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Monday, December 06, 2010

The $26,000 woman*; or, building a better teacher

by folkbum

I've been following with interest, for several reasons, the Journal Sentinel series on "building a better teacher." (The series seems not to have its own page, but here's part one, at which you can find links to all the parts published so far.)

The series is not done, and its last part--the part on the role of teachers unions in teacher evaluation and quality--promises to be perhaps its most contentious. We'll dive into that pool once it's full.

But I have a couple of reactions to share so far, with the series mostly done. One is from the part two Sundays ago by Alan Borsuk, about how difficult it is to get the best teachers to volunteer for the worst assignments. What you need to do, though, when reading that is read Borsuk's regular Sunday column from that same edition of the paper, where he writes about Florida's system of grading schools using A, B, C, D and F. Here's a bit from the latter:
There is a benefit to a school if it gets an A or gets a grade that is at least one letter higher than the previous year, namely that each school gets $85 per student from the state for the school to use as it chooses. Most of the money goes to bonuses for staff members.

And there are consequences for getting a low grade: The school doesn't lose any money, but the state takes extra steps to intervene in the school's academic program. And if the school gets Fs in two years out of four, students are allowed to transfer to high-performing public schools in that district. (Originally, they were allowed to transfer to private schools at public expense, but the Florida Supreme Court found that in violation of the state constitution in 2005.) [. . .]

[F]or teachers in schools that earn the high-grade bonuses, the grades can mean $500 to $1,000 extra a year.
I can't tell if Borsuk is endorsing the grading or not--the column's title ("State could learn a thing or two from Florida's school grading system") may not have been his and was ambiguous at best, and there's no clear "We oughtta do this here" line in the piece. But the column does make clear that something like this could be coming to Wisconsin under Scott Walker and his enablers in the legislature.

Which is why the piece a few pages over on pushing teachers to high-needs schools is a frustrating companion. Borsuk gives star status in the column to MPS principal James Sonnenberg:
West Side Academy's Sonnenberg has been outspoken in recent years about how difficult it has been to fill teaching jobs in his school, which serves poor minorities, a large number of whom are transient students from troubled homes in a high-crime area.

"If you've got openings that nobody wants, you're going to get a struggling teacher," Sonnenberg said. He praised the teaching staff overall, but said the joke in his building is, if you show up for a job interview, you get the job--unlike some suburban situations, where there can be hundreds of applicants for each opening.
While we currently do not grade schools (A, B, C, and so on), there's little question what schools would get what grades if we did; it's not a big secret. And if we adopted Florida's model, which offers $1000 bonuses to A-scoring schools, the incentive gets that much stronger for the best teachers to avoid schools like West Side Academy that will get an F.

Even if Wisconsin offered bonuses to schools that improve, there is no incentive to leave an easy-A school for an F school, because how can any great teacher be certain that the rest of the teachers would be just as good and just as focused on improvement?

A second reaction to these stories is that the comment sections are, well, insane. By that I mean the high proportion of people commenting who seem to have learned everything they know about schools from talk radio. Yesterday's story on teacher training programs, for example, attracted this comment:
You want good, dedicated, and very capable teachers?

FIRST: You eliminate the Federal Department of Education! Since Carter created this bureaucratic behemoth, the UNIONS have controlled the schools!

SECOND: You eliminate ALL University Schools of Educations, which are very little about teaching; and, all about leftist ideology and indoctrination!!

THIRD: You legislate strict limits on Teacher Union influence on curriculum and teacher continuing education!
This poor fellow's keyboard apparently doesn't have a working period, at the same time he doesn't have the faintest bit of working knowledge about schools or schools of education. The US Department of Eduction (not a Carter construct, by the way) is the smallest department by employment and a wee 3% of the federal budget; hardly a behemoth. (It is bureaucratic, and if I met Arne Duncan in a dark alley, I'd take him for coffee and explain the error of his ways.) The unions do not control the schools, and have little to no influence on things like curriculum, the structure of training programs, requirements for license maintenance and continuing education, or even teachers' placement in schools and districts once they're hired. While unions have influence over compensation and, to a lesser extent, working conditions, none of those other things are the subjects of collective bargaining agreements.

But you can find comments like that throughout the threads on all these stories: Blah blah UNION BAD blah blah. It's disheartening and not a little concerning that this is what passes for rational discourse about the complicated and nuanced subject of teacher preparation, evaluation, and retention these days. I cannot imagine what the comments will look like on next Sunday's story specifically about the unions.

Finally, I want to link to my most recent Bay View Compass column, which is about teacher evaluation in MPS, but it's not online yet. When it is, it will be at the top of the page here. Here's a bit of it, to whet your appetite::
Two things bother me about the current set-up, one personal and one systemic. Personally, I haven’t had a full-on formal classroom observation by a principal in nearly a decade. As a professional who takes my job seriously, I actually like feedback, and I miss it.

Systemically, there is no consistency to teacher evaluation--here, we’re a system of principals, not a school system. And, when far less than one percent of all evaluated teachers rate “unsatisfactory,” I have no confidence in how seriously the process is run.

So first, let’s take principals out of the evaluator role. I haven’t had a formal observation in forever not because my principals have been bad at their jobs; rather, principals have a thousand other jobs to do. Instead, keep principals--and give them district-level support--focused on helping teachers improve classroom practice without the pressure of putting a label on the teachers they’re helping. Teachers will be more receptive to principal interventions, even those based on sensitive data like test scores, when they know they’re non-evaluative.
There's more, including my suggestion for where the evaluator role should be if not in the hands of principals. If you can get a paper copy, it's there; it should be online any time now.

Update: Also.

* Title: The average starting salary in Wisconsin, and the fact that this profession is still attracts more women than men--cause and effect?

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