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Race to the Top: NO!

October 31, 2009 Leave a comment

This White Paper was sent to NH Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry in October, 2009. She subsequently circulated it to her staff and the superintendents in New Hampshire in advance of our meeting later that month. The section on merit pay was re-worked into an article that was published in Education Week in March 2010 and the section on alternative compensation methods was reworked and used as part of an ongoing study in SAU 70 where I served as Superintendent.  

As noted in the attached letter, there are several reasons I believe it is a bad idea to link student assessments to teacher performance. At the same time, I believe it is necessary to reform the current compensation system so that performance is rewarded over experience and the accumulation of coursework. This extended memo has two parts: a section elaborating on my reasons for opposing a link between student assessments and teacher pay; and a section offering an alternative to the existing unitary pay schedule, an alternative that could incorporate several elements of “merit pay”.

The Case Against Linking Teacher Pay to Student Assessments

There is no research that unequivocally supports the use of any examinations to measure “value added” by an individual teacher or school

To qualify for Race to the Top funds, States have been asked to eliminate any legislation that precludes the use of “data regarding student achievement from being tied to teachers for the purposes of evaluation”. The section of the Federal Register describing the rationale for this requirement states:

Research indicates that teacher quality is a critical contributor to student learning and that there is dramatic variation in teacher quality.\2\ Yet it is difficult to predict teacher quality based on the qualifications that teachers bring to the job. Indeed, measures such as certification, master’s degrees, and years of teaching experience have limited predictive power on this point.\3\ Therefore, one of the most effective ways to accurately assess teacher quality is to measure the growth in achievement of a teacher’s students;\4\ \5\ and by aggregating the performance of students across teachers within a school, to assess principal quality…. (emphasis added)

The assertion that “…one of the most effective ways to accurately assess teacher quality is to measure the growth in achievement of a teacher’s students…” is not substantiated in research findings. Indeed, The Board on Testing and Assessment, an arm of the National Research Council, issued a letter to Secretary Duncan on October 5, 2009, expressing serious reservations about the use of value added tests as the basis for evaluating teachers. After listing a series of technical and practical concerns regarding value added testing, their 19-page letter includes the following caution regarding value added assessments:

The use of test data for teacher and educator evaluation requires the same types of cautions that are stressed when test data are used to evaluate students: “Tests are one objective and efficient way to measure what people know and can do, and they can help make comparisons across large groups of people. However, test scores are not perfect measures: they should be considered with other sources of information when making important decisions about individuals” (Lessons Learned, p. 15). This caution is even more important when applied to complex statistics—like value-added analyses—derived from tests.

Put another way, test data should be a formative element in evaluation, not a summative one. Using test data in even a formative fashion, however, is complicated by the factors described in the next three sections.

New Hampshire schools would be required to substantially alter their grouping practices and/or test protocols in order to use to use “value added” assessments in a fashion that conforms with research models

Almost all the value added research has taken place in urban schools or county school districts where there are large grade-level cohorts, a common curriculum, common instructional practices, and comparable demographics. In these studies, researchers carefully controlled the grouping of students, the way tests were administered, and the nature of the tests. In order to replicate these research conditions in New Hampshire, elementary schools would need to make certain that teachers are assigned to comparable cohorts of students over a three year period (i.e. the same grade level, the same blend of regular and special education students, and same ability level IF ability level is the practice), that the student cohorts remain constant, that student assessments used to measure teacher performance are designed specifically for that purpose (see next bullet), and that the assessments are administered in a pre-test/post test fashion instead of once annually. At the secondary level, where students typically have 4-7 teachers per day, it is difficult to imagine how any value-added measure could be used without dramatically expanding the tests administered at each grade level.

The performance of a large number of teachers cannot be measured using existing assessments

Teachers at all grade levels who do not teach specific content that is not systematically assessed at the State level (i.e. Art, Music, PE, Guidance, Special Ed, Technology Education, etc) and secondary teachers whose content is not systematically assessed at the state level (currently all departments except English Mathematics and Science) would be exempt from any of this testing. Moreover, given that our current State assessments are given at only one grade level in high schools, it is hard to envision how longitudinal information on student performance will be gathered using assessments. In summary, since state level tests are not in place for what is arguably a majority of teachers, any system linking student performance with teacher compensation is inherently inequitable.  

New Hampshire’s NECAP assessments are not designed to generate “value added” measures

As written and designed, NECAP tests cannot yield individual student data with the kind of detail needed to measure improvement in individual students over time. This is particularly true in high-performing districts where the “headroom” is insufficient, making it impossible to measure “gains” of any kind. If New Hampshire wanted to pursue any kind of value added measure it would require the State to develop new assessments, field test those assessments, and implement them for multiple years before receiving the results needed to make any meaningful decisions on teacher performance. All of this assumes it is possible to design such an assessment for New Hampshire with its small rural schools and diverse demographics among schools and assumes assessments can be designed and implemented for secondary teachers and K-12 teachers in specialized subjects.

Performance Pay is a Flawed Idea

Adlai Stevenson one quipped: “Americans are suckers for good news. Given a choice between disagreeable fact and agreeable fantasy they will choose the fantasy every time”. For decades the American public has chosen to believe in an agreeable fantasy that merit pay for teachers will cure the ills of our “failing public schools”, particularly urban and high poverty schools. This agreeable fantasy ignores three disagreeable facts: we already have merit pay in public education; there is no link between the performance of public schools and the revenues that fund public schools; and teachers don’t want merit pay.

FACT ONE: We Already Have Merit Pay

Our current method of school funding, which is based primarily on State and local taxes, creates a de facto merit pay system, a system that works against the urgent goal of providing quality instruction in districts with the highest poverty levels. Teachers working in affluent school districts earn significantly more than their counterparts in other districts, and they have far superior working conditions. As a result, those wealthy districts attract and retain the best teachers while other districts struggle to fill positions and often lose their most promising teachers to wealthier districts within commuting range. In addition to offering more pay, the affluent districts offer superior professional growth opportunities, fully staffed and equipped media centers; a wide range student services; and manageable class sizes and course loads. Most importantly, in affluent districts parents understand and appreciate the value of education, and the community supports the schools by consistently passing budgets.

FACT 2: Performance is not linked to revenue in public education

Because public schools rely on State and local taxes, there is no connection between school performance and school district revenue. In the private sector, if a company experiences success its profits increase and management can use those additional profits to reward those employees whose hard work caused the bottom line to grow. In school districts, where pay increases depend on tax revenues, there is no connection between “profits” and performance. Tax revenues fluctuate due to variables beyond the control of school districts. When a district’s test scores soar during a year when the tax base declines due to erosion in the local property tax base, reduction in State aid, or a nationwide recession, it is impossible to reward the improved performance of an individual teacher let alone a school. If “merit pay” funds were included in my operating budget for the coming year, for example, those funds would be pitted against layoffs, increased class size, the elimination of “non-essential” programs, deferring maintenance, or higher local property taxes.

FACT 3: Teachers do not want merit pay

Teachers are not drawn to their profession because they want to make a million dollars; they are drawn to public education because they want to make a difference. Given the choice, teachers will accept decent pay and good working conditions over extraordinary pay and a stressful workplace.  Teachers want to work where they are respected and valued in the community, and where they can earn enough to live comfortably in the community where they work. Even in high paying affluent districts, that modest goal is often unattainable.

Calls for merit pay at the national and State level deflect the spotlight from the systemic problems with funding for schools and imply that a redistribution of existing funds to reward “the best” teachers will solve the problems of public education. But here’s the most disagreeable truth: a sizeable and sustained infusion of money is needed to offset the existing pay and workplace disparities that make a mockery of the ideal of equal opportunity in public schools and make teaching an unattractive career choice. The hard-working teachers in low paying districts need decent wages. The forlorn schools in those districts need to be upgraded. Students in all schools should have the staffing levels, rich curriculum offerings, and access to technology that are “givens” in affluent districts.  And, if we want the best and the brightest to consider teaching, all districts need to provide basic compensation packages that will lure them into the profession.

In conclusion, if the pursuit of ARRA funds is contingent on the State developing and implementing some means of linking student performance to teacher and principal evaluations, we should give serious consideration to taking a bye. Given that there is no research to support the linkage of student assessments to teacher performance, given the extraordinary technical challenges associated with developing value added assessments that would be available to all teachers, and given the underfunding of most public schools in New Hampshire, spending scarce dollars, scarce time, and increasingly scarce political capital on developing and implementing a “Merit pay” plan is unwise. This is especially true if the funds seek are to be used to initiate changes that will ultimately increase baseline budgets in school districts and the State Department of Education.

The Case For a Rational Reward System for Teachers

While research does NOT support the use of assessments as a basis for setting teacher compensation, research DOES support the Race to the Top’s contention that “…measures such as certification, master’s degrees, and years of teaching experience have limited predictive power on (teacher quality).

The existing system

For the past several years, reformers have advocated changes to the unitary salary schedule (“step-and-track”) that has been in place in public education for at least the past five decades. A system advocated by teacher organizations as a means to assure pay equity among teachers, the unitary salary schedule effectively rewards teachers for successive years on the job (step advancement) and for completion of relevant course work (track advancement). Typically, the step advancement stops after 15 years and the track advancements conclude with either a doctoral degree or the equivalent number of credits.

The existing reward pattern

Implicit in this pay method is the belief that teachers improve in their performance in a linear fashion during each of their first 15 years on the job after which their experience does not warrant any pay differentiation. The system also implies that the completion of blocks of relevant coursework results in improved performance that, in turn, warrants higher compensation. Those who work in education know— and education researchers can substantiate— there is no absolute link between years of teaching experience and teaching ability nor is there any substantive difference in teaching performance that results from course work beyond the masters degree. Our current system, then, effectively undervalues performance and overvalues experience and course work.

A more rational reward system

Research and practice indicate that teachers fall into four broad categories: those beginning their career (i.e. probationary teachers); those who warrant tenure but are not fully developed in the profession (i.e. “Continuing Contract Teachers”); a group whose experience, professionalism and teaching skill warrants a higher pay grade than an emerging professional (i.e. “Career Teachers”); and a group who are universally recognized by their peers, administrators, parents, and students as exceptional (i.e. “Master Teachers”). These broad categories, or pay grades, are analogous to the system in place in many colleges and universities and in some respects similar to the compensation system used by the federal government.

Pay grade compensation differentials

Under a system like this, advancement from one pay grade to another would result in a substantial pay increase, but all teachers within a given pay grade would have the same earnings based on the assumption that all teachers within a pay grade have comparable skills. Thus, a “Career Teacher” with ten years experience would receive the same salary as a teacher in that category with twenty years experience. The four pay grades would be adjusted for cost-of-living based on an index that would be negotiated periodically in the same fashion pay scales are now negotiated.

Progression through pay grades

Progression through pay grades would be based on a combination of cumulative evaluations and the attainment of a Masters Degree or its equivalent. The evaluation process would be holistic, analogous to the process currently used to determine if a beginning teacher warrants a continuing contract. The focus of evaluation would change from one of identifying teachers who fail to meet a minimum standard to one of identifying teachers who have attained the competencies needed to advance from one pay grade to another.

Consequences of this proposal

Changing from the current method of compensation to this new model will result in many changes in the oversight of instruction at the State and local level, changes that would focus more on teacher performance and less on “clock hours” and the accumulation of credits. Would this be difficult? Absolutely. But unlike the “value added” measures effectively mandated by Race to the Top it is uncomplicated, has an analogue in academia and other professions, and would require a more rational reallocation of funds going forward as opposed to an infusion of additional funds.

How this plan might address the ARRA requirement

“Student assessments” could be used in the holistic evaluation process that is the basis for determining progression from one pay grade to another. They would be a specific element in the evaluation process but NOT an exclusive element. The kinds of “student assessments” used to make this determination would vary from district to district since some districts already have developed databases for tracking longitudinal performance over time.  Districts that do not have such databases in place (which would include mine) would have an incentive to put one in place.

Bottom Line: From my perspective, if the creation of an alternative compensation schedule along the lines outlined above meets the spirit of the federal mandate, we should seek ARRA funds. If the ARRA funds are contingent on the development of a wholly new assessment design that requires districts to assign a heavy weight to student assessments, we should let other states compete and continue working on the transformation initiatives we already have in place. We are making progress on these initiatives without federal funds and will continue to do so in the face of the fiscal challenges in front of us.

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