The Test Score Yardstick

There's been a clear shift in education politics in recent years. Democrats are backing away from their long standing, "best-buddy" status with the teachers' unions. Al Sharpton toured the country with Newt Gingrich and together they complained about lack luster teachers in American schools. Al went on the Sunday morning news shows and complained about teachers in urban schools who took naps at their desks. Go, Al!

We now have bipartisan support for improving methods for evaluating teachers.That's a good thing. We've got to identify the nap takers and the slackers and encourage them to find employment in another line of work. We've got to reward the teachers that do a good job.

For teachers to really become professions that deserve the respect of a community, they have to follow the rules of other professionals. In the past, teachers claimed professional privileges when it suited them, but hid behind union rules when it didn't. I'm glad that we're finally seeing the end to "peek-a-boo professionalism".

Alright, now the tough part. How do we identify the good teachers and give them their just rewards? How do we weed out the chaff? 

There are various formulas that are being employed, all of which rely heavily on the student test scores. Some matrices examine how much a student improved over a course of year. If a student was 50 percent above the average in grade three and went to 60 percent above average in grade four, her teacher gets positive points. There are problems though. Should the poverty level of the student body be part of the algorithm? What about teachers who already have the highest performing students? Those kids are already in the 99% percentile. Can't improve past that.

Harry B wrote about the problems with using test scores as a method for evaluating teachers this week.

I agree that solely using test scores to evaluate teachers is problematic. However, I don't have a problem with tests scores being one factor among many when evaluating teachers. I do think that test scores are an excellent method for evaluating overall schools. Every parent that has some discretion in determining where they live knows that. Administrators should be evaluated, as well as teachers, and we should use test scores as a yardstick for them.

Steve gets a 360 evaluation every year. That means he is reviewed by his peers, the clients, his supervisors, and people in different department. All together, he is reviewed by ten or twelve people every year. I would like to see teachers get evaluated in such a fashion. I would like to see parents weighing in, as well. After all, they are the client.

This is a fascinating time for education politics. This is the first time in ages that both the right and the left agree that change needs to occur. We're just sorting out the details.

 

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68 thoughts on “The Test Score Yardstick

  1. I look at test scores when I’m evaluating schools. But, I think they pretty much tell me only who my kid’s peers are going to be, and very little about the teacher. I once plotted a graph of test scores (pass rates on our reading test) v free lunch percent at the school, and the correlation was whopping (something like 0.90).
    the “VAM” measures (value added measures) might tell you something more, but they’re really processed numbers with very high variance. If I had them for the teachers I’m familiar with, I’d want to be able to find something I liked about the teaching itself, that I could reasonably accept would correlate with the VAM measures.
    Oh, and I pay a lot of attention to scores — because I do think it makes a difference who my kids are working with in school. But, I don’t see how that can possibly be a behavior that we could encourage on a system wide scale, since the whole point is to educate all the kids, and not just mine. In fact, though I pay a lot of attention to scores, I think the schools shouldn’t help me at all in that endeavor.

  2. The problem with a 360 evaluation for teachers is that most of the people who are capable of evaluating you don’t have any contact with you during the most important part of your job, when you are in the classroom. This isn’t true in business, where your clients, your peers, and your boss interact with you every day in meetings and on projects.
    We have peer evals at my university, where some departments have 3-4 other profs sit in a teacher’s classroom once a semester and then write a report. That’s minimum an hour to sit in the classroom, an hour to read over the course syllabus and whatever other materials you think are important and write a report. People who take it more seriously might go to an additional class (or all of the different classes the prof is teaching), spend some time talking to the professor and discussing what strategies they used, how the class is going generally, etc. This could be very helpful, but – if you want to bring in 10 evaluators – you’d wind up with 20 or 40 or 100 hours of labor per teacher. So you need to consider the questions: Do you want teachers or administrators to spend their time doing this? Do you want to hire extra teachers to do this? Is this how you’d like schools to spend their money?

  3. “Do you want teachers or administrators to spend their time doing this?”
    Principals should be regularly visiting classrooms if they want to understand their teachers and their students.

  4. af — I’d put it differently. If they are not in constant contact with teaching in classrooms then they are not capable of evaluating teachers. This, as Amy P implies, is the problem. Human beings should be making judgments, based on numbers, other evidence, and intensive observation. But those human beings would be principals, and principals are NOT trained to know anything about teaching and learning, and are not selected for knowing anything about it. Maybe the reverse. And, of course, they should be observing teachers constantly for non-evaluative, but IMPROVEMENT purposes — so that they can figure out who can improve by learning from whom, and make that happen. But their job description does not include managing human resources, improving teaching and learning, or improving the quality of the school experience for the students. And if they try to do that, the district will haul them in for a meeting about a dispute over whether some basketball player is eligible to play.

  5. That’s a real example, by the way — all 4 of our districts high school principals were summoned for half a day at no notice at all to adjudicate such a dispute on a day when all of them had important instructional meetings at school which they therefore missed. I’d blame the district, except that if any of those principals had any sense they would have thought the summons was a sick joke and ignored it. It tells you all you need to know about management culture in public high schools. Would you want a ninny who accepted such a summons making a judgment about the quality of your performance?

  6. Why is it the case, as Harry B notes, that administrators are not familiar with teaching? This seems like a huge problem. In my line of work, at least, a person can only get so far in management if they don’t have some familiarity with the work of the artisans under their supervision. Otherwise you’re ripe for fleecing, frankly.
    I have a love-hate with 360s. They sometimes make annual reviews a popularity contest, and can make it difficult for people who have been asked to whip a team into shape. I don’t believe they’re a silver bullet, but they are another tool.

  7. Why is it the case, as Harry B notes, that administrators are not familiar with teaching?
    I don’t know, but our local school district now has less then 50% of its employees teaching. That can’t be a good sign.

  8. 360 evals? So, when is the actual teaching supposed to happen?
    I met with the middle school teacher I’m partnering with for community service last week. We talked about how I can’t bring my students in to her class during October because they’re doing testing for most of the month. Then she looked at me sadly and said, “We weigh and weigh and weigh them, but when do we ever feed them?”
    There is a place for assessment, but maybe a little less of it? I can’t imagine Steve’s or any workplace really benefits from having significant time devoted to all this assessment.
    Of course, maybe I’m bitter from spending all day at faculty meetings where I found out how much outcomes assessment we’re going to have to do this year. Ugh.

  9. Then the problem is with the training of administrators and that should be addressed, as well. Aren’t most education schools developing new programs in leadership? I know of a couple in NYC, but wasn’t involved enough to know how well they worked.
    Professionals have to be assessed in some way. Every other sort of job has a yearly review. No system is perfect, but it is a basic facet of employment.
    I liked that blog post that you wrote, harry, about teachers observing each other as a learning device. If there was more of an open classroom environment in schools, assessment would happen in a gentler, kinder manner.

  10. Our principal holds monthly meetings with all the teachers in each grade level precisely to discuss teaching methods and areas of improvement. A lot of it is assessments based: “only x% of the first graders are at level H in reading, what can we do to get it to x%+10%.” The rest is curriculum based: “the district just spent $600K we don’t have to buy a new and utterly idiotic math program; what can we do to make sure the third graders learn math anyway.”
    We’re a growing school, so our principal is constantly in classrooms evaluating new teachers, and that’s a rule throughout the district, that new teachers have to be evaluated continuously by the principal, both during class itself and during after-school “now show me your lesson plan for this” sessions.
    Given our experience, and given that NYTimes Magazine article about improving teachers before we fire them (based on that rubric by the guy who’s just published “49 things” or whatever it’s called), I’d say that we need to start with principals, not teachers, because it’s a little easier to overhaul the cadre of principals in any given district, rather than all the teachers.
    I don’t know if it’s a good time to overhaul teaching quality, given that the budget crisis means there are more teachers available than positions in many districts, or if it’s a bad time, given that teacher loads are exploding along with class sizes.
    I’m going out on a limb here, too, and guessing that the methods we would use to measure and improve elementary-school teachers aren’t the same ones that work in high school.
    BTW, this state relies HEAVILY on test scores, and one thing that happens is that schools whose sub-groups of students (economically disadvantaged, race/ethnic “minorities,” exceptional education students) don’t make adequate yearly progress on their tests can be flagged as “failing” schools, which automatically allows parents to transfer their kids to other schools in the district. No bonus points if you’ve already guessed that two schools are currently “failing” because one of their ethnic minorities hasn’t made adequate yearly progress for a couple of years, but the kids whose parents have moved them are Asian and white. And both of those schools have pass rates of >95% for Asian and white students in the school.
    I think test scores are mostly BS. We don’t really need them to know that this district is still utterly failing to meet the needs of its African-American kids.

  11. “I think test scores are mostly BS. We don’t really need them to know that this district is still utterly failing to meet the needs of its African-American kids.”
    I’m not so sure. I think it was only recently that it became much known that there are “good” schools that coast on their high SES families, while doing abysmally with African-American, American Indian, and Latino children. Remember back in the day when groundbreaking “school reform” meant sending a successful suburban principal to fail miserably at an urban school? I think we have come a long way since the 1980s (at least in what we know), and testing is one of the reasons for that.

  12. Laura, I was so flabbergasted that you seemed to suggest that teachers don’t get annual reviews that I looked into some anecdata. In my kids’ schools, teachers are observed 3x a year till they get tenure, then they get observed every other year. The non-observation year, they have to set a goal, the achievement of which is assessed by the principal.
    OK, I have to go batten down the hatches. There’s a big windy mess coming to SE MA, and I ain’t talking about Glenn Beck!

  13. Sorry, you’ll have to do better than a link from biggovernment.com.
    Many teachers have been in the trenches for years as subs/leave replacements until they get their first full-time job. That’s what my sister is doing right now in a Long Island district, and that what most teachers do in our school district in SeMa. (<–I made that up. Isn't it hipstery good?)

  14. Sorry, you’ll have to do better than a link from biggovernment.com.
    Sorry to offend, but I only put that link in because I quoted this sentence from the article: So the best teacher in the building is paid exactly the same as the worst.
    If anyone doubts the veracity of that statement, I would like to hear his explanation.

  15. I worked in the business office of a BOCES in NY, where I had access to salary info. I can assure you that the salaries were different. The best and hardest working teacher in the school I had previously worked in was paid the most.
    But that’s anecdata. Since we don’t really know how to best measure teacher effectiveness, the new interest in value-added assessment of teachers aside, we couldn’t possibly know if the best and worst teachers were paid the same.
    I really can’t bear to click a link to a crap site like Breitbart’s, so if you want to argue this further, you’ll have to find a better source. Otherwise, I contend it’s GOP-financed bullshit like everything else involving Breitbart.

  16. we couldn’t possibly know if the best and worst teachers were paid the same.
    Right, only the other parts of the education system can have a meaningful evaluation.

  17. Since we don’t really know how to best measure teacher effectiveness…
    It isn’t a criminal prosecution where you have to get proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

  18. Just chiming in to note that in lots of environments the most effective and hardest workers are not getting paid more.
    For years I worked with programmers where the people who made the most money were the ones who made negotiating salary a priority (i.e. were in their managers’ office every year insisting on a raise, aggressively negotiating, etc.). I know this from seeing salary lists in several different offices. Sometimes it gets so egregious that you start worrying about losing some of your best people, so you give them something called a “market adjustment”, which is a raise they did not ask for without a title change.
    In one case I also made a pretty big stink about the women making less than the men, which resulted in market adjustments for the women. (I had a supportive counterpart in HR on that project, which is why it actually worked.) The disparity was mostly based on the fact that the women did not feel free to ask for and negotiate raises. (In instances where they did, they got the raise but were also somewhat viewed as pushy. This moderated over time as they got better at it.)

  19. Since we don’t really know how to best measure teacher effectiveness, . . . we couldn’t possibly know if the best and worst teachers were paid the same.
    Interesting argument.
    Even if we don’t “know how” to evaluate teachers, I think we all agree that every school does have a “best” teacher as well a “worst” teacher. Unless we believe that years of experience and courses taken consistently align with teacher effectiveness, we’re not currently compensating them based on their value. That’s how I know that the best and the worst teachers are being paid the same.

  20. I agree that no evaluation system is perfect, with my own personal experiences in the private sector. But I think arguing that an evaluation system has to be perfect before it can be implemented will continue to hurt teacher unions.
    “On whose behalf do you want to make the mistake — the kids or the teachers?” asks Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “We’ve always erred on behalf of the adults before.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/magazine/05FOB-wwln-t.html?ref=education (I’m usually willing to click on to crap sites in my search for information.)

  21. (in the car driving toDC. Please forgive typos.)
    Jen- really annoying story about women and raises and completely believable.
    Wendy- evaluated three times before tenure and then observed every other year until retirement isn’t adequate.

  22. Wendy — you might want to check the practice, not the policy. My guess is that probationary teachers are not actually observed more than once a year, and never thereafter, whatever the policy says. My wife was observed once in her probationary period, by an AP who said he knew nothing about English teaching, and asked her to write the report for him. At a recent meeting of union leaders, where I’d been invited to present ideas about how to intervene in our State’s RTT application (referred to in my post) one left wing veteran said “Well, we all know that the evaluation system is a joke. I mean, they can’t even be bothered to observe probationary teachers whom they are supposed to observe”. As I say, don’t look at policies, look at practices.
    All that said, and as laura indicates above, I think the key reason for observations is for mutual learning, and one of the big problems with individual VAM is that they will discourage even more the collaboration we desperately need.

  23. Wendy- evaluated three times before tenure and then observed every other year until retirement isn’t adequate.
    Especially when, as in some cases, the district or school as a whole is obviously failing.

  24. Harry, I don’t know. My dad was a teacher, and I grew up hearing stories about him being observed by his chair. Do I remember that it was done every single year? No. I don’t remember him saying it. Doesn’t it mean it didn’t happen.
    We ran a peer coaching program at our university where people paired and observed each other. But it fell out of use. So to get my required quota of watching others teach, I’m going to run for our university promotion committee after I make full prof this year.
    I’m in my kids’ (gah! kid! Daughter goes to MS Tuesday) school a lot because 1. kid with special needs 2. I run an after-school Lego Club, and 3. I live across the street, and I really do see a spirit of collaboration. The aides float from room to room, the teachers talk to each other about lesson plans and students, and the principal is pretty involved. Even so, we were NCLB Needs Improvement last year. Apparently, our scores jumped up this year.
    Rose, I work at a private university with an extensive faculty assessment program and no union, and I can assure you, the best teacher is being paid the same as the worst teacher there as well. What’s your solution to that?

  25. “My guess is that probationary teachers are not actually observed more than once a year, and never thereafter, whatever the policy says.”
    Right. If a principal actually took that part of their job at all seriously, they’d be spending a huge portion of their time on it. I think this may be a classic case of the conflict between the urgent and the important. There are so many other claims on an administrator’s time (like harry b’s basketball eligibility example) that non-time sensitive (but important) stuff can fall through the cracks, and in fact stops looking like an important part of the job. We know it’s important to offer more instructional support because young teachers have a horrific turnover. This article (just read the beginning) says that teacher turnover may be costing $7 billion a year in the US:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/20/AR2007062002300.html
    I’ve heard that teachers do not actually improve after about 10 years on the job. I wasn’t able to find a cite, but that seems right. If so, that should probably be reflected in pay scales. When I taught in Russia, they did not have the automatic escalator model of raises for teachers where you get degrees and take courses and get paid more. I’m not sure exactly how it worked, but it was clearly not automatic. It was a process where you’d need to apply for the higher rank and demonstrate your worthiness for it (like American university tenure, but lower stakes). Even 40-something teachers would still be talking about needing to do the process (which might involve doing an open lesson). Matt?
    I think there’s a problem with the traditional isolation between teaching and administration in US schools, which means that principals do not command respect from teachers qua educators, because there’s no reason to think that the principal ever was much of a teacher. As I’ve mentioned before, my Russian principal got out and taught Russian lit classes to younger children (she was a big Gorky fan) while her assistant principals (she had three for a school that covered 1st grade to 11th) had pretty normal teaching loads on top of their administrative responsibilities. Administration was not an escape hatch from the classroom.

  26. Probably not good to bring in the LA Times articles on value-added assessment of teachers, as I am not someone who believes test scores are the be-all and end-all, but interestingly, the teachers they pointed out as among the best (according to that measurement) were almost all just retired or near retirement.

  27. The teachers at our local public school receive tenure after 3 years. They are supposed to be observed during their probationary time. We’ve had quite a lot of administrative turnover in the last few years, which must make the observations close to useless. Will a soon-to-depart administrator write “need improvement” on a teacher’s report, if he knows he won’t be in the system next September? Will the new principal take the predecessor’s opinion as a starting point? It’s all subjective, after all, and I do believe that a teacher’s first or second year in a new assignment will not be the best.
    That then makes the third year the make-or-break year. Our system has refused to renew contracts in that year, which seems to me to be unfair to the teacher, who is often left scrambling to find a new position.
    Teachers with seniority, by our union contract, have the right to bump less senior teachers out of positions, should the number of teachers in their grade be decreased. This has led to very good teachers being displaced by not-so-good (or burnt out) teachers who happen to have more seniority. As our system’s enrollment has decreased, we have lost a number of really good young teachers to other systems. They can do the math, and they know the union contract.
    Your public system’s union contract is a public document. You can request a copy at your town hall. We did, and it made many things much clearer to us.
    By the way–in some systems, by contract, the teachers must receive notice of a pending classroom observation. Thus, the principals are NOT observing a typical day in the classroom. They are observing the absolutely most impressive day. As my daughter observed of a teacher all the kids had regularly witnessed yelling at her chosen victims on regular class days, “Well, of course she wouldn’t pick on them with the principal watching.”

  28. “Thus, the principals are NOT observing a typical day in the classroom. They are observing the absolutely most impressive day.”
    Or at least the best planned day with fewest disciplinary interruptions. On the other hand, I would expect that classroom discussion would be a bit more subdued with the principal there. However, if observation days were frequent enough, I think behavior (both by teachers and students) would 1) eventually get more natural or 2) the general level of preparation and behavior might improve so that observation would become more informative.
    Class videotaping for evaluation is not uncommon for graduate students and young professors. It’s not really a time saver, but it makes scheduling simpler, and I think it would make it easier to evaluate several different people if you can roll the tape and watch them all in a short period of time.
    Here’s a wild idea: require principals to be certified in several different subject areas. You could maybe make that part of the compensation system, so that there’d be a very moderate base salary, with a salary bump for each academic area that they master.

  29. Our principals don’t necessarily have the time to do frequent observations. Bureaucratic paper-pushing takes up a great deal of their time. The state and federal government require many forms to be filed on a regular basis. The yearly state MCAS requires all the tests to be unpacked and packed up again by principals–not by secretaries. This is probably intended to cut down on opportunities for test fraud, but it’s an enormous loss of (very expensive) administrator time.
    I suspect that, in practice, teachers’ attendance, collegiality, and parent complaints (or lack thereof) count for a great deal in the decision to keep a teacher or not. In some districts, the teacher’s family connections may be very important as well.

  30. Ok, let’s say we have a best-case scenario where all of this evaluation is in the budget, without hurting other aspects of the budget related to on-the-ground educational expenses (in other words, class sizes aren’t increased or any/all electives removed in order to make up for the expense of evaluations).
    What good does it do, if the money isn’t in the school budget to fix the actual problem? I’m all for improving teachers, but from what I’ve observed at my daughter’s school (she has attended the same elementary school from two years of Early Start all the way to 5th grade)—what is really needed to improve test scores are (1)longer school hours, (2)less summer break, and (3) more one-on-one for struggling students (translation: make all class sizes resemble the IEP classes).
    That school has a high mobility rate—around 70%. It has an even higher poverty rate—92% of the kids get free lunch. And that school constantly struggles with test scores. It isn’t the teachers—I’ve had years to observe this. It’s the challenges that the student body presents.
    Frankly, I don’t want to see pay linked to test scores. That would put those teachers I see busting their asses up behind the eight-ball (as their students already are). Unless you want to see talented, hard-working teachers leave the profession in numbers larger than they already are, that isn’t a solution.
    How do you teach around that—around 70% of the student body either entering or leaving each year—and the curriculum isn’t the same everywhere? How do you teach kids who don’t have a parent to help them with homework in the evening, because the parent is at a second job? No home access to the internet? No way to travel to the public library? No quiet place to study? Too many family members crowding into one small home (only the kitchen and bathroom haven’t been converted to bedrooms)? Or a parent that can’t help with homework because she doesn’t speak English? Or a child that is the de-facto parent of the house, because the so-called parent is drunk or high again?
    Schools with test score problems have other problems in the student body that are a lot more pressing than the test scores. I mean shit, if all you want to do is bring up the test scores of the school, the solution is easy—economic integration. If you want to improve test scores of the individual students, then you have to provide those struggling students with (at least some of) the resources of the non-struggling students. And that means spending more money in a targeted way—a way that would necessarily go more towards teachers and not towards administration. So far, there isn’t the political will to do that because teachers are considered throw-aways just like the students in struggling schools. Not all animals are equal on this farm.

  31. So far, there isn’t the political will to do that because teachers are considered throw-aways just like the students in struggling schools. Not all animals are equal on this farm.
    Everything problem you mentioned was worse here back in the 80s when the mills were closing and the schools were actually functioning then.
    Teachers here make around $60k a year, which is well above the local medial household income, plus don’t pay hardly anything to their own health care or retirement. Spending is over $15k per student, which is more than the school we use charges.
    Anyway, I agree that the problem is lack of political will, but teachers and students are not in the same boat.

  32. “How do you teach around that—around 70% of the student body either entering or leaving each year—and the curriculum isn’t the same everywhere?”
    Do an intake test and place the child appropriately according to their subject scores. If they are capable of 2nd grade math, put them there. If their phonics are shaky, put them in remedial reading. If they don’t make a year’s progress in a year of school, do summer school (of course, that’s where it gets expensive).
    “How do you teach kids who don’t have a parent to help them with homework in the evening, because the parent is at a second job? No home access to the internet? No way to travel to the public library? No quiet place to study? Too many family members crowding into one small home (only the kitchen and bathroom haven’t been converted to bedrooms)?”
    Kids shouldn’t be bringing home any homework that they can’t do by themselves, and in the early elementary grades, they shouldn’t have much homework, period. (I understand that realistically kids need supervision to make sure they do homework and do it neatly, but that’s different than “helping.”)
    As for the internet, there was a study recently that said that having internet at home was academically harmful for low-income children. (I didn’t immediately find the cite, but it’s out there.) That said, I think “the digital divide” is less and less of an issue as phone-based internet is progressively penetrating all layers of US society. Not that it’s convenient to look stuff up on a four-inch screen.
    I get that things change in the upper elementary years with more challenging assignments (including the crafty ones we hate), but at least with math, a lot of the damage is happening in early elementary school. I was talking to my dad (he’s been adjuncting some remedial community college courses again) and he says that the problem areas are his 20 and 30-something students’ 2nd and 3rd grade math facts.

  33. Teachers here make around $60k a year
    Wow. Here, starting pay for teachers is only $30,000 (that is considered low pay in Illinois); in order to reach $60K a teacher has to have over 20 years of experience plus a master’s degree. That’s a lot of time to put in before earning a decent, family-supporting wage.
    Spending is over $15k per student
    Ok, now how much of that $15K goes towards maintenance of school buildings, transportation for students, high utility payments for buildings with low-energy efficiency, top-heavy administration, etc. When I look at budget comparisons for my school district and area suburban school districts, I can’t help but notice that in my school district, a greater portion of the pie goes towards transportation, maintenance, and support services.
    It’s also worth mentioning that the city schools have a much higher percentage of the student population with IEPs (compared to the suburban schools). I don’t know how it is for the suburban schools, but the city district fights IEPs. I don’t know if NCLB helps in that regard or not, but I’ve fought the school for getting one for my daughter for years; magically, in her second year of ISAT testing (probably her second year of helping bring those test scores down!!), she finally got an IEP. She has made tremendous progress with that extra help. (although they’re still waffling on giving her a formal assessment for dyslexia despite obvious signs. Folks who’ve been there and done that tell me it’s all about the money. Once a problem has been documented, they’re obligated to spend money addressing it, hence the waffling). She’s reading above grade level now (though I still think she has dyslexia based on the dramatic difference in her writing vs. verbal skills–night and day. She reverses a lot of numbers and letters, and I think she’s learned some context accommodations for that in reading, but with math those accommodations don’t work…)
    Anyway. Point being, the solutions cost money. And there’s always a willingness to spend money on administration and more oversight, but not the willingness to spend money on smaller class sizes or longer school hours—things that have a proven track record on academic progress.

  34. It turns out I may have been low-balling some of those numbers. The median salary is apparently $70k/year and that wouldn’t include very generous benefits. Of course, most of the teachers in Pittsburgh have 20 years or more experience. Dropping enrollment means few new hires.
    Ok, now how much of that $15K goes towards maintenance of school buildings, transportation for students…
    No idea, exactly. Per wikipedia, the actual budget is $19k per kid ($524 million, 28k kids), but I know some is lost for transporting private school kids and other things. The district says the number is $17k. I figured $15k was a safe number that still made my point.
    The district also says they average 12 to 14 students per teacher. You can see what they prepared to prep for a potential strike.
    What the district doesn’t say is how many schools failed this year and how many actually did worse than the year before. I’m not happy about spending more money on oversight. However, the current situation isn’t something that benefits anybody but teachers very close to retirement.

  35. I’m just shocked that a society that can find about 500 ways to measure a baseball player can only think of about 5 to measure a teacher. We’ve been talking a lot about how to measure success in my school (private and rising in prestige, gaining students, etc.). Our head talks about not really being able to measure it for 10 or 15 years when the kids come back and tell you what they are doing with their lives. At the same time, we’re sitting through opening meetings where it seemed like half the faculty went and did some sort of program they could bring back to school. So we’re a pretty good and motivated bunch.
    So we’ve been challenged to figure out how to measure effective teaching, and we’re realizing that in a community like ours, it ain’t just about the classroom. There’s a person whose not all that good but his room is the safe space for disaffected kids. He’s probably saved some kids’ lives and our community and school would be much worse without him. Everybody looks the other way at the fact that he doesn’t enforce the uniform and all that stuff and he’s always late with his paperwork b/c he’s so far beyond the rest of us in this one area. How do you quantify that?

  36. The per-pupil spending figures are very hard to interpret without a lot more detailed knowledge. Basically, how well does the district fulfill its IDEA obligations?
    I’ll have said this before, but one friend of mine who is superintendent of a well-known large urban district can tell you exactly how much the most expensive pupil costs (not, in fact, a special ed student, but a seriously criminal one): $350k, which the district pays, by court order, to a secure institution in another state.

  37. Rose, I work at a private university with an extensive faculty assessment program and no union, and I can assure you, the best teacher is being paid the same as the worst teacher there as well. What’s your solution to that?
    The solution is to improve the assessment program. Easy peasy, right? Seriously, maybe there’s a certain “culture of collegiality” within educational institutions that might be a factor in failing to link compensation with value. I dunno.

  38. Amy P makes a good point that homework shouldn’t require parents to “help”, only to supervise. This is a problem in many schools today, where the push for “parental involvement” has evolved into scenarios requiring parents to spend time sitting at a computer terminal with their third graders helping them “research” global warming for their “real world science” project. It’s the type of education innovation that only serves to widen the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students.
    This brings up the issue of lousy curriculum, which is a problematic factor in the teacher evaluation process. A math professor blogs about this problem, describing how he has to help his first-grader with her math homework, but he wonders how other students are learning this stuff.
    So we made it through the worksheet, but there are a lot of questions in my mind about the pedagogical design of this stuff. And how in the world does this sort of thing work in a household where the parents don’t have the time, patience, interest, fluency, or comfort level in mathematics to sit down and work all this out with the kid?
    http://castingoutnines.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/in-the-trenches-with-envisionmath/

  39. And there’s always a willingness to spend money on administration and more oversight, but not the willingness to spend money on smaller class sizes or longer school hours—things that have a proven track record on academic progress.
    Actually, smaller class sizes do not have a proven track record on academic progress. It’s one of those myths that is consistent with the one that says more money will always result in better schools.

  40. My husband works for the Chicago Public Schools and is directly involved in producing IEPs. Yes, they are challenged frequently due to the expense. (Is anyone surprised by that? A commitment to tens of thousands of dollars a year *not* looked at closely would be just as scandalous.) I can say that the IEP thing has turned into a racket, which is part of why it’s often viewed with suspicion. Parents hear their kid might have a better chance getting into Northside College Prep if they have an IEP, and within a month there’s a lawyer scheduling meetings. It’s sad because it shows that we’re all just fighting over scraps. God forbid there be enough high school slots for all college-bound students.
    In my mind what we’re trying to solve thru the schools are economic problems on the part of the families — not education problems, really. NCLB is designed to level the socioeconomic playing field, in a socioeconomic landscape that has become more stratified in the last 15 years. I just don’t see it happening.
    n.b. I’m not at all surprised that metrics are easy in baseball but not easy in education. Just think about how nebulous football metrics are compared to baseball and you see the problem. Not everything in life happens in discrete 3-second bursts followed by tons of time to write it all down. The same is true in health care, BTW, where some fields have well-established metrics and quality indicators, and other fields have almost none.

  41. “Actually, smaller class sizes do not have a proven track record on academic progress.”
    As I recall, they do, it’s just that they have to be really small, not just smaller, so an IEP-sized class (like La Lubu mentions) would make a difference, but just shrinking a class by several kids wouldn’t. (I’ve got a playdate coming, so I can’t look it up.)
    Also, as I expect Rose knows, there’s the complicating factor that if everybody across the board goes to smaller classes, there are suddenly twice as many job openings in the “good” schools and the “bad” schools” (that had trouble early with teacher recruiting), so that there’s the potential for a mass exodus of good teachers from the “bad” schools to the “good” schools, with the “bad” schools needing to scrape the bottom of the pedagogical barrel to fill jobs. I’ve heard that’s what happened in California when they made the experiment, but as I said, I have to rush off.

  42. Rose, smaller classes do not give appreciable gains in academic progress for children from wealthy school districts who are already at or above grade level.
    But they do provide significant gains for children in poor school districts, especially those below grade level.
    In other words, that particular intervention needs to be targeted to the students that need it. KIPP-style middle schools succeed because of the smaller class sizes and longer classroom time. It’s not rocket science. Does everyone student need that form of intervention? No. But why deny that to the students who would benefit from it? It gets results.
    You can’t have it both ways. If you want first-world economic, technological, and cultural achievement, you can’t do it with falling literacy rates and failing students. And the cop-out of “well, we can always import our talent!” isn’t going to work after we reach the tipping point of talented foreigners not wanting to come here any longer. Frankly, I don’t believe the U.S. will be able to continue having a first-world standard of living without a strong set of middle-income people to support it—and that middle is evaporating.

  43. jen, I hear what you’re saying about the IEPs turning into a racket, but Chicago is a whole ‘nother ballgame from downstate. Here, there are no magnet college prep high schools to get into; the path to getting into the public high school that the rich kids go to (“rich” used fairly loosely, as the parents with actual wealth send their kids to the mega-expensive private schools, or have vacated the city for McMansions in the lily-white suburbs that have de-facto “private schools” as the cost of admission to living in the district is prohibitive), is to request the special electives that are only offered at that school. They say there’s been a crackdown on that, and that those classes will be offered at all schools (with the teachers commuting, I presume). Parents of athletically-talented boys can try for an athletic scholarship at the private high school that is awfully proud of their teams (they send scouts to the poor public schools); they have athletics for girls at that school, but they aren’t proud enough to scout (or give scholarships to) female athletes.
    Anyway. Downstate, there is a great deal of shame associated with having a child with an IEP. Most folks won’t admit it except to other parents dealing with the same thing. So, the only folks clamoring to get an IEP for their children are the parents of children with obvious issues that aren’t going away—issues that can’t be wished or pretended away. That’s where my frustration comes in. It wasn’t fun for me to go to endless intervention meetings (and miss work! for no pay!) and repeat myself ad infinitum that my daughter’s academic struggles are related to her early premature status and medical complications that resulted from her extreme prematurity, and remind them (yet again) that there is ample documentation, and hey—you should know this, because she attended two years of Early Start right here!—gah!

  44. The per-pupil spending figures are very hard to interpret without a lot more detailed knowledge.
    I’m sure the public schools are getting all of the hard cases, but with 28,000 kids in a district, I’d expect the law of large numbers to keep things comparable with other large districts.
    Anyway, I have a cousin who teaches in the high school where his district places who are unable to be kept in regular schools for discipline reasons. It certainly sounds expensive just to keep them from damaging each other.

  45. About class size –
    From my readings, there is no clear-cut evidence that smaller class size significantly improves academic achievement. The best you can say is that the evidence is mixed. Even the studies (STAR is one) most often cited to defend smaller class sizes only showed minimal and questionable benefits when class sizes were reduced to 15-17 pupils, certainly not a goal seriously contemplated by most schools.
    And yes, in California they halted the small class size initiative when they saw student achievement decline, probably due to declining teacher quality.

  46. IIRC, most charter schools catering to low-income populations and in particular KIPP schools do not rely on small class sizes. Here’s Jay Mathews recently commenting on that:
    . . . I have visited about half of the 82 KIPP schools and have a good sense of their class sizes. They are in almost every case larger than the neighborhood schools in their areas. For fifth to 8th grade, regular schools I have visited have close to the average national class size, about 24 kids. KIPP classes tend to be in the 28 to 32 student range. The KIPP school leaders have almost all told me that they believe that very well selected and trained teachers can handle that many kids, particularly when all teachers operate with the same class management rules and high standards, a big plus when you have large classes. . . .
    It usually does come back to the teachers, doesn’t it.

  47. There are poverty issues. If we go by the assumption that autism spectrum disorders are inheritable and that people with ASDs find it hard to maintain employment or excel in their fields, then it follows that ASDs (and thus IEPs) may be more common among the poor.
    I’m weirded out. With all the talk about overcrowded classes and even with one of the other middle schools in town being closed town (for infrastructure issues), the MS class my students will be working with for community service has only 14 students.

  48. I’ll write more later, but at least back in 2006 before the current budget crunch, I visited a Rockville, MD (that’s suburban DC) school where there was a maximum of 12 or 13 kids in the elementary classrooms. They said something about classroom size reductions due to Title 1 (the grounds were crowded with portables). That class sizes gave me whiplash after a visit to a Catholic parochial kindergarten class in the same suburban town where a single teacher (no aide) was in charge of 26 kids. Around the same time, our oldest was in a NW DC public pre-K class with about 22 kids, but with an aide.

  49. Amy P, friends and acquaintances claim to have attended parochial schools with classrooms of 40 to 60 children! Under the charge of one nun! I don’t know if these stories are apocryphal. They do agree that the classrooms featured very strict discipline.
    I’m not convinced that more data will lead most parents to demand to influence their children’s placements. I think that most of the readers of this site would, and many of our acquaintances would. However, there are many parents who would either not look for the data, or wouldn’t have the background to understand it. Or, other factors influence the decision about school and teacher choice.
    The Boston Globe reported on a school in Dedham whose test scores did not rise enough. Only 8 children will attend other schools in the district, although any child in the school could have requested a transfer: http://tinyurl.com/2ebw7os.
    Of those, said Avery School principal Clare Sullivan, six are new to the district or need to attend other schools for specific reasons, such as a family move to a new neighborhood.
    She said it’s a clear message that Avery parents have faith in the education their children are receiving.
    “Our school provides a safe, warm, and encouraging environment for our students to learn,’’ Sullivan said. “I have a lot of faith in my teachers. And we have a very diverse population, which creates a wonderful environment for our children.’’

    While education researchers and reformers focus on test scores, and may choose their own children’s schools on the basis of test scores, for many parents, a calm, orderly and nurturing classroom seems to be more important.

  50. “While education researchers and reformers focus on test scores, and may choose their own children’s schools on the basis of test scores, for many parents, a calm, orderly and nurturing classroom seems to be more important.”
    Or:
    1. My kid has made friends here and so have I, having made a multi-year investment in getting to know families.
    2. I know the teachers and the administration.
    3. It’s a convenient distance from our home.
    4. In 1-3 years, my kid will be moving on to middle school/high school anyway.
    5. If I switch my kid to a different school and don’t like it, what then?

  51. It usually does come back to the teachers, doesn’t it.
    So, what you’re implying….is that if we merely transfer the teachers at suburban schools to teach instead at struggling inner city schools, those schools test scores will increase? Perhaps with a corresponding decrease in test scores at suburban schools? Really? You think it’s the teachers, and not the breathtaking socioeconomic difference in privileges, opportunities, reading (and books) in the home, various educational enrichments, nutrition, health and wellness, safety, etc.? Seriously? Rose, you need to get out of the house more often.
    Frankly, I think anyone with a little education under their belt could teach at a wealthy suburban school and get good test results. Even people who would univerally be regarded as bad teachers (even if knowledgeable in their own line of studies).
    But to teach at a school that has the challenges of the average inner city school requires more than the average ability to teach. And what are we doing to attract those people who are up to that challenge into that field, and/or into those locations? To stay, I mean? Nothing, that’s what. Not a damn thing.
    Teaching is disregarded as a profession. It’s a joke. All the respect and pay are offered to administrators, most of whom have little to no teaching experience.
    Contrast that to my field (I’m an electrician); there is no such thing as a jobsite superintendent that hasn’t had extensive, hands-on, direct experience in the field—and a lot of it—before getting to that position.
    I’ve often wondered why the process for creating teachers doesn’t resemble more of an apprenticeship program. It seems as if the field would easily lend itself to that style of training. Thoughts?

  52. Thank you, AmyP; you beat me to the punch. I’ll add:
    6. I can’t arrange for before-and-afterschool child care at the other school.
    7. I can arrange for before-and-afterschool child care at the other school, but can’t arrange for transportation. (yes, this is a big problem for parents who live in mid-size cities where bus service ends at 6PM; they can get to the school or home, but not both)
    8. The other school requires uniforms; two changes of uniform costs over $250 in addition to the regular clothing my child needs to play in. Plus; an additional pair of more expensive shoes (the uniform schools don’t allow sneakers). Meanwhile, and entire week’s worth of blue jeans and shirts can be had at a regular department store for $200, and they do double-duty for school and play.

  53. Frankly, I think anyone with a little education under their belt could teach at a wealthy suburban school and get good test results.
    I’ve never been a suburbanite, but I am closely related to many. I would say they are a complex people, once you get to know them, and that many of the young ones are very good at causing problems and making life difficult for teachers.

  54. “Seriously? Rose, you need to get out of the house more often.”
    La Lubu, I love you dearly, but cut down on the confrontational tone. I believe Rose has done quite a bit of amateur research on education issues and if you are more polite, she might tell you something interesting.
    I’ll insert my quarterly recommendation for “The Class” (Entre les murs) right here, because it’s the very best classroom movie I’ve ever seen, and I think it does illustrate very nicely what skill (or the lack of it) does. The French teacher who is the hero of the movie has a pretty tough class (for France), he works hard, and he’s basically a good guy, but there are some things he doesn’t know he doesn’t know, so he keeps repeatedly making the same disastrous mistakes.
    “I’ve often wondered why the process for creating teachers doesn’t resemble more of an apprenticeship program. It seems as if the field would easily lend itself to that style of training. Thoughts?”
    I think the same thing–do an academic degree, some education (or psychology courses), then three years as an aide in a more experienced teacher’s class, with increasing responsibility as time goes by. That would make mentoring a new teacher more automatic and also provide a benefit for the mentor (make my copies, get my coffee, check these work sheets, etc.). When I was in Russia, a number of my Peace Corps English as a Foreign Language colleagues got essentially that sort of placement in their Russian schools. My American colleagues tended to be chomping at the bit for their own classrooms and doing things their way, but years later, I think that that was actually a pretty good arrangement, first for training the new teacher, and secondly (which is not relevant here) for providing the Russian English teacher with built-in opportunities for improving her English. If we in the US did something like that here, it could be a good on-ramp for career-switchers, and I bet it would cut down on turnover.

  55. So, what you’re implying….is that if we merely transfer the teachers at suburban schools to teach instead at struggling inner city schools, those schools test scores will increase?
    Not at all, but it does seem that’s what you’re inferring from my comment.
    I’m convinced that teachers can make a big difference in raising student achievement levels. However, in many suburban school districts it’s usually the parents who pick up the slack when teachers and/or curriculum fail the students. I provided an example of this in my comment at 8:40 on Sept.4 and I think Laura has written of how she does something similar.
    Bottom line, on which we seem to agree, is that in many cases both suburban teachers and inner city teachers are not doing such a great job. For the most part, ed schools are a joke. At least, that’s my impression.

  56. Amy P, friends and acquaintances claim to have attended parochial schools with classrooms of 40 to 60 children! Under the charge of one nun! I don’t know if these stories are apocryphal. They do agree that the classrooms featured very strict discipline.
    47 in my first-grade class at a parochial school many, many years ago! And I have the class picture to prove it!

  57. When I was a lad in Berkeley many many years ago… the school board decided to desegregate by busing kids across town, to mix things up. This was voluntary on the part of the school board, before things were required by the state, I am that old.
    I’d been at the Emerson school, in a leafygreen part of town, lots of parents had college degrees, some worked at U of Cal. Kids were doing spectacularly well, and the teachers were sort of smug, thought they were very talented.
    New group of kids came in, scores went to hell, teachers got less smug.

  58. “So, what you’re implying….is that if we merely transfer the teachers at suburban schools to teach instead at struggling inner city schools, those schools test scores will increase?”
    I should mention that several people on this thread (including me) are long time KTMers, habitues of kitchentablemath.blogspot.com. There are at least five years of archives there (and I think there may be some important ones from 2005 that are a bit harder to locate). You can’t really tell from the more general current posts, but the early, formative KTM years were more personal (my kid was tracked out of high school calculus by 3rd grade!!! I don’t understand his @#$%^&* homework!!!) and more focused on the deceptive nature of “good” suburban schools whose test scores are largely the product of mom and dad’s afterschooling, Kumon, tutors, and various commercial “learning centers”. I like to use the term “stone soup” to describe the situation. The villagers think that they are getting yummy free soup from a stone, but they’re actually the ones contributing all of the meat and veggies to the soup. That overstates the school situation a bit, but I think it’s a helpful image to bear in mind as a parent. (KTM’s other claim to fame is of being an anti-reform math mother ship, but that’s material for another day.)
    Anyway, to quote a mentor of my husband (who was explaining his theory of reading other philosophers), “Don’t make the other guy more of a schmuck than he actually is.”

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