Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What I didn't get to ask about teacher quality.

The conversation about improving teacher quality these days centers primarily on two pieces: whether teachers should be evaluated and paid based on the test scores of their students, and how to fire bad teachers. But there are so many other point in the life cycle of a teacher where we might look at cultural and practical changes, tiny and massive, that might improve quality, from the point at which entering college students decide to major in education to the point at which teachers decide whether to retire. The book we discussed Monday at the Urban Institute, Creating a New Teaching Profession, really does a good job at peeling back all the layers. Whether or not you will like the prescriptions in the book, certainly you have to agree that it represents a broader range of entry points than we usually find in this debate.

I had lots of questions for the panelists that I never got to. I guess I should have known that my reins on the flow of conversation would be tested once Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein got going. Also, time was short! But here are some questions I will toss out, for musing and future stories:

David Monk suggested in his chapter that accountability reforms might be off-putting to and drive away the intellectually talented people we hope to attract into teaching. Is there credence to this?

—Reporters ask me “what the research says” about whether merit pay works. The simple answer is that we don’t have evidence yet. But it is important to clarify what “works” means. Raising test scores, as a primary effect? Attracting different kinds of people into the profession, or retaining successful teachers?

—Can the practical complications of value-added models and the weaknesses of the tests they are based on be refined—and do they need to be refined—in time for policy change? (At which point I would have preempted the panelists from giving “The children can’t wait” as an answer on its own, because of course our children can’t wait for effective practice. The question is about whether or not we can assure the practice is effective.)

—One point of opposition to merit pay is the idea that it would be divisive for teachers. What do teachers have to say about this, and what have we found in terms of collective versus individual pay for performance? I think there are plenty of on-the-ground stories to be written both from experiments so far, from looking at the way teams of teachers do and do not work together, and from their attitudes.

Rick Hess brought up in his chapter the idea of specialization. When you think about it, it is curious that a teacher who walks in the first day of school has the same exact duties as someone who has been around a decade, a teacher great in classroom management has the same daily life as one whose skills are in curriculum, and so on. How might a world of teacher specialization and differentiated duties really look?

I had more I wanted to get to, but it is perhaps too detailed and boring even for this forum.


  1. You're only scratching the surface here, Linda. I'm glad you're taking up the issue though. For a teacher's point of view, please check out my recent blogs at

  2. I really like the idea of specialization. I'd love to hear how that would play out.

  3. Diane Ravitch says emphatically that research does NOT show that merit pay "works." Whether that means "absence of information" or "information to the contrary" isn't totally clear to me. Ravitch is very accessible and will respond to you quickly if you ask her directly, Linda. I'm sure you have contact info, but I'll e-mail you her e-mail directly.

    My background in a private-sector industry is in unionized daily newspapers. Our pay scale was based on seniority, from <1 year to >6 years, and then negotiated raises in the contract. "Overscale" pay could be and was awarded on an individually negotiated basis -- the equivalent of merit pay, of course. The universal belief (predictably) was that overscale was awarded when an employee was in a specific position to leverage management (for example, I made some due to taking on an unappealing position that nobody wanted, in an emergency) or to employees who were particularly aggressive and skilled at negotiating. There was not a shred of belief in our newsroom that overscale was awarded based on pure merit.