Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mobile Effectiveness

While focus shifts back and forth among the many problem areas of the reformy movement (I like Russ Walsh's name for the movement, and I'm going to start borrowing it), there are some issues that lurk in the background. They are the other shoes, waiting to drop. Some of them make me nervous, and while they may never amount to a real concern, I'm going to air my concerns. At the very least, if they actually materialize, I can say that I said so.

Back in 2012, the USDOE published "Providing Effective Teachers for All Students" The most obvious focus of the report is on methods of assessing teacher effectiveness, with all the usual suspects in play. But this case study of five districts also considers what to do with the ratings once they've been manufactured, I mean, tabulated with totally reliable data.

One of the uses for the data is already well known. One district considered using data as an excuse for "dismissal." Aren't words great? "Dismissal" sounds so much more pleasant than "firing" or "canning his ass." But in the report we also find this:  "In one case, Houston’s Effective Teacher Pipeline project, such incentives were paired with efforts to address working conditions in high-need schools by encouraging movement of many effective teachers to a small set of high-priority, high-need schools.

This is an idea that I have sensed sitting in the wings, waiting for its time on stage. More recently, Mathematica released a report studying the idea more directly:The Talent Transfer Initiative was a brain-child of the USDOE.

Could the right amount of money get a well-rated teacher to jump ship and go to a low-score school? And if we got them to move, would it help? And how much additional money would it take to get them to stay there?

The questions are not as complicated as they might have been; the study, in true DOE fashion, defined a high-performing teacher based strictly on VAM scores. So what the study really examined was, "Can a teacher who is good at test prep in this school be equally good at test prep in this crappy school over here?" The short answer was, "Yes, in elementary schools, and not so much in middle schools."

This all speaks to an oft-repeated concern, most commonly expressed as "How do we increase low-achieving students' access to highly effective teachers?"

Like everything reformy, there's a kernel of truth here. Wouldn't high needs students be better off if they had super-duper teachers? But wrapped around that kernel are some more troublesome assumptions.

First, our old favorite teacher-blaming assumption-- all those poor kids really need is a super-great teacher in front of them and they will do just great. With the right Mr. Chips, all their issues of poverty and difficult home lives will be erased! Huzzah!

Second, the notion that teachers and students are basically interchangeable cogs in a large, uniform machine. A teacher from a rural Iowa school will be just as good if we put him in a Philadelphia classroom. After all, a student is a student is a student, and there's no need to know or plug into the local culture and community. Talking to parental units is exactly the same from Hawaii to New Orleans. One size does fit all.

Third-- well, this whole proposition rests on the notion that we can definitely identify the superlative teachers. Now, I'm not a Flat Earth Society guy. I know that some teachers are great, and some teachers kind of suck. What I don't know is that the USDOE, or any of the state DOEs, has the slightest idea how to clearly identify who is Mr. Holland and who is Mr. Vader. Using VAM? Let's be clear-- anyone who thinks that VAM tells us anything useful is a dope.

In short, this program depends on the same assumptions that lead the administration to think that the TFA is a solution to anything at all.

But it keeps coming back, this notion that getting teachers to migrate will make things better. I see it hinted at in dozens of PISA interpretations. Every time a writer suggests that we need to get the best teachers in front of the weakest classrooms, I see it suggested again.

Would it be a bad thing? I guess that depends. If we stick with the idea that bribery is the best motivator, I suppose some teachers can make some serious money being  test-prep Ronins. But I imagine that some teachers who have slogged away for the usual pay for years might resent the New Kid who just got a 20K bonus for doing what the regular teacher has been doing for her whole career.

And if there's no bribery? If states decide (or are strongly prompted to decide by the same feds who volunteered us all for CCSS) to be a bit more directly suggestive about teachers changing jobs, schools, even districts? I realize that may seem like a little Orwellian and paranoid, but these are educationally paranoid times. I considered it unthinkable that a state would just steal a pension fund or wipe our union bargaining power or sell their state department autonomy to the federal government. Telling teachers, "If you want to keep your job, you're going to have to follow it where we send you," just doesn't seem that far-fetched these days.

I graduated from high school in 1975. I remember when the US observed that the support for the Viet Cong was coming from the villages, and so hit on the brilliant solution tat we would make everybody leave their villages and go live in their city. We even burned their villages down so they wouldn't go back. And all that actually made them oppose us more-- quel surprize!

This gives me flashbacks. I hope I turn out to be totally wrong, that the Teacher Relocation Program never happens. But every time I see rhetoric about how we need to put our most successful teachers in front of our least successful students, I flinch a little bit. Here's hoping I never get to say, "I told you so."

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