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.


  1. Replies
    1. Interesting idea here - Though Ayn Rand would certainly support something so merit- and outcomes-based as this, I think she would take issue with the whole idea of public funding for the whole enterprise of public education.

      Also: Now, now...