Thursday, March 27, 2014

Students First presents a Tragedy in 4 Acts

Students First, an advocacy group that believes passionately in the power of educational advocacy to make some people more wealthy, recently released a video aimed at Pennsylvania and entitled "Protect Excellent Teachers in Pennsylvania." Clocking in at just under two minutes, it's a gripping and compelling tale. Seriously. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss common sense goodbye. Let's enjoy each moving chapter together, shall we?

What Is the Value of an Excellent Teacher?

Ohhh! It's a cartoon, with an animated chart!! I love cartoons.

Oh, but this is a sad story. If a child has an ineffective first grade teacher, she will learn less. She will be behind for the rest of her life! "Probably." Oh, but if she has an effective teacher, she will learn more! Oh, no, sorry. She "can" learn more. She will be ahead!! Forever!! All the way through college!

There's some math in this part. Students of Slowpants McBadteacher will probably learn half as much, and the student of Mr. Hilee F. Ective can be "moved through" twice as much . Therefor, we know that an effective teacher can "produce" three times as much learning. And it is possible that I don't understand that math only because I have not received CCSS math training.

But I don't care about the mathy part because I am excited about this quantifying of learning. Yes, we can talk about how much learning, just like how much bread did you get at the store or how much money did Students First spend to produce this. Unfortunately, the video does not reveal what the Unit O' Learning might be, so I'm going to go ahead and name it Smarty. Apparently an ineffective teacher gives students too few smarties while highly effective teachers have smarties flying around the room like those little twitchy fairy things in Harry Potter.

This is exciting, because here I was thinking that trying to compare, say, learning in math class to learning in band to learning in science to learning in wood shop might be hard, seeing as how those kind of look like completely different things. But no-- we can measure "learning" by weight.

This could have real implications for, say, colleges. Do English majors acquire the same load of smarties as Business majors? And can a college start charging by the Smarty weight instead of credits? Will students start saying things like, "You should sign up for that twenty-smarty course"? This is interesting stuff. But on with our story.

Are You Aware That Pennsylvania Does Not Protect Excellent Teachers?!

It's true. In the "unfortunate case of layoffs," the excellent teachers might be out of a job! Despite the fact that they would have made these little cartoon children have happiness and success later in life!?

There's a thing called "First In, Last Out" and it is bad. Declining enrollment or a budget deficit (both of which are causes of layoffs that have nothing to do with actions of the state or federal government) might force layoffs, and that means schools will be forced to let some of their best teachers go. Because the young inexpensive teachers are awesome and the old costly ones suck.

Seniority based layoffs don't make sense, and they are bad for our students. (And at this point our narratress's voice takes on a kind of snarky tone that makes me expect her at any moment to excleim, "Omigod! like, that is totes gnarly!")

And you know, when I was struggling to get and hold a job, FILO annoyed me a bit, too, except for the part about knowing that when I finally landed a job, I would have job security and not have to worry about sneezing wrong or voting wrong or having to choice between getting a raise or keeping my job or any other things that might otherwise have led me to lose that job, so I guess maybe that's why FILO didn't bother me all that much. But you know that brings up the curtain on our next act--

In Pennsylvania, Teachers Get Tenure After Three Years in the Classroom

Which is a little confusing to me, because if the young teachers are mostly awesome and effective, shouldn't we simplify the tenure process to the following:

Superintendent: Are you under 27?

Teacher: Yes

Superintendent: Congratulations. You have tenure!

But no, our heroes want to extend the process so that more data can be collected over time to know their true excellence. I can think of two reasons this might make sense:

1) People who need three-to-twelve hours to tell whether or not an eight-year-old can read probably do need five-to-ten years to tell whether a teacher can teach.

2) Any year more than three is a year closer to "never" for granting tenure, so it's a win.

Act Now!!!!!!!

Get ahold of your policymakers. Tell them that tenure should only be awarded for a proven record of student test scores, because the only excellent teacher is one who can get students to bubble in the right letters on standardized tests. Now that's excellence, baby. In fact, I would not be surprised if, once teachers are tagged for their standardized test prepping capabilities, private schools started snapping them up. Yessirreebob-- I hear Philips Exeter is absolutely looking for teachers who are tops in standardized test prep. And they will probably recruit them by saying, "Come work for us! We will provide no job security and fire you if you ever become expensive," because that's the best recruiting pitch ever!!

Also, we must protect excellent teachers from seniority based layoffs. You can learn more by visiting

I would encourage you to go watch this video (I include a link only so doubters can check my work) and tell them how much you appreciate all their hard work, but tragically, the comments are turned off for this particular clip. Go figure.


  1. You seem to enjoy smart alecky argument, so I'll reply accordingly.

    Seniority based layoffs are a good thing then? Sure, why would we ever want to make employment decisions based on performance. Heck, it worked great for the Big 3 automakers in Detroit. That is some serious excellence there.

    You must be a big fan of incumbency then. And old technology. Do you drive around in your Pinto wishing you could listen to President Carter on your AM radio? That would be excellent.

    Next time you need a medical procedure done, make sure you go to the hospital that has the oldest surgeon. Pure excellence.

    1. Everybody would love to make decisions based on performance, but after decades of yammering about it, nobody has yet produced a single solitary working measure of teacher performance, and the current crop of test-based evaluations are the worst of the lot. I would prefer to make Christmas shopping decisions based on what Santa is going to bring my family, but while that would be a great system, it's dependent on something that only exists in fantasy. Ditto for making teacher decisions based on performance measures.

      Fans of the younger-is-best crowd always miss an important aspect of FILO-- its importance in recruiting. In teaching, a reasonable expectation of job security (no teacher anywhere ever has a "job for life") has been the tradeoff for crappy pay. Exactly which people will we recruit with a pitch of "Come work for us-- you'll have low pay and no job security."

      As to your second point-- here's the cool thing about humans. You don't have to replace them in order to upgrade to current standards. Best computer teacher tech guy in my building? Guy in his fifties who first learned programming in BASIC in the seventies. He keeps learning and growing, and we don't have to throw him out and replace him like an old 8-track player.

      Third point. Nice straw man, but no. I wouldn't look for the oldest surgeon any more than I would look for the surgeon who just started practicing yesterday.

    2. You're implying that it is not possible to assess teacher performance. Sure, I'll grant you that using student test scores as the primary input is faulty. But a combination of peer evaluation, administrator evaluation, student performance would produce a fairly accurate picture. Think beyond the classroom - no one in my office takes standardized tests but management is able to evaluate performance.

      What do these people have in common:
      Adam Gray, 2012, Boston
      Michelle Apperson, 2012, Sacramento
      Megan Sampson, 2010, Milwaukee
      Megan Middlestadt, 2011, Houston
      Brett Ferne, 2011, Columbus
      Melissa Woodward, 2011, Columbus
      Edward Savarese, 2012, Las Vegas

      They were all given teaching awards and shortly thereafter laid off. Laid off because they didn't have enough seniority. There's a great recruitment tool - do a great job and we'll let you go in favor of someone who isn't as good but who's been doing the job longer.

      Your use of the word "best" when referring to your IT buddy proves my point not yours. He is valuable because of his skill and not his age.

    3. I agree that there could be a system that could do a fair-to-good job of assessing performance. But we don't have it in place, and we're not likely to any time soon, as the current working definition of effective teaching is tied directly to test scores.

      The list that corresponds to yours is the list of teachers who previously earned awards and were in the next year (or the same year) rated ineffective because of test results. The two sure kisses of death under that system are to have low-function students or the top students in the school-- in neither case will you get their test scores to go up enough, so you're ineffective.

      I absolutely agree that it sucks that some good young teachers have to struggle to find a permanent position. I get it. I had to work at it for five years before I had a real job; my wife just landed a permanent spot after seven years. But at the same time, over the past fifteen years the profession has changed from the mode of experience being 14-ish years to the mode of experience being 1 year. Young teachers being blocked from entering the profession is less of a problem than it has been in decades.

      And to get back to the campaign that prompted this post-- it's not about standing up for excellent teachers. It's about controlling the biggest cost in operating a school, which is personnel. Charter operators and other folks zeroing in on education as the new big investment opportunity have identified the major cost center, and its teachers too close to the top of the pay scale.

      If this were all honestly about finding a better way to evaluate teachers, I'd be supportive. Better teacher evaluation, better accountability for teachers-- that's something all good teachers want. Nothing sucks like having to teach next door to, or the year after, somebody who's not doing his or her job.

      But that's not what this is about. It's about finding ways to reduce the workforce to cheap labor that can be replaced easily and often, TFA-style, so that labor costs for your school are held down, so that money can be pocketed rather than spent on teaching staff.