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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teachers have serious reservations about merit pay, nobody is listening

By Jennie Smith, Dade County Education Policy Examiner

Saturday's Miami Herald published an article education reporter Kathleen McGrory entitled "Teachers give higher grade to merit pay." The gist of the article (which you can read in its entirety by clicking on the link above) is that the "Senate Bill 6 2.0," a.k.a. the Sister of SB 6, a "new" teacher tenure/merit pay bill which is already in the works in Florida's ultraconservative state legislature, is such an improvement over the last one, which created such a public outcry that outgoing governor Charlie Crist (who, it must be mentioned, had initially lauded the bill) vetoed it in an attempt to garner votes from disgruntled educators and parents.

As a public school teacher who stays very up-to-date on developments in public education and education policy, and who is very politically active in the domain of public education, I was quite shocked to read the headline.

"Really? Teachers are giving this new bill a 'higher grade'? That's news to me."

See, since I do stay current on education issues as they evolve (or explode, as the case may be), I knew all about the "new SB 6." I have already seen a draft of it, though it has likely changed at least somewhat since I saw it. And while I did note some minor improvements (which really constitute more of a "facelift," designed to lull current teachers into a false sense of security by implying that the most radical changes might not actually apply to them, but only to a future generation of teachers), the core of the bill remains unchanged.

I am still not sure on what grounds McGrory (or the Herald) can claim that teachers are embracing the new legislation. She points to Andy Ford, president of Florida Education Assocation (FEA), the state teachers' union, saying, "We're open to looking at paying teachers differently...It's really about how you develop the plan."

This could hardly be used as evidence that Ford or FEA support the "new" bill--much less as any sort of consensus that public school teachers across the state of Florida support it.

Real changes? Or more of the same?

The "major changes" that McGrory cites in her article are as follows:

The old: Known as Senate Bill 6, it was based half a teacher's evaluation on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The new: Allows end-of-course exams, Advanced Placement tests and tests developed by local school districts to be factored in, too.

Nothing in that is new. In fact, SB 6 as it was written stated that the FCAT would be used until the state and/or districts developed end-of-course exams (EOC), which would replace the FCAT. Those EOCs are, in fact, already being rolled out and piloted in schools in Miami-Dade County, including the one I work at. The old legislation also allowed for Advanced Placement (AP) tests to be used in applicable courses (which obviously could not use the FCAT).

No teachers I know would consider this to be a vast improvement over the old legislation, at least not without seeing the new tests, or knowing exactly how they (or existing tests, such as AP) would be used to determine evaluations and/or raises.

In fact, as a teacher of one Advanced Placement class, and as a friend of several AP teachers of various subjects, I think that I can accurately voice our intense concerns over AP tests being used in measuring our "effectiveness" and therefore our salary and/or eventual employment.

I could go on for pages about this, but I will do my best to keep it brief. In sum, using AP tests to measure teachers is no different from using the FCAT to measure teachers, and in a certain respect, could be even worse. Let me explain as concisely as I can.

AP Exams are standardized tests devised and administered by the College Board (those who bring you the SAT). In order for a class to call itself "Advanced Placement," the College Board must approve its syllabus. Toward the end of the year (usually in early May), examinations are administered to the students studying these AP classes. Generally speaking, if a student scores at least a 3 out of 5 possible points on the AP Exam, he/she receives college credit for the class. Of course, colleges themselves decide whether or not to award credit based on AP Exam scores (most state universities and colleges do, while many of the higher-echelon schools, both state and private, do not, or require a score of 5).

Part of the reason that using these tests to "measure teacher effectiveness" is problematic is for the same reason as it would be for the FCAT. If you are comparing the AP scores of students in, let's say, Overtown or Little Haiti or Little Havana or Hialeah, who often come from parents who do not speak English, and many of whom are illiterate even in their native language, and who have not had the opportunities, resources or education-prioritizing structure at home that give so many middle-class and wealthy children a huge advantage on all standardized tests (as reflected by national data), to students in Coral Gables, or at magnet schools that "skim the cream" off so many neighborhood schools, there will obviously be a difference. This difference does not by any means indicate that the teacher is of poorer quality, or is "less effective." Anyone who has ever worked in a classroom will tell you that it is easier to get students who come in well-prepared, motivated and academically supported (and often pushed) at home than those who come in ill-prepared and who often have parents either unable to help them or who simply do not see education as a top priority and therefore do not push their children to study.

This situation, which is already apples-to-oranges (or in a Miami context, perhaps mangoes-to-coconuts), is further compounded by the fact that the new high school accountability formula, which factors participation and performance in AP classes into high school grades (along with FCAT scores and graduation rates), has already encouraged many schools, especially those with a "lower grade" (usually C, D and F schools), to push (and sometimes even force) unprepared or undermotivated students into AP classes.

Statewide, teachers have been "encouraged" (read: told) to corral as many students as possible into AP classes, regardless of whether or not we feel the students are prepared for or willing to do the work and ultimately perform well on the exam. We are often told that "regardless of whether or not they pass the exam, the students will benefit from having taken the higher-level class." In some regards, that statement might be true; on the other hand, it means that motivated or relatively high-performing students are pushed into four, five, six, sometimes even seven or eight (at eight-period block schedule schools) AP classes in one year, causing them to get overwhelmed and perform poorly on all of the exams, and sometimes in the class itself. The other unintended consequence is that when more and more AP classes are created, and filled with students who either did not want to take an AP class or are not academically prepared for the AP class, the rigor of the class is damaged. This is unfortunate but in some cases inevitable. If you have a class full of students who, well-meaning though they might be (and this is not always a given, when students are put in AP classes against their will), do not yet have the skills or knowledge required to study the material on a college level, it is ridiculous, if not impossible, to actually teach the material on a college level.

Thus, educators teaching AP classes in neighborhood schools in disadvantaged communities will now find themselves measured by the performance not just of students they would have recommended for AP classes (who already will often perform at a different level than the children of wealthier, college-educated parents who are fluent in English and prioritize education and studying), but also by the performance of students who, by any rational measure, probably should not be in an AP class at all.

For example, does it make sense to have children sitting, in the same day, in an Intensive Reading class (meaning they failed the FCAT) and an AP English class? It seems counterintuitive, yet it is a situation that those of us teaching in urban schools confront every day. There are two possible reasons for this occurring. One is that the student really should not have failed the FCAT, and that they did attests to the fallibility of that test. Another is that the student really should not be in an AP class, but has been put there, either because he asked for it (for any number of reasons: to feel "smarter," to be with his friends, because he wanted a certain teacher, etc., etc.) or because he was pushed there because he made pretty good grades in his English classes, because he was well-behaved and relatively motivated, etc.

By no logic is it a fair comparison.

Additionally, while a "value-added" formula would supposedly be used to measure teachers of FCAT classes, evaluating the teachers based on "growth" and taking into account certain factors, no such formula can really exist for AP exams. How do you measure "growth" on a test where there is no basis of comparison, since it is not tested year to year like the FCAT?

This will be a similar problem with EOCs. If a student is studying a subject for the very first time, he will not have any scores from previous years upon which to base some sort of measure of "growth." And if the solution is simply administering a pre-test in the subject area, will that really prove how effective his teacher is? If I administer a pre-test to my French I students the first week of school, which is similar to the EOC they will take at the end of the year, they will undoubtedly all fail dismally. So, with that as the basis of growth, even my most mediocre students will probably score phenomenally well on the EOC, if one is looking at growth rather than flat scores. Which could obviously work out to my advantage, if that is ultimately the way it is administered, but does not make a whole lot of sense.

Yet in my skeptical (and cynical) opinion, this is the most benign of possible outcomes, and would have the unintended consequence of too many teachers being paid too much ("too much" for the state's and district's budgets: since the goal of the new governor and of the legislature is to cut the education budget, you can be sure they are not going to put in place any plan that will result in higher costs in teacher salaries).

In order for it to work with their budget plans, they will end up having to look at flat scores on AP Exams and on EOCs. And the result will be that those of us who choose to work in more difficult schools with more troubled and disadvantaged students will be unfairly punished by lower evaluations, lower salaries and possibly losing our jobs, simply because we are working with more students who come to us less prepared, with less academic and financial support at home, and who are often less motivated (usually because they are not pushed as hard at home by parents who are less educated and who do not see education as a priority).

One further point, on that note: in her article, McGrory claims:

Studies show teacher effectiveness is the strongest predictor of student achievement.

However, this is not true, or at least is not the complete truth. Almost all reliable studies show that parents' income and education levels are the strongest predictors of student achievement. Teacher effectiveness is the biggest in-school factor. This is a very important distinction to make when we are discussing how teachers should be hired, fired and compensated.

The old: Did not address evaluating teachers in subjects such as music and art.

The new: Allows local school districts to develop tests in these areas.

Again, I find fault with this assertion that this is a difference in the old legislation and the new. Since the old legislation already called for using EOCs to evaluate teachers in all subject areas--once those tests had been developed, of course--this is not something new and improved. It is simply more of the same.

I would also take issue with the wording of the "new": let us be clear. The state is not "allowing" local school districts to develop tests in these areas; it is forcing them too, and undoubtedly forcing them to do it with money they will be expected to scrape out of their own pockets. In districts that have a surplus, this might be feasible. In districts like Miami-Dade County and Broward, where we are donor counties, putting more money into the state pot but taking back less per pupil than some small counties in the middle of the state for an area with a cost of living several times higher than those other counties, and where each new year is grimly met with the need to cut the budget either by cutting programs in schools or laying off employees, this is nothing short of sabotage. We will be mandated by the state to cut more money out of the classroom--whether through laying off employees, neglecting building safety and maintenance, using old and outdated resources, or simply chopping programs--to develop and administer tests.

And by the way, good luck creating a standardized test for physical education.

The old: Was based only on student learning gains.

The new: Also accounts for the poverty rate, attendance rate and the number of times a student has switched schools.

If they actually find an equitable way to do this, kudos to them. My hat will be off. Simply saying, "We will do this," and actually doing it in a fair manner, are two totally different things. Show me the formula you will use (and reassure me that "attendance rate" will not be my responsibility: I am not the mother of these children and I cannot force them to get out of bed in the morning and get their little rear ends into school), and we will talk.

The old: Had one salary schedule for all teachers.

The new: Has different salary schedules for teachers in critical shortage areas like math and science, or in low-income schools.

I suppose this could be viewed as an improvement. But that improvement could still amount to naught if they leave in place their flawed measurements, whether by FCAT or EOC or AP or whatever other acronyms they throw in, and if a teacher can still be fired, and even lose the ability to renew his or her certification, based on student scores. If I only intend to teach for two or three years, like most Teach for America alumni, then maybe that will sound pretty good--get paid more to teach in a low-income school. But if I plan on teaching as a career, and I know that I can lose my job (or make diddly squat) because my students do poorly on some standardized test that I not only did not write but was never allowed to look at, then no salary the state or district would actually be willing to pay me would convince me to work in a high-needs school. Sorry, but teachers are human too; we need to plan for the future like everyone else, and we want a certain level of job security like everyone else. If we think we have a better chance of keeping our jobs (and ultimately probably making more money too) by working in a school that is, well, easier to work in anyway...those of us who can, will.

The old: Did not factor in advanced degrees.

The new: Would factor in advanced degrees.

Perhaps I am slightly biased, since I have a Master degree and am currently paid more (not overwhelmingly more, but enough to feel it), but I do feel this is an improvement. I put time and effort into getting my MA, and in the process acquired teaching experience and practical experience (in my case, in the form of an exchange program in which I got to spend a year in France improving my French and my knowledge of French culture), and I feel that this without a doubt makes me a better French teacher.

Still, I will withhold applause until I get the details on exactly how, and how much, advanced degrees will be factored in.

The old: Would have had teachers working under one-year contracts.

The new: Would award three-year contracts. After each contract, school districts could choose to retain or fire a teacher, with or without cause.

Hmmm...excuse me? Was that a pause for applause? One year or three years, the new legislation still allows districts to fire teachers with or without cause. So theoretically I could be the teacher of the year at my school, have outstanding success with my students and be going above and beyond the call of duty every day, and still get fired because some principal does not like it that I am active in the teachers' union, or because I disagree with him/her on matters of school policy, or because we simply do not get along. Overall, I would say I have fantastic administrators, but based on conversations I have had with many different teachers at different schools not just in Dade County or in Florida, but around the nation, this makes me an exception, not the rule. Anyone who listens to this debate and says, "But of course no administrator would fire a good teacher, even if they had personal disagreements!" has obviously never been a teacher, or at least not long enough to see it happen (or to see it attempted). The union does not "protect bad teachers"--it protects all members' right to due process. If it is determined that there is just cause to fire the teacher, the teacher is fired. Period. But without the right to due process--which this legislation, even in its supposed "new, improved" form, would strip us of--we are once again at the mercy of administrators...and likely, of test scores.

Extending the contract from one year to three years does nothing more than add a little cushion--instead of worrying about whether we will have a job from year to year, we can worry about it once every three years. Except that with the way they plan on evaluating us based on student scores on tests that have not yet even been funded (much less written), we will probably still get to worry about it every year, since if the scores aren't great, we can probably expect to get fired at the end of the third year.

Jeb Bush is still at the reins.

Even though Jeb Bush has not been governor for three years, somehow he is still the puppetmaster in creating education policy in the state of Florida. McGrory's article attests that the "new proposal" is being crafted by the Foundation for Florida's Future, Jeb Bush's pet project in pushing for expansion of vouchers and charter schools.

Bush has been criticized mightily for using education policy to funnel money to family and friends in the standardized testing and charter school businesses.

He also opposed the 2002 Class Size Amendment, limiting the number of students per teacher in public schools, presumably because of its financial cost, and stated at the time that he had "a couple of devious plans if this thing passes." We can assume that his "devious plans" entail exactly what we see today--refusing to fund the amendment, though it is a constitutional mandate, so that districts have no choice but to cut programs, make layoffs, or pay hefty fines for non-compliance. He and his cronies hoped that this campaign of chaos would push parents to vote in favor of Amendment 8 in the 2010 election, weakening the class size amendment, but it did not succeed. (Maybe because too many people recognize that the reason for the chaos was a lack of funding from the state--not the amendment itself?)

Supposedly, the Foundation for Florida's Future (FFF--an ironic acronym, which, in my take, corresponds exactly to the grade I as an educator would give to this group) based much of its "new proposal" on the Memorandum of Understanding crafted by the Race to the Top work group convened by Charlie Crist in April.

Florida won a $700 million federal grant with its revised Race to the Top application. At the last Miami-Dade County School Board meeting, board members expressed concern that the new legislation would overstep the bounds defined by the MOU.

Further in her Herald article, McGrory states:

Half of teacher evaluations would be based on three years of student data -- such as scores on the FCATs, the new end-of-course exams, norm-reference tests or Advanced Placement tests. The system would look at student growth rather than raw scores, and would account for factors including poverty and student mobility.

Teachers' evaluations would determine at least half of their pay raises. Teachers who do not receive strong evaluations would get smaller raises, and over time the lowest performing teachers would be weeded out.

"Growth" would be difficult if not impossible to determine based on EOCs or AP tests, as I discussed at length earlier--unless the teacher is being compared to herself over three years, meaning her students' scores should rise every year--a statistic impossibility, especially when we are talking about an experienced teacher. Furthermore, the 50% mark oversteps the "no more than 30%" benchmark established by the Race to the Top MOU.

This leaves little doubt that the legislature does not really feel bound by the MOU, and is determined to pass their same agenda with minor "facelift" modifications intended to lull educators and parents into submission until it is too late.

1 comment:

  1. I am often questioned as to why we teachers don't think we should be accountable for the success of our students. Afterall, people in the business world are. I would say that I have to keep and educate all students. I am not allowed to fire or let go the weaker students.
    As a physical education teacher, I am not afraid to be accountable for what I do. I just don't see state governments or school boards adjusting my subject area's class sizes. Also, if I'm held accountable, Students should be require to pass my class to move on to high school or to graduate from high school. More than a few of my students have told me that their parents don't care how they do in physical education as long as they pass math, language arts, science, and social studies.
    These concerns will all need to be addressed and I haven't heard anyone discuss this.