. But the newer tests coming out, those aligned to the Common Core, seem to be closer to what we're looking for in terms of rigor and complexity. There are good tests for growth in music, art, and the like, which we should be using for these subjects. No, they don't have to be paper and pencil, but they should be standardized so there is some basis for comparison (plus the added bonus of seeing who is doing the best job teaching which aspects of your curriculum, so you can learn from them.) I hope that, as a country, we can continue to get smarter about what we measure and how. But the point is that we're not getting anywhere by deciding that we're better off not measuring anything at all.

An important word of caution to everybody who would comment on this: What I'm saying here is based on a pretty broad look at some great schools, some decent schools, and some schools that I wish no kid had to attend. The issue I take with so many APP's arguments is that they somewhat naively assume that most teachers are just like them, much like the issue I take with so many PPP's arguments that most teachers are on the low end of the spectrum in terms of effectiveness and/or drive. We hear a lot of excuses from some of the worst teachers (it's just poverty! snow days! i taught a child to love basketry!) and, ironically, a lot of the same reasons from some of the best teachers (Poverty can be a legitimate barrier to learning, e.g. when a child has to move every two months; Our kids spend snow days feeding the homeless instead of practicing long division; My kids have gone on to greatness because I have been able to individualize what I teach to meet their needs and dreams), but rarely with the acknowledgment that there are really all kinds of teachers out there, and not all of those kinds of teachers should really be recognized as "excellent", or even "adequate". Your experience is not everybody's experience.

For the truly great teachers, I don't see performance pay having much of an effect. They will go from being underpaid to still being underpaid. They won't like this new performance pay system, much like they haven't liked just about any top-down change in education for the past 30 years. Much like other educational fads and innovations, they will likely ignore it, because great teachers are total badasses who tend to go against the grain anyway.

For the truly awful teachers who aren't actively trying to get better for your kids' sake, please find a profession that will make you happy and where you can do something positive for society. The world needs more producers of great cat videos - perhaps this is more your thing? Whatever you do, please don't blame your lack of effectiveness on external factors without first doing everything you can to improve. This is a hard, thankless job, and not everybody wants to do it. If you don't want to do it, please don't.

Also, in general, we should be paying teachers a lot more. It will make teaching a more desirable profession, and will rightly reward people for doing some of the best work around. This will also improve morale and finally end the nauseating response of "what do you expect? I only make $X" to any suggestion that we could perhaps do a little better in some area.

It's worth mentioning here that I plan to refine my opinions on this over the next several years. What I've written here is a snapshot of what I think right now - here, as in so many other areas of life, we'll have a better dialogue - and ultimately arrive at a better understanding of the issues - if we give ourselves permission to change our minds. I invite you to change your mind at some point, too: It removes the burden of having to be right all the time.

In the meantime, I am accepting any and all comments that acknowledge (implicitly or explicitly) this is not an issue where one side is so clearly right and the other side is so clearly wrong, and that add to our collective understanding. I know for a fact that at least two of the teachers I am so thankful for feel very strongly that performance pay is a truly terrible proposition, and I know of at least one who I believe thinks it is generally a good thing. In the end, whatever we decide to do as a country, I hope it helps more kids learn more, and I hope you hope for this, too.

These are footnotes.
*or, on rare occasion, "he looked at you --> you looked at him --> you knew right away --> down with discount."

** In particular, thank you to the following:
Mrs. Ross (K)
Mrs. Lin (4)
Mr. Greene (5)
Coach Withrow (5ish?)
Mr. Jost (6)
Mr. Faggionato (7)
Ms. Robinson (7)
Mr. Pearson (7-8)
Mr. DeWitt (7-9)
Mrs. Waters (8-12)
Sra. Witherow (10-12)
Mr. Ethen (9-12)
Coach Lucido (9-10)
Mr. Harmon (9-11)
Coach Hull (9-12)
Coach Martin (11-12)
Prof. Gildea (13)
Prof. Albin (14-16)
Prof. Salas (13-16)
Chi Tschang (19-27)
...there are many more but, in some cases, my fear of spelling somebody's name wrong has kept them unjustly from this list.

Saturday, February 2, 2013



Imagine you're about to step in front of thirty adolescents you have never met before. You are stepping in as a substitute teacher, and you know nothing about them except that their teacher is out sick today. It's a Friday and the day before a vacation, so even that is up for debate. If you could have one of the following superpowers bestowed on you immediately before walking into the room, which would it be?
a) The ability to answer to any question a child might ask about the content
b) Intuition regarding where every child should be sitting
c) Instant knowledge of the school's discipline system
d) Knowledge of one personal fact about every student in the class
e) A perfect, photographic recall of the teacher's lesson plan
f) The ability to project self-assuredness and confidence

Go ahead and make your choice. Read the title of this post if you need a hint.

Let's play my favorite teaching game: What will go wrong? Let's go through the choices one by one, seeing what might go wrong in each case:

a) The ability to answer to any question a child might ask
Once kids discover this fact, they will use it to try to sidetrack you. I've seen plenty of subs get taken down this rabbit hole, and I've seen kids' eyes light up when they realize they won't have to do any actual work today because this teacher will continue to answer whatever off-topic question they can come up with.

b) Intuition regarding where every child should be sitting
Yes, but what will you do when they're not sitting there?

c) Instant knowledge of the school's discipline system
This one is tempting. Maybe this will lead to some sort of action. But I imagine the interaction going something like this:
You: Look, guys, I know about your referrals, and I'll do it!
Them: No, you won't.

d) Knowledge of one personal fact about every student in the class
Even more tempting! It's a personal connection, right? But in the crucial first three minutes of class, what are you going to do, start spreading everybody's business? Make eye contact and allude to that time they were at the mall and peed their pants? Drop the name of their favorite basketball player? This has a high chance of coming across as inauthentic at best, and creepy at worst. 

e) A perfect, photographic recall of the teacher's lesson plan
1. The teacher probably didn't put as much thought into the plans as you hoped they would.
2. Are kids going to listen to you? Will they follow your directions?

f) The ability to project self-assuredness and confidence
Bingo. Plenty could still go wrong, but you won't be run over. This is a huge win.

But why? Why is confidence such a big deal?

1. Confidence tells kids, especially kids you don't know: I know something you don't. Otherwise, where is this confidence coming from? Are you really good at your job? Kids like teachers who are good at their jobs, because it means they learn more, they get more respect, and they generally have more fun enjoying learning when they're with these teachers.

2. Confidence means you don't take it personally, or doubt yourself, when kids push the limit of what is acceptable. Unflappable calm is a positive side effect (or, in this case, side affect) of confidence.

3. When you are confident, things will still go wrong, but they will not spiral out of control. Consider the opposite: If you publicly doubt your ability to keep the class together, and things start to go wrong (which they will), it will be nearly impossible to bring things back together.

I chose the substitute scenario because this is the most extreme case I can think of: How you present yourself in the moment can make the difference between kids walking out of the class and kids actually (maybe) learning something. But this applies to classroom teachers as well. I'll leave out the other connections to dating, dancing, and other stressful performance scenarios and focus on teaching here.

How to build confidence

This is not Orin.
1. Mindset. Orin G, director of the MATCH Teacher Residency, encourages rookie teachers to adopt the personality of a historical badass, chosen from Ben Thompson's Badass series. When stepping into an unpredictable arena, just feeling that you're in charge is a big deal. Some of you veteran teachers may be reading this and rolling your eyes, but remember what it's like to step into a classroom for the first time: You didn't know what you know now, and, even if you did, you weren't able to project it in the right way.

2. Teacher moves. There are some teacher moves that simply exude confidence, Strong Voice being at the top of the list. From there, Do It Again and clarity about What To Do can go a long way. Think Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.

"OMG you're treating kids like dogs!?!" - Says somebody who has never told a 4-year-old to get down from the table.

3. Successful practice. You will become more confident the more you practice exactly what you're going to do. See Practice Perfect for more on this; basically, the more you do something right, the more you believe in your ability to do it right.

4. The 20 Mile March. Jim Collins, in his latest book Great by Choice, talks about companies (the "10X" companies) that achieve more than their competitors in volatile business environments, and likens their fanatic discipline to Road Amundsen's strategy for reaching the south pole in 1911: On the best days and the worst days alike, march between 15 and 20 miles. Do not overextend yourself in good conditions, and do not allow yourself to fall behind in poor conditions. For businesses, this means putting both a floor and a ceiling on goals: Do not do more than you are able to sustain over the long haul.

For rookie teachers, this means rolling out exactly one new routine a week, and seeing success with it. It means mastering one small teacher move every time you meet with your coach. It means setting student achievement goals that are not too ambitious, that don't require you to sprint full speed ahead when you have the time, because soon you won't have the time and you won't know how to compensate.

From Collins:
Accomplishing a 20 Mile March, consistently, in good times and bad, builds confidence. Tangible achievement in the face of adversity reinforces the 10X perspective: we are ultimately responsible for improving performance. We never blame circumstance; we never blame the environment.

Confidence is not arrogance

Sure, confidence includes a measure of acknowledging when things have gone wrong, and the ability to tell kids that your first direction was not as clear as it had been. But most importantly, confidence comes from a systematic process of preparing for the worst. In the classroom, you've already thought of the ways that kids will try to get out of doing work. Instructionally, you've thought through the ways they will misunderstand the concept you're teaching. You have anticipated every question and every misconception and every diversionary tactic, so when they arise, you're not caught off guard. Roald Amundsen took four thermometers for a key altitude-measurement device on his trip to the south pole, in case one of them (or three of them) broke. He left himself four times the necessary provisions along the way, in case things went wrong. In the ultimate badass move, in his youth, he experimented with eating raw dolphin meat, because, if he were to ever find himself shipwrecked, he wanted to know if he could survive by eating dolphins. Amundsen was the first man to reach the south pole, but it was not because he blindly believed in his own abilities; he had prepared for the worst in every possible way.

Most great teachers I know, starting with our principal, Rebecca, are fanatical about preparing for the worst. Like a lot of great teachers, Rebecca balances the wholehearted belief in the good inherent in each child with the understanding that adolescents try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. She likes to ask about all of the ways in which something could go wrong with any of my harebrained schemes I come up with for our school:
  • What if kids don't have their homework?
  • What if they don't turn it in?
  • What if they're at the doctor's office?
  • What if they were absent yesterday?
  • What if they arrive late?
  • What if a teacher forgets to check homework?
  • What if a key person is absent? What is the backup plan?
  • What about this plan will make parents most upset? How do we proactively communicate?
  • How much time will this take away from teachers? How can we lighten the load?
  • What are all the ways this could be misconstrued by kids and parents?
  • How will this affect our existing systems? What are the negative effects we'll need to mitigate?

Note that none of this is hypothetical; it's all phrased as what will happen, because if we don't assume that these things will go wrong, we will likely fail to plan for them. 

Final thoughts

Finally, two examples from chess may help to clarify the duality of confidence and pessimism.

First, Magnus Carlsen, a 22-year-old Norwegian player who is the highest-rated chess player of all time, in an interview for the Financial Times:

“Self-confidence is very important. If you don’t think you can win, you will take cowardly decisions in the crucial moments, out of sheer respect for your opponent. You see the opportunity but also greater limitations than you should. I have always believed in what I do on the chessboard, even when I had no objective reason to. It is better to overestimate your prospects than underestimate them.”

Contrast this with Paul Tough's assertion that the best chess players are pessimists who assume that a given move won't work, and actively try to find all the ways this particular move will lead to their own defeat. 

So in the end, we're left with confidence about the big things, and a neurotic obsession with the details of the small things. I will win this game, but this move will probably keep me from meeting that goal if I'm not careful. I will reach the south pole, but I will probably hit dozens of freak storms along the way. I will teach this classroom full of kids, but not before several of them try to keep me from reaching this goal along the way, and not before half of them misunderstand the key idea behind what we're doing. Now think through all of those things that will go wrong, prepare for them the best you can, do one small thing well and feel good about it, and, in terms of confidence, fake it 'til you make it.