Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Obama's "Race to the Top" a Fair Game?

The Obama administration has clearly presented its stance on teacher accountability.  Speaking to the NEA and the AFT earlier this month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan maintained that teacher compensation decisions should take student achievement into account (“The Trouble With Merit Pay,” July 15).  Last week the administration put some muscle behind its viewpoint when it unveiled the “Race to the Top” program on July 24.

At stake is $4.35 billion in competitive grants, which will be awarded to states that are driving reform based on the government’s criteria.

“We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant,” President Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Dept. of Education headquarters in Washington. 

The program’s goal—to improve the quality of our nation’s school system—is positive and admirable, and I applaud the President for making education a priority.  But I question whether the Dept. of Education can create a fair system for awarding grants.  I’m most concerned about the administration’s insistence on evaluating teachers based on student achievement.  States that prohibit linking data on student achievement to teacher evaluations will be ineligible for grant money unless they change their laws.

Correlating teacher quality with student achievement does seem logical.  But it’s not that simple.  I think teachers would be comfortable with this method of evaluation if a teacher’s talent and skills were the only factors influencing student performance.  But teachers know the realities:

  • An elementary school teacher in Connecticut told me parents have asked her to excuse their children from homework assignments because of hockey tournaments, family trips, pageants, or other extracurricular activities and events.  Students who don’t take responsibility for completing their assignments face no consequences, she added.  “When the parents get the test scores and they are low, they come running to us wondering what happened, asking us what we did wrong, what we didn’t teach their child in order to pass the test,” she said. 
  • A middle school teacher in New York said the most stressful aspect of test preparation is that teachers must rely on each student’s sense of responsibility and level of motivation.  Some children are not mature or motivated enough to understand that they have a vested interest in performing well in school.  And if undisciplined students don’t study for exams or do their homework, and they don’t perform adequately on the tests, it reflects poorly on the teacher.
  • A retired middle school teacher in Tennessee contended that schools and teachers should not be penalized for poor test scores because circumstances sometimes arise that prevent a child from performing well on a test on a particular day.  For instance, a child might have had a difficult experience at home the night before.  “People want education to function like industry; we’re working with human beings,” she said. 
  • An elementary school teacher in New York felt her first grade students would respond better to the “phonics” method of reading instruction than the “whole language” approach.  But her principal, a “whole language” advocate, would not allow the teacher to use “phonics.”  By the end of the year, only two of her 30 students could read. 

Detractors will say these teachers are just griping and making excuses.  I disagree.  These anecdotes (taken from “The Teacher Chronicles”) demonstrate that uncooperative parents, unmotivated students, and unsupportive administrators can adversely affect student performance, despite the teacher’s best efforts.  In addition, a student’s home life can also play a role in their academic success or failure.

Another issue to consider is whether school districts in low-income areas will be at a disadvantage when competing for “Race to the Top” grants.  Parents in affluent communities can hire tutors and purchase additional study aids to give their children a boost.  Some students in low-income areas lack basic school supplies. 

The Obama administration has the right idea—invest in education and take steps to improve the effectiveness of our school system to ensure we’re producing citizens capable of competing in the global marketplace.  But the “Race to the Top” plan has the potential to penalize teachers and schools for circumstances beyond their control, even though the intention is to motivate them to succeed.  A more direct route to bolstering student performance would be to provide schools with the resources they need to reduce class size (a proven approach to enhancing student performance) and ensure all students have access to the necessary books and supplies.

Finally, we should invest in programs that encourage parental involvement, which is a major factor in a student’s academic success.  Children benefit when their parents take an active role in their education by communicating expectations, attending school functions, and developing partnerships with teachers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Trouble With Merit Pay

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the National Education Association on July 2 that teacher compensation decisions should take student achievement into account.

“Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions,” Duncan said, according to a press release from the U.S. Department of Education.  “That would never make sense.  But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”

The issue also came up when Duncan spoke at the American Federation of Teachers conference on July 13.

I’m not necessarily against the idea of compensating teachers based on performance.  One former teacher I interviewed for "The Teacher Chronicles" said she opposes the current approach to teacher compensation because it offers no financial incentive to be successful and no financial penalty for being unsuccessful.  Another teacher said she has worked with apathetic teachers who present a negative image of the teaching profession.

However, I have serious questions about the feasibility of a merit-pay system.  How exactly would it work?  Who would be responsible for evaluating teachers?  What criteria would the evaluation cover?  Who would determine teacher compensation based on the evaluation? 

While we have heard few specifics about how a merit-pay system would operate, we do know that the Obama administration believes student performance should be considered.

But a student’s academic success depends on a variety of factors.  How can we hold teachers solely accountable?  Even the most dedicated and talented teachers may be dealing with unmotivated students, uncooperative parents, or unsupportive administrators—all of which create obstacles to success.  A child’s education is a collaborative process that requires a commitment from the student, parent and teacher.  Positive and constructive communication among all three is essential. 

Another issue is that a merit-pay system cannot possibly take into account the non-academic impact teachers make on the lives of their students.  What about the teacher who helps a student overcome a debilitating lack of self-confidence? What about the teacher who mentors a rebellious teen, causing him to change his attitude toward school and his future? What about the teacher who supports a child facing a life-altering crisis, such as the death of a parent?  How do you measure the positive influence teachers have on the social, emotional and character development of their students?

While linking compensation to performance has its potential advantages, I doubt a fair and practical system for evaluating and rewarding teachers based on performance can be developed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Distress Call in June, A New Outlook for September

A phone conversation with a concerned parent on the last day of school prompted this New York middle school teacher to reflect on the importance of parent-teacher communication.  Her guest blog post below illustrates how parents and teachers can work together to bolster student achievement.

It’s June 25th.  The students are on summer vacation, and the teachers are packing up their classrooms.  I receive an e-mail from my principal asking me to contact a parent who called her to ask what I teach in math strategies, an extra help math class that complements the regular math course.  I call the father back.  He expresses his dissatisfaction with his daughter’s performance on the math final, and has a lot of questions about my teaching procedures in the regular math class and in math strategies.  I’m happy to answer his questions, but keep thinking, “Isn’t it a little late to be having this conversation?”  If he had contacted me earlier in the year, I could have addressed his concerns and enlisted his support in helping his daughter succeed in my class.  Math is not her strongest subject.  She had struggled in math in elementary school and continued to struggle this year in 6th grade.

As the conversation continues, I discover the numerous missed opportunities for us to work together to benefit this student throughout the year.  The father tells me he hired a math tutor to help prepare his daughter for the final exam.  If he had informed me, I could have communicated with the tutor to help the tutor better support the student.  The father tells me the tutor complained that my study guide for the final was not specific enough, didn’t offer any examples of problems, and contained only a list of concepts to study with the number of questions per skill.  But the study guide came with four packets that included the specifics and sample problems the tutor was looking for.  I ask the father whether his daughter showed him or the tutor the packets.  She didn’t.  I ask if he or the tutor visited my website, which contains additional study materials.  He replies, “How do you get to your website?”  I scan and upload to my website class assignments, worksheets and study guides throughout the year and refer my students to my website often.  If the father or tutor had e-mailed or called me to express their concerns, I could have referred them to the study packets and additional materials.

The father asks me about my homework grading policy.  I remind him that I discussed the policy at Back to School Night.  He explains that it was a long night, and he doesn’t remember what was discussed.  If a parent sees a grade on the parent portal that he or she does not understand at any point during the year, the parent is welcome to e-mail me and I’ll explain it.  The students are also aware of the grading policy.

After the conversation, I think about what I could have done to prevent it. I realize that I shouldn’t assume my students will relate information to their parents, that all parents are familiar with school websites, and that parents understand the importance of contacting the teacher as soon as a question or concern comes up.  I also acknowledge that parents are overwhelmed with the information they receive at the beginning of the year, and they may not remember everything they hear at Back to School Night.  Thanks to this concerned father, I revamp my initial letter that goes home to parents the first day of school to encourage their involvement throughout the year.  It now contains more detailed information about the 6th grade math syllabus, my website, my grading policy, and other important topics.  It prominently displays my contact information and urges parents to contact me with any questions or concerns that come up during the year.  It requests that they sign and return the bottom portion of the letter so I can be sure they have read it.  The letter is ready to go out to my new class in September.

Amanda Schwartz

Middle School Teacher

New York