Straight Talk on Teaching Quality

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University recently published a paper titled "Straight Talk on Teaching Quality: Six Game-Changing Ideas and What to Do About Them" , described this guide as being "about game-changing strategies for improving teacher effectiveness".

The six headlines (organized around "The problem, what needs to happen, who is doing something good, and what can I do) are:

  • Follow Your Bliss: Career Pathways for Teachers
  • Evaluation Nation: Multiple Ways of Measuring Performance
  • Support for Teachers, Not Just Rewards and Sanctions: Why Firing Teachers Won't Lead to Large-Scale Improvement
  • Environmentally Friendly: Why School Culture and Working Conditions Matter
  • No Teacher is an Island: the Importance of In-School Partnerships and Teacher Collaboration
  • No School Is an Island: Partnerships with Parents and Community

It's a short read, and worth the time.

Straight Talk on Teaching Quality: Six Game-Changing Ideas and What to Do About Them

For Many Teachers, Reform Means Higher Risk, Lower Rewards

One of the central policy ideas of market-based education reform is to increase both the risk and rewards of the teaching profession. The basic idea is to offer teachers additional compensation (increased rewards), but, in exchange, make employment and pay more contingent upon performance by implementing merit pay and weakening job protections such as tenure (increased risk). This trade-off, according to advocates, will not only force out low performers by paying them less and making them easier to fire, but it will also attract a “different type” of candidate to teaching – high-achievers who thrive in a high-stakes, high-reward system.

As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical as to whether less risk-averse individuals necessarily make better teachers, as I haven’t seen any evidence that this is the case. I’m also not convinced that personnel policies are necessarily the most effective lever when it comes to “attracting talent,” and I’m concerned that the sheer size of the teaching profession makes doing so a unique challenge. That said, I’m certainly receptive to trying new compensation/employment structures, and the “higher risk, higher reward” idea, though unproven in education, is not without its potential if done correctly. After all, teacher pay continues to lose ground to that offered by other professions, and the penalty teachers pay increases the longer they remain in the profession. At the same time, there is certainly a case for attracting more and better candidates through higher pay, and nobody would disagree that accountability mechanisms such as evaluations and tenure procedures could use improvement in many places, even if we disagree sharply on the details of what should be done.

There’s only one problem: States and districts all over the nation are increasing risk, but not rewards. In fact, in some places, risk is going up while compensation is being cut, sometimes due to the same legislation.

For example, Ohio’s controversial legislation (Senate Bill 5) eliminates tenure for new hires and guts collective bargaining rights, while simultaneously rolling back pay increases and increasing health care contributions (effectively a pay cut) for teachers and other public employees. Ohio Governor John Kasich actually promoted the bill as a cost-cutting measure, with the savings coming from public employee compensation, including that of teachers. In other words, more uncertainty in exchange for nothing or even less, all in the same bill.

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Merit Pay: The End Of Innocence?

The current teacher salary scale has come under increasing fire, and for a reason. Systems where people are treated more or less the same suffer from two basic problems. First, there will always be a number of "free riders". Second, and relatedly, some people may feel their contributions aren’t sufficiently recognized. So, what are good alternatives? I am not sure; but based on decades worth of economic and psychological research, measures such as merit pay are not it.

Although individual pay for performance (or merit pay) is a widespread practice among U.S. businesses, the research on its effectiveness shows it to be of limited utility (see here, here, here, and here), mostly because it’s easy for its benefits to be swamped by unintended consequences. Indeed, psychological research indicates that a focus on financial rewards may serve to (a) reduce intrinsic motivation, (b) heighten stress to the point that it impairs performance, and (c) promote a narrow focus reducing how well people do in all dimensions except the one being measured.

In 1971, a research psychologist named Edward Deci published a paper concluding that, while verbal reinforcement and positive feedback tends to strengthen intrinsic motivation, monetary rewards tend to weaken it. In 1999, Deci and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of 128 studies (see here), again concluding that, when people do things in exchange for external rewards, their intrinsic motivation tends to diminish. That is, once a certain activity is associated with a tangible reward, such as money, people will be less inclined to participate in the task when the reward is not present. Deci concluded that extrinsic rewards make it harder for people to sustain self-motivation.

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