Teacher: We can help low-income students

Tennessee is offering $7,000 bonuses to high-performing teachers who work for two years in one of the state’s 83 chronically low-performing schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

“These teachers will not be able to make a substantial difference in these communities, which have economic deprivation, massive poverty and are disconnected from the fiber of society,” says Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association.

It’s difficult to teach students who live in poverty, but teachers can make a difference, writes Casie Jones, who teaches expelled or recently jailed students in an alternative program in Memphis.

My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn’t do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they’d already missed their last chance.

More than half the class scored proficient or higher. That is a “substantial difference,” she writes.

Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Teachers who respect their students will earn their students respect, Jones writes. In her classroom, “the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down.”

Jones’ work was cited by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman in a Commercial Appeal commentary responding to Williams’ lack of enthusiasm for the bonus program. “Children in poverty can achieve at high levels when we adults give them the opportunities they deserve,” Huffman wrote.

Teachers will lose all but $2,000 of the bonus if their value-added scores fall at a low-performing school, notes Gary Rubinstein in Huffman vs. Straw Man.

Baltimore: Cut suspensions, get a bonus

The “Baltimore school system is paying bonuses to teachers and administrators at struggling schools that reduce suspensions for non-violent offenses, drawing criticism from union leaders who say the program could provide a financial incentive to ignore problems and jeopardize school safety,” reports the Baltimore Sun. Teachers also can earn more if their schools reduce truancy and absenteeism.

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she fears that the bonuses could exacerbate the problem of educators feeling pressure to keep suspension numbers down, sometimes at the expense of maintaining order in the classroom.

“I’m worried about the safety of our teachers,” English said. “When you offer a bonus for something like that, you are putting a price on what’s going to happen around safety in a school.”

So far, 72 teachers and assistant principals have been given bonuses of $5,000 to $9,500; two principals received  $3,000 each. Teachers must have satisfactory evaluations and attendance rates to qualify for a bonus.

Baltimore is using $695,000 in federal Race to the Top funds to pay for the program.

D.C. fires 3% of teachers

Washington D.C. schools fired 98 teachers for low performance on the district’s evaluation system.  That represents less than 3 percent of teachers in D.C. schools.

By contrast, 988 teachers — about a quarter of the teaching corps — were rated highly effective, making them eligible for bonuses of up to $25,000.

CC instructors tie bonuses to performance

Part-time adult education instructors at City Colleges of Chicago have agreed to link bonuses to student achievement. That just doesn’t happen at the college level.

Merit pay international

Achievement is higher in countries that pay teachers for outstanding performance, concludes an analysis of PISA data by Ludger Woessmann, a University of Munich economics professor.

(Students in performance-pay countries) score approximately one-quarter of a standard deviation higher on the international math and reading tests, and about 15 percent higher on the science test, than students in countries without performance pay. These findings are obtained after adjustments for levels of economic development across countries, student background characteristics, and features of national school systems.

. . . Since one-quarter of a standard deviation is roughly a year’s worth of learning, it might reasonably be concluded that by the age of 15, students taught under a policy regime that includes a performance pay plan will learn an additional year of math and reading and over half a year more in science. However, this conclusion depends on the many assumptions underlying an analysis based on observational data.

Twelve of 27 OECD countries with PISA data report incentive pay for outstanding teachers, but the pay schemes vary considerably.  For example, outstanding performance may be measured “based on the assessment of the head teacher (Portugal), assessments performed by education administrators (Turkey), or the measured learning achievements of students (Mexico,” Woessmann writes. Countries in Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic and Hungary)  are the most likely to use performance pay.


Steering strong teachers to weak schools

Reformers are trying to steer strong teachers to weak schools, but so far it’s not working, writes Alan Borsuk in part four of the Building a Better Teacher series by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Hechinger Report.

A study released Nov. 18 by The Education Trust, a respected Washington-based education advocacy group, showed that students from low-income homes continue to have teachers who are working outside their field of expertise or who have little experience at rates much higher than higher-income students. The report called progress in changing that “disappointingly slow.”

In the suburbs, hundreds of teachers may apply for every opening. Few teachers want to work at West Side Academy, a K-8 school in a tough Milwaukee neighborhood, says the principal, James Sonnenberg. Three of his most promising teachers were laid off last spring because they lacked seniority, then recalled but assigned to other schools. Sonnenberg was sent “experienced teachers whom he had not sought, nor had they sought him.”

It’s hard to change the system without weakening seniority rights, paying some teachers more for taking on harder jobs and figuring out how to identify good teachers.

Denver, which has performance pay, rewards teachers for working in low-performing schools, Borsuk writes, but it’s not clear that it’s helping.

Wisconsin pays a $2,500 bonus to any teacher who earns certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, plus an additional $2,500 to board-certified teachers who work in low-performing schools. But there aren’t enough board-certified teachers to make a difference.

Milwaukee Public Schools hope to develop incentives to improve teaching in low-performing schools, but the focus is on rewarding all teachers in a school instead of singling out exceptional teachers.

The district’s main focus is on improving the teachers it’s already got through “effective on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching,” writes Borsuk.

Allan Odden, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, says Chicago, Boston and New York improved the quality of teachers by looking farther afield for good teachers, avoiding the worst teacher-training programs.

“They recruit top talent,” he said, and put them in high-needs schools.

Odden also said programs such as Teach for America have tapped into a strong desire by top-flight college graduates to spend at least two years helping the country by teaching in demanding situations.

Fire the weakest teachers — the bottom 6 percent — suggests Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist.

Sonnenberg wants to require teachers to go where their skills are most needed, regardless of seniority. “Why can’t the employer determine what is best for the organization?” asked Sonnenberg.

But there is almost no talk of forcing teachers with seniority to take such assignments. And, ultimately, it is tough to make people take jobs they don’t want.

Making schools better places to work is the best way to attract good teachers, says The New Teacher Project.

Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee teachers union, listed things that would attract teachers: “A competent and fair principal is key not only in getting teachers there but in keeping them. . . . We’re also looking at schools that are safe.”

A few teachers are so brilliant they can teach well in any environment; some are so bad they’ll teach poorly anywhere. Most teachers will teach effectively in a well-organized school with an academic focus; they’ll teach poorly in a chaotic school.

Strict rules for behavior, longer school days, greater intensity around academic work — these are parts of the formula that some schools are using with success.

Joshua Beggs, who heads the small high school operation of Eastbrook Academy, a religious school on the north side, said: “Many high quality teachers want to spend their lives helping underserved students succeed. Give them a classroom full of students who want an education and they’ll work in the poorest neighborhoods and may even accept below-average pay. Place them in a school full of unruly, undisciplined, unmotivated kids and they’ll give it their best shot — but ultimately they’ll quit if they can’t achieve success.”

There isn’t enough money in the world — certainly not in school district budgets — to get talented people to bang their heads against a brick wall every day.