If there's one thing reformsters have pursued with determination and intensity, it is the prospect of cutting payroll costs when operating schools. The fundamental problem of squeezing money out of a school system is that it's extremely difficult to increase revenue; if you want to make more money, you have to cut costs, and most of the costs in operating a school are tied up in paying teachers.
The desire to cut total personnel costs have led to some dumb ideas ("Hey! Let's just have every teacher only work a year or two so every teacher on staff is a beginning teacher only making beginning teacher wages!"), but one of the champions of the Dumb Ideas Olympics is what I call the Super Sardinemaster idea. We round up the very most awesome teachers and just jam as many students into a smaller number of classrooms. Sounds super, huh?
Well, here it comes again. Georgetown University's Edunomics Lab (because nobody brings the dumb ideas to education with such reliable regulatory as economists) offers the "paper" "Paying the Best Teachers More To Teach More Students." And if you are looking for finely packaged baloney, this paper has it in spades.
"On top of many policymakers’ wish lists is increased teacher pay." That's the opening sentence, and it serves as the writers' announcement that this is one more exercise, not in looking for or examining reality, but putting a pretty package on an ugly policy idea. Not unsurprisingly, it is one of the statements in this paper that does not come with a footnote, because who, exactly, would you cite? Certainly there are policymakers who have made mouth noises about wishing teachers were paid more. What is notable about those policymakers is that none of them have put their money where their mouth noises are. Compare the amount of money that policymakers want to put aside to boost charter schools with the amount of money they want to put aside to boost teacher pay. I don't want to make a big deal out of this point; we all knew going into teaching that nobody was clamoring to pay us Big Bucks. But when you open your paper with a lie, you put me on notice as a reader.
The writers do sort of acknowledge that a merit pay system that costs less than a regular payroll system is not going to happen, but they only do that so that they can set up their own twisted version of merit pay. Their proposal is simple-- fire all the bad teachers and jam all of their students into a classroom with the remaining good teachers. The district in turn can raise the remaining teachers' salaries because there are fewer of them.
At this point I have to tip my hat (or possibly my entire head) to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters (and the successful battle against inBloom) for doing a bunch of my homework for me.
The big class with a great teacher idea seems to have made its public mainstream debut in a 2010 Bill Gates speech to the CCSSO. Not surprisingly, Arne Duncan was shortly thereafter talking it up.
We spent billions of dollars to reduce class size,” Duncan told ABC’s Andrea Mitchell in 2011, when we could instead give teachers higher salaries in exchange for larger classrooms, thereby attracting much more talented teachers.
That was back in 2011, and as near as Haimson can tell, nobody ever actually tried to do it. Broad "graduate" (can you graduate from a fake superintendent training program?) John Covington was going to give it a try in Kansas City Schools, but instead resigned and went to Michigan to work for EAA which played with using computers as a way to shoehorn many many students into single classrooms.
But boosting the idea all along the way has been Marguerite Roza, who is in fact the co-author of this latest work that we're now ploughing through.
The hook from which any such proposal hangs is the assertion that great teaching matters more than small class size, but even in the Edunomics paper, that's a shaky hook indeed. The "research" cited includes "research" like a paper from the Fordham Institute and research that "modeled the effects"-- in other words, not actual research on the actual stuff we're talking about.
Edunomics also has to tap dance around preferences. Parents prefer smaller classes; that's unequivocally true, but Rozas and her co-author try to get past that by citing research that says parents would prefer a 27-student class with a great teacher to a 22-student class with a random teacher. This ignores a great many things, not the least of which is that in many districts, a 27-student class would represent far smaller class-size than most teachers and students are currently dealing with.
There's also some useless research suggesting that a majority of teachers would rather have a $5K bonus than two fewer students in class. This research comes from Dan Goldhaber, Michael DeArmond and Scott Deburgomaster, “Teacher Attitudes About Compensation Reform: Implications for Reform Implementation,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (April 2011) and we could spend some time trying to evaluate its bona fides, but really, who cares? We aren't talking about two students-- we're talking about enough students to significantly cut the teaching staff. This is like trying to argue that because you like having your back scratched with a one of those little backscratchers, you would undoubtedly like to be impaled with a rake.
Edunomics offers some specific program proposals. For instance, it might be best to implement this in a growing district where you don't actually have to fire many people-- you can just keep jamming the incoming students into the classrooms you already have. It would save money, and improve student outcomes (by some means that Edunomics doesn't even pretend to have an explanation for). For districts that aren't growing so much, the writers suggest simply not replacing teachers who leave.
The paper does offer some actual money breakdowns by state. By state. The writers do envision modest class size growth because they choose to look at the state as one gigantic school district. This pretty much renders their entire argument invalid because it does not even begin to approach the question of how this would play out in an individual district. Take my own high school-- there are six teachers in my department. Want to guess what class sizes would look like if the district canned one teacher and gave all of that teacher's students to a Super Sardinemaster (spoiler alert: the SS would get classes double the current size).
Of course, in districts like mine, we would simply redistribute the students across all teachers in the department. Cost savings to district = one teacher's salary and benefits. Super Sardinemaster bonuses paid out = $0.
This is just one of the many ridiculous fictions in Roza's paper. If we are really talking about adding two or three students to a class, no district on the planet will be offering bonuses. They will say, "It's just two more kids. Suck it up." After all-- they don't need the teacher's permission to stock up that classroom.
The Super Sardinemaster system also depends on being able to identify those top teachers, and as we keep discovering and pretending not to notice , we have no idea whatsoever about how to do that! None. Oh, don't bring up VAM-- it's a repeatedly debunked crapshoot of a system that tells us nothing useful. Why does Roza recommend that the SS system be implemented without firing teachers? Because no matter which teachers you fire, there will be students and parents standing up for that teacher and explaining why they think she's great.
And of course the Super Sardinemaster system ignores the possibility that part of what makes a great teacher great is the time and space to focus on each individual student.
But stupidest of all is the completely false choice at the center of the Super Sardinemaster proposition. Given the choice between a large class with a great teacher or a small class, virtually every parents will say, "I choose a small class with a great teacher. What do you mean, that's not a choice? Of course it's a choice."
At best, the Super Sardinemaster approach is silly and misguided, with no real basis in solid research, no foundation in common sense, and no grasp of the dynamics of teaching in a real classroom.
At worst, this is another way to attack the pay schedule, to link teacher pay to teacher load. It's not hard to imagine how quickly this could devolve to a pay system where, to get the standard district base pay, you must carry X number of students. A bonus that almost everybody gets is not a bonus-- it's base pay, and everyone who makes less is getting a penalty for not meeting the numbers.
In fact, the Super Sardinemaster system only makes sense if we look at it as an answer to the age-old reformster question, "How can I get away with paying my teaching staff less while still looking like I'm trying to run a high-quality school?" It is not a search for a better education and teacher pay system-- it is the search for a plausible, spinnable lie.