Photo courtesy of AP


The Devil is in the Design: As I noted this morning’s column in The American Spectator on teacher performance pay, the school reform movement needs to think through how these plans are designed and implemented in order for them to actually gain traction. Save for the work Michelle Rhee did in D.C. in crafting that district’s performance pay plan as part of the development of the IMPACT evaluation system, most states and districts seem to pursue performance pay plans in a willy-nilly fashion, far too willing to water the systems down in order to keep National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates at bay than on actually rewarding good-to-great teachers for their work.

To make performance pay work, it means taking an aggressive approach that means battles with teachers union bosses and even with some teachers instead of accommodation. Rhee that this could be done successfully. Other reform-minded districts and states looking to develop performance pay plans should do the same.

It must also include balancing most of the rewards for performance pay on individual work than on the school’s success. As seen in the failure of the New York City performance pay initiative (which based much of the bonuses on the progress of the school), such efforts dilute the reward for teachers who are doing great work while allowing laggards to free ride on the backs of their more-successful colleagues. More importantly, performance pay is about rewarding good-to-great teachers for their individual work. That said, there can be a component of the bonus that can be based on the collaborative efforts of a team of teachers in a particular subject area; this would encourage more-thoughtful teamwork  and is less likely to dilute the rewards for individual achievement.

Second, it must be more than pay. As Dropout Nation as pointed out again and again, giving out grants to teachers that allow them to develop their own programs for addressing aspects of the nation’s education crisis or even to start their own schools, would certainly be as rewarding to them as actual cash pay. Imagine if a John Taylor Gatto, a Jaime Escalante, a Marva Collins, a Steve Evangelista or even a Chad Sansing could do with a grant to start a new initiative to improve student achievement?

Third, we should ask teachers want they want to see in performance pay — and I mean, ask teachers, not their union bosses (who have no interest in the success of such plans). At the same time, let’s keep this mind: Since many teachers have never worked in the private sector, they may not fully understand what would work.

Finally, we must create the best performance pay of all: Build cultures of high expectations in which high-quality teachers are recognized publicly for their work and not ostracized by laggard peers who are afraid of being shown up. As the Los Angeles Times made clear last year in its series on teacher quality in L.A. Unified elementary schools, and from my own discussions with teachers (especially young, talented instructors), the thin chalk line that protects laggard performers from getting kicked to the curb also leads to disdain of talented teachers who have innovative ideas, want more-collaborative teaching efforts, and are willing to embrace reform.

This means principals must step up and congratulate their best-performers and those who have made great improvement in their instruction. It also means moving ahead with overhauling teacher evaluations. And it means ditching tenure, which protects laggard teachers and allows them to become disruptive presences, ostracizing the work of successful colleagues.

Errata: Looking at the rest of the school reform conversation.

  • Alexander Russo declares in his summary of Claudio Sanchez’s new radio series on dropouts that the nation’s dropout crisis has been off the domestic policy radar.  Apparently, he hasn’t been paying attention to the decade or so of school reforms (including the No Child Left Behind Act and the work of groups such as the Alliance for Excellent Education and America’s Promise). The real issue is that there has been a consensus around addressing the dropout crisis and the overall education crisis,  and that is to address those issues early on through systemic reform instead of focusing on dropout recovery. Why? Because dropout recovery programs tend not to work, largely because they can’t deal with the fundamental why young men and women leave school in the first place: Their inability to read or handle higher-level math caused by a decade or so of educational neglect in the form of laggard teaching and abysmal curricula. Suspensions and expulsions, pregnancy and some of the other issues Sanchez touches upon in his series are often symptoms of this much-larger problem.
  • Russo also argues that this week’s upcoming Save Our Schools rally must be something more than just a collection of “older upper-middle class white teachers and parents”. And in the process, he hits upon two of the major divides in the battle over the reform of American public education. The first is generational: The Baby Boomer teachers who oppose school reform are looking out for their retirements; like their colleagues outside of education, they are also dealing with tremendous debt burdens, and low levels of savings, so they may have to work longer than they want. Efforts by reformers to end tenure and subject teachers to performance-based teacher evaluations, are viewed as a threat by this crowd because they will subject those teachers to scrutiny, and thus, put a kibosh to their own plans.  The second is race and class. White middle-class females make up the vast majority of teachers in American public education, far out of proportion to both the American population and the enrollments of the schools in which they teach. The school reform movement’s emphasis on improving education for poor black, white, Latino and Asian children — and the exposing of the low quality of instruction in the nation’s classrooms — shines more light on one of the biggest concerns among families (including my own): That teachers damn kids who don’t look like them with low expectations. I’ll talk more about this aspect latter this week.
  • The Contra Costa Times provides a short, interesting look at the work of the Counseling Options Parent Education Family Success Center in the Northern California city of Antioch. One can only imagine what would happen if school reformers devoted more energy to the development of similar centers aimed at providing families high-quality information on the quality of all school options in a community, and the effectiveness of teachers who work within them, as well as how to navigate district bureaucracies.
  • Sacred Heart University Adjunct Professor Chris DeSanctis offers another compelling explanation for why tenure must come to an end in American public education. He also takes a look at Bridgeport, Conn., which is now being taken over by the state after decades of being a massive dropout factory. (Your Dropout Nation editor is an advisory board member for the Connecticut Parents Union, which is protesting the lack of parental engagement in the takeover and school overhaul process.)