Teaching with a foam bat

Education research deserves an F for failing to tell us what works in the classroom, writes Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science editor. Policymakers want to judge teachers based on their students’ performance, but what if they’re forced to use a poorly designed curriculum or faddish but foolish teaching methods?

. . . the scientific basis for specific curricular materials, and even for general approaches such as how science should be taught, is so flimsy as to be a national scandal. As pay-for-performance spreads, we will therefore be punishing teachers for, in some cases, using the pedagogic equivalent of foam bats. “There is a dearth of carefully crafted, quantitative studies on what works,” says William Cobern of Western Michigan University. “It’s a crazy situation.”

The What Works Clearinghouse has found few rigorous, reliable studies of specific curricula, she writes. When the studies are good, the curriculum often is not. Hence the nickname, The Nothing Works Clearinghouse.

In some cases, there is research on what works, but it’s ignored because it doesn’t fit the zeitgeist. Research on inquiry learning in science, which Begley cites, is an example. Direct instruction works just as well, but it’s out of fashion.

Teachers have no say on curriculum or teaching methods, adds Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. They can’t control the school environment or the principal’s disciplinary policies.

In sum, the proposition for a classroom teacher too often boils down to this: take your third-rate training, your lack of meaningful feedback, your absence of meaningful professional development, this content-free, feel-good pedagogy, and teach it in the cognitively suspect way we demand. And if you fail, the fault is…yours!

In most districts, all teachers have to use the same curriculum and are supposed to use the same teaching methods. But some principals run safe, orderly schools and provide meaningful feedback and support to teachers. Others don’t.. I think that’s a real problem with performance pay.

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Comments

  1. Merit pay will only work in a competitive market in education services. If institutions feel no pressure to perform, internal assessments will only serve insiders (unions, administrators) and not clients (students, parents, or taxpayers).

    All that said, when the bell rings and you close the door, you control what instruction occurs. If the book stinks, don’t use it. In Math classes, at least, daily worksheets and weekly tests provide all the feedback you need. Of course, in the current environment, insiders can (and will) sabotage an effective teacher by using the registrar’s powers to assign alienated and disruptive students to the dedicated teacher’s classes.

  2. “If the book stinks, don’t use it.”

    Malcolm, I’m not sure if you’re a teacher or what type of school you teach in, but in many schools it is simply not that easy. Many schools not only require you to use the text, but more and more are requiring all teachers to keep to the same schedule with the book, allowing no deviation on the part of the teacher.

    And even in those schools that don’t require such adherence to the text, what about those teachers teaching three and four different preps? Do you really expect a teacher to basically create his or her own text and curriculum for each class on his or her own? Who is going to create all of those daily worksheets and daily quizzes you speak of? And grade them?

    I think this article is one of the best that has been posted on this blog, pointing out one of the biggest weaknesses in the whole performance pay issue: teachers are held responsible for all the failures of the students, but are often not prepared or supported in ways that would promote success.

  3. Thus appears my primary problem with merit pay: holding teachers responsible for things they have no authority to control.

  4. I would love merit pay if I had the following

    – Control over the budget for my classroom to pick curricular materials
    – The ability to enforce discipline policies without being overruled because X’s parent is special, it might cause problems for the administrators, or it might hurt Y’s self esteem.
    – The ability to pick my own pedagogical methods instead of being forced to use certain approaches and only certain approaches by my district and administrator.
    – Students randomly assigned to classrooms instead of assigned directly by administrators according to their whims.

    However, my district will never implement any of this.

  5. malcolm,

    i use a method similar to what you describe. i’ve been “caught” not using the text several times and been given warnings, talking to’s, etc. i even got one negative review this year for not being on the pacing guide. that was the only reason given — i was not on the district pacing guide. no comments about my teaching style, lesson format, student engagement, student learning. . .just if i was on the pacing guide or not. (oh, this particular admin is the head of the math department and wrote the pacing guide herself. she made it clear — whether she meant to or not — that she was personally offended that i deemed the pacing guide to be slightly out of order. obviously, as a lowly teacher, i couldn’t possibly know a better sequence for math than her!)

    so. . .yeah, i wouldn’t want my pay or merit as a teacher to be based on this particular administator’s ridiculous review of my classroom.

    however, it’s easier to judge if i have the right signs hanging up, the correct math standard written on the board, my daily objective posted, the correct text book out and opened to the correct page. it’s easier (read: requires no thought) to judge those things that can be checked off a list. and safer — b/c after that it’s all subjective. and if it’s subjective it can be contested.

  6. Greg,

    I was a teacher for ten years in the Hawaii DOE. I once interviewed at a school such as you describe, where all Math classes had to be on the same page on the same day. It’s the only job interview I ever had thet degenerated into a screaming argument.

    You write: “what about those teachers teaching three and four different preps? Do you really expect a teacher to basically create his or her own text and curriculum for each class on his or her own? Who is going to create all of those daily worksheets and daily quizzes you speak of? And grade them?”

    Make three or four course outlines. Yes. I did. I do not grade classwork or homework, only quizzes and tests. Your last objection, “and grade them?” applies to any practice material, whatever its source.

    “I think this article is one of the best that has been posted on this blog, pointing out one of the biggest weaknesses in the whole performance pay issue: teachers are held responsible for all the failures of the students, but are often not prepared or supported in ways that would promote success.”

    Its just as much a problem with the entire argument for compulsory attendance statutes and tax support of schooling, as the Headmistress at the Common Room observes.

  7. I liked this post.

  8. Maia,

    Thanks for the support. You write: “so. . .yeah, i wouldn’t want my pay or merit as a teacher to be based on this particular administator’s ridiculous review of my classroom.” I expect you would not mind being paid based (in part) on students’ standardized test scores, taken a year after they left your class. The problem with this is that, in the current institutional environment, administrators and union thugs will sabotage a dissident teacher, or one who embarasses those consultants and resource “teachers” who make a living presenting the latest fads on development days. If you stick with what works, you make them look stupid and, worse, useless, and they’ll lean on the registrar to fill your class with FAS kids, meth heads, and detention facility parolees. Merit pay only works when administrators want students to learn. Which does not describe State (government, generally) education.

  9. “If the book stinks, don’t use it.”

    That’s why that piece of advice was given assuming a competitive context.

    Obviously, in a top-down organization that typifies public education teachers aren’t consulted about textbook choice or textbook efficacy. Why should they be? After all, there’s no pressure on anyone, including administration, to perform in a manner which assures the best education possible so the flashiest, heaviest, most expensive textbook gets the nod.

    But when schools have to compete for students all the depressing characteristics of the public education system get turned on their head.

    Books suddnely matter a great deal because teachers have a tough time teaching with crappy books and there’s a school down the street that might just have better books which will be of great interest to mommies and daddies.

    Curriculum coordinators, counselors, assistant principals and more exotic administrative flora and fauna mean teachers can’t be hired. Do those folks contribute anything to putting a satisfied smile on the faces of mommies and daddies?

    Hare-brained edu-fads get the cold shoulder because there are real penalties, like unemployment, for those who buy in to the edu-fads.

    Ah, sweet irony. If you want that respect you claim is your due the only way you’ll ever get it is by coming out from under the protection of the monopoly to which you desperately cling.

  10. Clix,
    (From your link): “National Board cerified teacher leaders…” are in no position to complain of ill-founded and expensive salary enhancements. Here: “Our results paint a mixed picture of the value of NBPTS certification as a signal of teacher effectiveness.”
    Here: “In opposition to national board certification, Goldhaber, Perry, and Anthony cite Wilcox (1999) in claiming that the “NBPTS is an ‘insiders’ organization that bases its authority on the evaluation of its own members. The inclusion of two prominent educators’ unions on the Board also raises red flags for some” (p. 1).”

  11. “That’s why that piece of advice was given assuming a competitive context.”
    Not quite. I assume a teacher who wants to do her job and an administration that is indifferent to her methods.

  12. This article explains pretty well why half of K-12 teachers quit within 5 years. Basically, they’re forced to work for the pointy-eared boss in “Dilbert”.

  13. (Paul): “I would love…”

    You would find everything on your wish list in an unsubsidized, unregulated competitive market in education services except for “students randomly assigned to classrooms instead of assigned directly by administrators according to their whims”. Here, a free market in education services offers independent teachers something better: the power to determine for themselves which children they instruct.

  14. I find it interesting that Begley’s article was largely on the sorry state of education research and the discussion is largely about merit pay and other topics.

  15. Mom-of-2 says:

    I am intrigued…

    “Here, a free market in education services offers independent teachers something better: the power to determine for themselves which children they instruct.”

    I know this is off-topic, but Malcolm, I’m curious what you visualize this to be? What do you mean by “independent teachers”? Is it that teachers would function entirely independent of any institution, hired individually by families? Maybe a professional homeschool consultant? Somewhat the way a governess functioned in times past? It’s an interesting thought and I’d love to hear it elaborated…
    Thanks.

  16. Mom-of-2,

    Hawaii law compels attendance at school. The law makes various exceptions, including homeschooling. Nothing in Hawaii law requires that homeschooling instruction occur between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., so parents who cannot afford to sacrifice an income to homeschooling can, within the law (seems to me), extend daycare to age 18. This is my recommendation, that five or six parents get together, hire some recent college graduate (whom they know personally) with a degree in some biological science or in Economics to take 10 children into her home. I recommend science or econ since these will have enough math for high school and they can probably teach literature, while English majors and social science majors (outside Econ) often cannot teach math or science. Once kids know how to read at the level of the morning newspaper and to solve linear equations in two variables (by age 10 if you start early enough and move at an easy pace), they do not need much help if you pick resources well. For real-world subjects like cooking or auto mechanics, nothing beats working with a professional in the field, of course.

    The Wikipedia article on Dame schools will suggest possibilities. I suspect that the unfavorable comparison to government schools is an relic of the contemporary (1800s)political campaign to install compulsory schooling. Basically, I suggest a return to the one-room schoolhouse, enhanced with the modern world’s access to cheap, well-written books like Dover paperbacks, and with resources like the computer-guided language programs.

    I worked for a tutorial service, the Han Young English Center, for several years. Mr. Han had connections in the Korean community, and about 1/2 his students were children of Korean immigrants, I guess. He hired college grads to tutor whatever the parents wanted, and we used either the books which students brought from their schools or whatever resources we choose.

    Nothing beats homeschooling with a loving parent. Emily Bear is homeschooled (and gets a ton of professional help).

  17. Not quite. I assume a teacher who wants to do her job and an administration that is indifferent to her methods.

    Too bad. The former’s only a reliable behavior when the latter’s not true.

  18. Allen, you’re right, but the key here is “reliable”. I believe that most aspiring teachers want to do a good job but the system selects adversely in Colleges of Education then grinds them down on the job. Some teachers endure with their committment intact. If the administration is not actively hostile, these teachers can close the door and do their jobs. Of course, parents cannot rely on the system producing such a teacher for their kids.

  19. Malcolm, I’m intrigued by your idea, but I wonder how it would work for those interested in teaching as a long-term career. In your experience, how would it work in terms of 401ks and insurance for independently-employed educators? Most of the people I know who are past their mid-20s can’t afford to take a job that doesn’t offer insurance and some kind of retirement benefits, especially if they themselves have or want children.

  20. If the administration is not actively hostile, these teachers can close the door and do their jobs.

    Sure, you can get the job done, but it’s incredibly tough to achieve excellence alone. Superstar teachers often wind up as martyrs, and while that’s their choice, it’s not right to expect that from everyone else.

  21. SW,

    Compare the precision and accuracy with which we make predictions to the intensity with which one can focus a flashlight or water spray on some selected spot. Set the focus wide, and accuracy goes up (“something will happen” is always true) while precision goes down. Set a very narrow focus (“the closing price of gold on 2011-05-14 will be $1342/oz”) and you have to be inhumanly good to attain accuracy.

    It’s as hard to predict with any reasonable combination of accuracy and precision what a free market in education services would produce in terms of job conditions for teachers as it would have been to predict, in the 1950s, what jobs in the computer industry would look like in 2010. What is near-certain is the assertion that students, parents, taxpayers and probably good classroom teachers in disciplines which would survive the shake-out currently pay a very high price for the security of insiders’ access to the current system’s $600 billiuon tax-generated K-12 revenue stream.

    In a free market, teachers would be no more secure than auto mechanics. People trade freedom for security in markets by choosing between working for themselves or becoming employees of corporations. I do not see the economies of scale in the education industry that might justify large organizations at the delivery end of the business.

    I’m planning to go back into the classroom as an independent contractor, just to try some ideas I’ve developed. Next year I hope to find two parochial schools willing to hire a devout materialist for two 1-hour classes 4 or 5 days per week each, at 1.5 times their base salary (per class) for starting teachers, and take responsibility for health care, workmen’s comp, OASI, etc.

    I have not seen an MD in 20 years or had health insurance in 15 years. I treat myself and I’ll pay cash if I need professional care. People with kids would pay for more security, I expect.

  22. I have not seen an MD in 20 years or had health insurance in 15 years. I treat myself and I’ll pay cash if I need professional care. People with kids would pay for more security, I expect.
    In the case of the parents (or people with pre-existing conditions) that I know, I’d say that you’re correct. Going without health insurance or some kind of 401k/pension plan is not a risk that many people are willing to take. I just don’t see many educators–no matter how good they are–willing to follow your path as an independent contractor.