The New York Times on Education

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We may have to add the New York Times to the list of DeFENSE’s list of community friendly media.  In the past few weeks, the NYT has published a number of interesting stories about education reform and how it is failing. This past Sunday, the paper out did itself, however.

In A New Measure for Classroom Quality, the Times addresses the ill-advised notion of measuring teachers’ performance based on test scores:

Test scores are an inadequate proxy for quality because too many factors outside of the teachers’ control can influence student performance from year to year — or even from classroom to classroom during the same year. Often, more than half of those teachers identified as the poorest performers one year will be judged average or above average the next, and the results are almost as bad for teachers with multiple classes during the same year.

The alternative? Amazingly simple — measuring the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction. According to R. Barker Bausell, the piece’s author and biostatistician in the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland —

Thirty years ago two studies measured the amount of time teachers spent presenting instruction that matched the prescribed curriculum, at a level students could understand based on previous instruction. The studies found that some teachers were able to deliver as much as 14 more weeks a year of relevant instruction than their less efficient peers….

There was no secret to their success: the efficient teachers hewed closely to the curriculum, maintained strict discipline and minimized non-instructional activities, like conducting unessential classroom business when they should have been focused on the curriculum.

Of course, if we want more efficient and more talented teachers in the system, we have to recruit them and make sure we hold on to the one’s we’ve got.

In the second education piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari address The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries. The opinion piece’s opening paragraph is pithy, to say the least.

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

If we are to attract truly talented teachers to America’s schools, we have to first change the culture of blame for the predicament we are in. Second, the authors argue, we have make becoming a teacher a lot more attractive.

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

With data like that, it isn’t hard to understand why (1) it is very difficult to attract top talent to the teaching profession and (2) keep the talent in place when it is in the classroom.   In fact, if money would really help solve the issue of improving public education systems being unable to attract “top talent,”  then any good business would find a way to get the talent through the door and reward that talent once it was in front of the customer, in this case, kids.

And looking at Denver Public Schools’ own situation, a real difference could be made just based on District a management’s own claims related to our school district’s fiscal standing. Yes, it could be done even with the state’s cuts in the education budget…

Let’s say we really want to increase teacher pay in DPS in a meaning manner. I like the number $10,000 rather than a percentage of a teacher’s salary.   If the average teacher’s salary in DPS is currently ~$50,000, it would go up to $60,000. Lets do the math:

  • Say DPS has 4,000 full-time teachers (I know, the number is probably high, but go with me for a minute)
  • We want to inject a noticeable salary increase for teachers who fit the quality model, the ones who are really making a difference
  • Let’s be generous and say that 60% of all teachers fit the model of excellence, and we want to reward that with an extra $10,000 per year, salary, not bonus
  • The math works like this — (4,000 * 60%) * $10,000 = $24 million, or roughly the amount saved by the 2008 retirement funding transaction (aka the PCOPs), at least that is our superintendent Tom Boasberg keeps telling us

While $24 million sounds like a lot of money to you and me, it is only 2.6% of DPS’ overall 2009/2010 revenues of $922 million.

In fact, the District spends about $680 million at the classroom level of the system based on it student based budgeting numbers reported to the school board.  That leaves $242 million running around the halls of 900 Grant Street.

If 10% of this $242 million were spent on a real teacher performance reward system, you’d see DPS skyrocket to the top of public schools systems for job seekers.  Heck, you might even be able to hire a few hard working professionals from other walks of life, especially if those professionals didn’t have to drive a Yugo, subsidize the pantry with government cheese, and serve as the scapegoat for all of our school systems’ failures for the past 40 years.

It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

2 thoughts on “The New York Times on Education

  1. Leonie Haimson

    Numerous studies have shown that teacher incentive pay doesn’t work and can have damaging consequences. Moreover the first oped piece you cite above was very flawed. Instructional time as defined by whom? Moreover, research shows that the smaller the class, the less the disruption and the more “time on task”, so why blame teachers if they are burdened with excessive class sizes?

    Better to spend the extra funds on programs proven to work through rigorous evidence to help kids learn, like class size reduction, than failed programs like incentive pay.

    1. Christopher Scott

      It is critical to understand the difference between salary and pay-for-performance. Salary is what an employee earns regardless of performance. The employee generally can count on earning his/her salary every year. The basic concept of setting salary is what value does an employee bring to an organization. Thus, if an employee has a track record of success/high performance, he/she is likely to command a higher salary in the marketplace.

      Pay for performance, however, is a whole different concept. The most common pay for performance model is sales commission. The more you sell, the more you earn. But there are other pay for performance models, mostly associated with bonus structures.

      For example, let’s say I am an IT project manager specializing in large software implementations ($10+ million projects). My company gives me a 10% bonus every time I bring in a project task 20% under budget. So if I bring a $700,000 task in 20% below budget, there by earning my company $140,000, the company then gives me an additional 10% of my $130,000 salary. I can count on the salary, but I cannot count on the bonus. See?

      In teaching, the pay for performance model works just like the example above. If a teacher’s students perform well on a standardized test, the teacher gets a bonus. However, as the Times story points out, too many variables are outside the teacher’s control when assessing student performance. Teacher’s know this and, thus, don’t focus on the pay for performance goals. They focus on the students’ needs. Further, teachers tend to be people for whom money is not the end-all goal.

      In my reading and experience, salary is a major barrier to entry in the teaching profession. If that barrier could be mitigated, I believe, like Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, many more people could be attracted to the profession.

      In my opinion, even $10,000 isn’t enough of a salary increase for DPS’ teachers. For example, with my 20 years of professional experience, I pulled in a six-figure salary. I have a B.A. in English and some master’s level work in computer science. My first passion is teaching, but I have a family of four to raise. Thus, I choice to go into consulting, a sort of business level “teaching” position.

      Many of my colleagues made the same choice. I promise, if these people were in a classroom, the educational experience of their students would be unbelievable. If any of us were to be teachers, however, the salaries for top performing employees with 15 to 20 years of experience + a masters degree would need to be in the low $80’s, at a minimum.


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