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  • The 5-10 Percent Solution

    Written on December 16, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    In the world of education policy, the following assertion has become ubiquitous: If we just fire the bottom 5-10 percent of teachers, our test scores will be at the level of the highest-performing nations, such as Finland. Michelle Rhee likes to make this claim. So does Bill Gates.

    The source and sole support for this claim is a calculation by economist Eric Hanushek, which he sketches out roughly in a chapter of the edited volume Creating a New Teaching Profession (published by the Urban Institute). The chapter is called "Teacher Deselection" (“deselection” is a polite way of saying “firing”). Hanushek is a respected economist, who has been researching education for over 30 years. He is willing to say some of the things that many other market-based reformers also believe, and say privately, but won’t always admit to in public.

    So, would systematically firing large proportions of teachers every year based solely on their students’ test scores improve overall scores over time? Of course it would, at least to some degree. When you repeatedly select (or, in this case, deselect) on a measurable variable, even when the measurement is imperfect, you can usually change that outcome overall.

    But anyone who says that firing the bottom 5-10 percent of teachers is all we have to do to boost our scores to Finland-like levels is selling magic beans—and not only because of cross-national poverty differences or the inherent limitations of most tests as valid measures of student learning (we’ll put these very real concerns aside for this post).

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  • The War On Error

    Written on December 7, 2010

    The debate on the use of value-added models (VAM) in teacher evaluations has reached an impasse of sorts. Opponents of VAM use contend that the imprecision is too high for the measures to be used in evaluation; supporters argue that current systems are inadequate, that all measures entail error but this doesn’t preclude using the estimates. 

    This back-and-forth may be missing the mark, and it is not particularly useful in the states and districts that are already moving ahead. The more salient issue, in my view, is less about the amount of error than about how it is dealt with when the estimates are used (along with other measures) in evaluation systems.

    Teachers certainly understand that some level of imprecision is inherent in any evaluation method—indeed, many will tell you about colleagues who shouldn’t be in the classroom, but receive good evaluation ratings from principals year after year. Proponents of VAM often point to this tendency of current evaluation systems to give “false positive” ratings as a reason to push forward quickly. But moving so carelessly that we disregard the error in current VAM estimates—and possible methods to reduce its negative impacts—is no different than ignoring false positives in existing systems.

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  • Attention To Pay

    Written on November 30, 2010

    The debate over how best to restructure teacher salary systems is older than I am—with good reason: Instructional salaries represent roughly 40 percent of current K-12 public school expenditures.  And some of the arguments for changing current salary structures make sense, at least in theory. 

    For instance, there is a case for tying step increases (typically awarded according to years of service) to additional measures, such as strengthened evaluation systems and curriculum-linked professional development (as is the case in the recently-ratified Baltimore contract). These types of changes, if they are bargained and approved by teachers, could be of real benefit to all stakeholders.

    At the same time, it’s unfortunate that some of the talking points used commonly by those who wish to overhaul teacher salary systems are rather misleading and oversimplified. Not only do they sometimes seem designed to inspire outrage against teachers, they also tend to obscure or ignore important facts about the relationship between teacher pay and teacher quality.  Three such arguments seem particularly pervasive.

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  • The Teaching Experience

    Written on November 18, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    The topic of teacher experience is getting a lot of attention in education debates.  In part, this makes sense, since experience (years of service) does play several important roles in education policy, including teachers’ raises and transfer/layoff policies. 

    Usually, experience is discussed in terms of its relationship to performance –whether more experienced teachers produce larger student test score gains than less experienced teachers.  There is a pretty impressive body of research on this topic, the findings of which are sometimes used to argue for policy changes that eliminate the role of experience in salary and other employment policies.  Proponents of these changes often argue that experience is only weakly related to performance, and therefore shouldn’t be used in determining salary and other conditions of work.  It is not unusual to hear people say that experience doesn’t matter at all.

    As is often the case when empirical research finds its way into policy debates, the “weakly related” characterization of the findings on the experience/achievement relationship borders on oversimplification, while the claim that experience doesn’t matter is flat-out wrong.  The relationship is substantial but context-dependent, and blanket statements about it often hide as much as they reveal.

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  • How Deep Is The Teacher Bench?

    Written on October 29, 2010

    On most sports teams, coaches assess players in part by considering who is available to replace them. Teams with “deep benches” have more leeway in making personnel changes, because quality replacements are available.

    The same goes for teaching. Those who aggressively wish to start firing larger numbers of teachers every year rely on an obvious but critical assumption (often unstated): that schools and districts can find better replacements.

    In other words, it is both counterproductive (and very expensive) to fire teachers if you can’t replace them with a more effective alternative. Even those few commentators who have addressed this matter sometimes ignore another important fact: The teacher labor market is about to change dramatically, with a massive wave of retirements lasting 5-10 years. Thus, most current assumptions about the stability and quality of the applicant pool over this period may be unsupportable.

    The numbers are a bit staggering.

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