In New Federal Program to Reward Teachers, Flawed Assumptions

Email a Friend

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama called for resources “to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones.” His budget requested $5 billion for a competitive grant program called Project Respect.

Arne Duncan, the education secretary, said the goal of the program was "to make teaching not only America's most important profession, but also America's most respected profession."


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the Department of Education’s Teaching Ambassador Fellows to give feedback, as a working teacher in Brooklyn, on a not-yet-public draft of the policy proposal before it is offered to schools.

While there was much to like about the proposal, it also contained some poorly conceived ideas that would be ineffective at best, and at worst could further damage the nation’s education system.

Project Respect calls for a three-pronged reform of the teaching profession. It envisions a reorganization of schools that would use technology and aides to put more effective teachers in front of more students, coupled with a longer school day to give teachers more time for professional growth.

To find more effective teachers, it calls for an expansion of entry points into the profession, with a higher bar for earning a permanent position. Finally, it calls for increased compensation for career teachers who both stay in the classroom and take on various teacher-leader roles.

That prong shares much with the insightful prescriptions of the book "Teaching 2030," written by the Center for Teaching Quality’s Barnett Berry and a group of 12 teachers that included my New York colleagues Jose Vilson and Ariel Sacks.

Establishing a variety of advanced teacher roles, with appropriately high compensation, is a necessary move toward professionalizing teaching in America, and I applaud this move.

Giving highly effective teachers more time to serve in roles other than classroom teachers is an important step toward improving our system. However, it is imperative to remember that the qualities that make me a highly effective teacher are not necessarily those that would make me an effective teacher-leader.

I know great teachers who were disasters as department chairs. Likewise, I have worked with teachers who were mediocre in their classrooms because of poor classroom management, but thrived as mentors and principals.

For that reason and others, I am most concerned with the assumptions the report makes about evaluating teachers. While the vision for building a teaching profession is a strong one, it is built on the faulty foundation of the naive evaluation systems being implemented across the country.

I strongly agree that student learning should be a significant portion of a teacher’s evaluation, but we need to recognize several things.

Most importantly, the standardized exams currently used to evaluate students’ learning, most of which I think do even that extremely poorly, are not precise enough to measure differences in teacher effectiveness.

In New York, as Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University, showed, having students answer just one more multiple-choice question correctly would lead to a 20-percentile-point jump in a teacher's rating. That is insane!

Any teacher knows that an individual student's test score will vary tremendously based on mood, time of day and what is happening in that student's personal life. But to think that access to teacher-leadership positions could rest on a one-point swing in test scores makes me gravely concerned for the future of my profession.

Even if we had teacher evaluations developed correctly, we would still need other metrics and qualifications for different teacher-leader roles. I have held more than a half dozen teacher-leader positions in and out of schools.

In school, I have been an instructional coach, department chair, grade team leader, union representative and tech guy. Out of school, I have led professional development, developed curriculums and assessments, and facilitated a critical friends group. I excelled in a couple of roles immediately, grew into most once I got the necessary training, and just got by in a couple.

My key takeaway from these experiences was that the skills, knowledge and disposition that made me an effective teacher had little connection to what determined my success in working with adults.

For teacher-leaders to be effective, they will need significant training and support in their new roles. We also need to make sure teachers who step into these roles can step out of them just as easily without significant financial penalties.

Teachers need to be able to replenish themselves through full-time teaching every few years to be able to maintain long-term leadership.

I am excited and energized to see the Department of Education envisioning a truly professional career experience for teachers, with additional monetary compensation attached to different roles. However, money is not the compensation I want most as I advance in my career.

While I would love to be paid more for what I do, if I were forced to choose only one form of compensation for being a highly effective teacher, I would ask for trust and autonomy to use my professional judgement to do my job.

Before I would take another $20,000 in salary, I would take a personal waiver from mandated state assessments. I learn exponentially more about my students’ capabilities from the performance assessments they regularly complete in my class than I do from the poorly constructed History Regents.

Furthermore, the assessments I give them are authentic intellectual work that actually prepares them for college and citizenship, unlike a multiple-choice exam based on memorizing a wide range of facts.

I would say one-third of the time I spend in a regular history class is compromised because of state exams, as well as 100 percent of the time I spend with seniors who have failed the test.

While I would eliminate all standardized testing immediately if it were up to me, I know this is not realistic. At the very least, effective and highly effective teachers who have demonstrated student learning gains on standardized tests should be exempted from having to use them in the future.

Giving standardized tests to all of my students every year tells me that I cannot be trusted to assess my students’ learning, and my students are the ones who suffer for it.

Next: More on the federal proposal.