Tag Archives: Stephen Sawchuk

Secretary Duncan Changes His Stance on ‘Shaming’ Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

After backlash from the education community, Arne Duncan rethinks his position on making teacher evaluations public.      

In August 1862, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, an editor of the New York Tribune, stating, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” 

Although I can’t read the mind of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and find out how he truly feels about publishing the evaluations of public school teachers in newspapers, I’d be willing to bet his thinking is similar to Lincoln’s: If he could save his credibility without shaming any teachers, he would do it; and if he could save it by shaming all the teachers, he would do it; and if he could do it by shaming some and leaving others alone, he would also do that.     

At least that’s how it appears.  In August of 2010, when the Los Angeles Times made public the ratings of all of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Secretary Duncan supported the idea.  The Los Angeles Times covered the story:      

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday that parents have a right to know if their children’s teachers are effective, endorsing the public release of information about how well individual teachers fare at raising their students’ test scores.

“What’s there to hide?” Duncan said in an interview one day after The Times published an analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. “In education, we’ve been scared to talk about success.”

Duncan’s comments mark the first time the Obama administration has expressed support for a public airing of information about teacher performance—a move that is sure to fan the already fierce debate over how to better evaluate teachers.

Last week, in an interview with Education Week writer Stephen Sawchuk, Secretary Duncan did a complete about-face and said newspapers shouldn’t publish teacher ratings.  Sawchuk wrote about his interview with Duncan on his blog:

Publishing teachers’ ratings in the newspaper in the way The New York Times and other outlets have done recently is not a good use of performance data, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview yesterday.

“Do you need to publish every single teacher’s rating in the paper? I don’t think you do,” he said. “There’s not much of an upside there, and there’s a tremendous downside for teachers. We’re at a time where morale is at a record low. … We need to be sort of strengthening teachers, and elevating and supporting them.”

Why the sudden change of heart?  Perhaps Duncan is just now realizing how pointless it is to make teacher ratings public.  Other than exploiting the public’s urge to see teachers pilloried, what good can it do; it’s counterproductive to think you can humiliate educators into becoming better instructors.  Plus, the “value-added” ratings are flawed and based too heavily on standardized test scores, which policy experts argue is harming education by narrowing curriculum and overlooking the intangible benefits of good teaching.     

Of course, Duncan could be changing his tune for political purposes, because he’s suddenly realized shaming teachers isn’t going to score the kind of points he thought it once would.  Surprisingly, his attempt to fan the flames of the public’s anti-teacher mentality has backfired.  When powerful education philanthropists such as Bill Gates write opinion pieces in the New York Times titled “Shame is not the solution,” explaining that embarrassing teachers “doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback,” and that such methods are a “cheap” way to fix real problems, people like Duncan start to listen. 

Duncan did attempt to address the reason for his sudden flip-flop in the Sawchuk interview, however.  Basically, he suggested that the whole debacle was the fault of the Los Angeles public schools.       

“What I was reacting to in L.A. was this mind-boggling situation where teachers were denied access to this data. The only way they could get it was through the newspaper,” he said. “There was clearly some level of dysfunction [in the district], that this was the only way they could get it.”

The only way teachers could get their own personal evaluation data was through the newspaper?  Did I hear this correctly?    

It’s clear there’s some egg on the Secretary’s face, and on President Obama’s by association.  But only time will tell if Duncan’s attempt to save his credibility will be as successful as Honest Abe’s strategy was to save the Union from succession.

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Bloomberg and Christie Ignore Major Findings on Performance Pay

by Christopher Paslay

Despite growing evidence that performance pay has no effect on student achievement, politicians continue to push for its use.   

In July of 2011, the RAND Corporation issued the following news release about their study on performance pay in NYC public schools:

“A New York City program designed to improve student performance through school-based financial incentives for teachers did not improve student achievement, most likely because it did not change teacher behavior and the conditions needed to motivate staff were not achieved, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

From 2007 to 2010, nearly 200 high-needs New York City public schools participated in the Schoolwide Performance Bonus Program. The study, commissioned by the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers and funded by the New York City Fund for Public Schools and National Center on Performance Initiatives, is the most comprehensive study on the city’s performance pay program.”

How has New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reacted to the news?  He wants to double-down on performance pay.  In his State of the City speech last Thursday, 1/12, Bloomberg stated he would push to overhaul the city’s teacher evaluation system, and give top teachers $20,000 bonuses.     

Why has Bloomberg ignored the conclusions drawn by the RAND study?  Because politicians such as Bloomberg realize that the public is more interested in the heightened regulation of teachers than in the actual education of students.      

In 2010, two additional studies on performance pay were released with the following conclusion: performance pay had no effect on student achievement. The first study, by Mathematica Policy Research, took place in Chicago and was published in May of 2010. Of the study, Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk writes:

“Preliminary results from schools taking part in a Chicago program containing performance-based compensation for teachers show no evidence that the program has boosted student achievement on math and reading tests, compared with a group of similar, nonparticipating schools, an analysis released last week concludes.”

A second study, which involved almost 300 middle school math teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and was released in September of 2010, revealed much of the same results. Of this study, Education Week reporter Sawchuk writes:

“The most rigorous study of performance-based teacher compensation ever conducted in the United States shows that a nationally watched bonus-pay system had no overall impact on student achievement—results released today that are certain to set off a firestorm of debate.”

Interestingly, a “firestorm of debate” didn’t materialize. In the weeks following the report’s release, supporters of merit pay, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, all but ignored the study, dismissing the findings as premature and too narrow. In fact, like Bloomberg, some education reformers held even tighter to the idea of using merit pay to boost student achievement. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one week after the findings were made public, announced that he was going to indeed tie teacher pay to student achievement.

Despite enthusiasm from politicians such as Christie, many of America’s school teachers insist they are not motivated by merit pay. According to a 2010 report conducted by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled Primary Sources: America’s Teacher’s on America’s Schools, supportive leadership is listed by educators as the most important factor impacting upon teacher retention. Time given for teachers to collaborate is ranked second, followed by access to high-quality curriculum and a clean and safe building environment. Ranked ninth—dead last—was merit pay.

Likewise, not many teachers felt monetary rewards for teacher performance would have a strong impact on student achievement. Of the 40,000 teachers surveyed in the study, 30 percent said that merit pay would have no impact at all, while 41 percent said it would only have a moderate impact.

Still, supporters of performance pay insist it’s a viable way to increase learning. Dom Giordano, the Philadelphia-based broadcaster and radio personality, wrote in a 2010 commentary for the Philadelphia Daily News that, “all signs point to the conclusion that teachers should join the real world and get paid based on performance.” Giordano’s less-than-polite remarks are not only typical of the public’s anti-teacher sentiment but also an example of how grossly misinformed the average person is on the workings of education (yes, I am well aware that back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Mr. Giordano was a school teacher).

Merit pay may indeed deserve further exploration, but to insinuate that teachers live in some fairytale world is preposterous. If teaching is so easy, if educators are taking free money, then why do so many quit every year? Why is teacher retention costing America seven billion dollars annually?

The fact remains that teaching isn’t easy, that despite low test scores, nearly all teachers face enough daily challenges to earn their keep.  In addition, quality teaching is based on a complex set of variables, teacher motivation being the least of them.  Let’s hope that politicians in the Philadelphia area make an effort to acknowledge this reality, and don’t waste money and resources on policies that have little effect on student achievement.

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