Wednesday, July 1, 2015

State Teacher Equity Plans: Following Data Down the Rabbit Hole

You may remember that last fall with great fanfare, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in another of a long line of misguided educational decrees, announced that they were requiring states to develop new plans to ensure equity in the distribution of quality teachers (I wrote about this decree here). Well, now those plans are in and available for public inspection here.

Education week has looked at twelve of those state reports and provides a good summary of what they found here. Basically, some of these reports offered a few new ideas, but others recycled ideas from the last equity plan from 2006 or reported on the progress they had made with certain programs.

Reading these lengthy, dense reports could be a really good cure for insomnia, so I only looked at two of the reports, one from the state where I live, Pennsylvania (80 pages)and the one from the state where I work, New Jersey (40 pages).

Here is my summary of the two plans:

The Pennsylvania report said blah, blah, blah, professional development; blah, blah, blah teacher preparation; blah, blah, blah new funding formula; blah, blah, blah we don’t have good data, so we need to get more data.

The New Jersey report said, blah, blah, blah support novice teachers, blah, blah, blah differentiated approach; blah, blah, blah we have lots of data, but none of it is helpful in identifying quality teachers, so we need more data.

I will give Pennsylvania credit for recognizing that the state needs a funding plan that addresses financial inequities across the state. Of course a funding plan is no guarantee of equity. New Jersey already has a funding plan, but the governor and the legislature have refused to fully fund it.

I will give New Jersey credit for recognizing that all the work and data collection that was perpetrated under No Child Left Behind to identify “highly qualified teachers” did nothing to improve equitable distribution of effective teachers. Low and behold, they discovered a disparity between “highly qualified” and good at your job.

I would like to save New Jersey, Pennsylvania and every other state a lot of time. Data is not going to improve the equitable distribution of highly effective teachers. Collect all the data you want, refine your metrics all you care to, install all the new teacher evaluation measures you desire, but it won’t make a jot of difference. In fact, this obsession with quantifying will make the disparity even greater.

Here’s why: It’s the working conditions, Stupid.

Teachers choose where they want to work, by and large, based on working conditions. Teachers want to work in a clean safe school that has all the resources and materials that will allow them to do the job well. Teachers want to work in a school that has a climate of collaboration and a spirit of teamwork. Teachers want to work in a building where they have supportive administrators who value their efforts and offer them informed, constructive criticism.

The federal and state obsession with data will actually exacerbate inequity. If teacher evaluations are going to be based in some large measure on student standardized test scores, teachers are going to avoid school districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Teachers understand that standardized test scores for students living in poverty will be lower than affluent students’ scores no matter how good the teacher is. They also understand that evaluations based in large part on student test performance is a highly invalid, unreliable way to evaluate their performance. Test-based accountability is simply unable to identify effective teachers and it labels as ineffective many many fine teachers who do choose to work in high poverty areas.

Highly effective teachers also desire a high level of autonomy because they understand that the classroom teacher is best positioned to make instructional decisions about individual children. Inner city schools have responded to instructional challenges by becoming more and more prescriptive in their approaches to instruction. Highly effective teachers do not want to teach in a place where they are expected to be on the same page in the textbook as their colleagues on any given day.

Highly effective teachers have no interest in a school model based on merit pay. A reasonable living wage that considers their preparation and professional status is enough. Teachers recognize that the best schools to work in are collaborative and that hare-brained ideas like merit pay destroy a collaborative climate. The corporate reformer’s notion that competition is good in all things is simply wrong; it is particularly and specifically wrong in a profession like teaching.

Highly effective teachers are appropriately certified teachers. Reliance on Teach for America dilettantes to fill spaces in classrooms in schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children is, in a word, racist and it is counterproductive to the goals of getting highly effective teachers in those classrooms.

So here is my plan for dealing with the inequitable distribution of effective teachers (it is not 80 or even 40 pages).

1.     Attack poverty and segregation on all fronts by providing wrap around services including health care, decent minimum wages, early childhood education, family counseling and food security.
2.     Spend the money needed to make sure all schools are clean, safe places to work.
3.     Pay appropriately and in a way that recognizes the value of experience and advanced study.
4.     Work with school administrators to help them develop leadership skills that foster a school climate of collaboration and teamwork.
5.     Focus teacher evaluation on instructional improvement and work with individual teachers and teacher representatives to develop teacher improvement plans, mentoring services and processes for dismissal when necessary.
6.     Foster teacher autonomy by developing teacher professional learning committees that work together to analyze student work and to design instruction to meet all students’ needs.
7.     Recognize that teachers are not motivated by financial reward, but by recognition of a job well done from an administrator who knows what s/he is talking about.
8.     Hire only appropriately certified teachers.
9.     Lower class sizes.

If states can build schools that follow this plan, they will attract highly effective teachers; in fact, they will have them knocking at the door. It sure beats chasing unhelpful data around and around like a hamster on a state constructed exercise wheel.