40% of new teachers took alternative path

Forty percent of public school teachers hired since 2005 came through alternative preparation programs, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Information. That’s up from 22 percent of new teachers hired between 2000 and 2004, notes Ed Week‘s Teaching Now.

In addition, the survey found that alternative-route teachers are more in favor of using reforms such as performance pay, elimination of tenure, tying student achievement to teacher evaluations, and market-driven pay to strengthen the teaching profession than are their traditionally prepared counterparts.

However, nearly all teachers, regardless of certification route, support removing incompetent teachers without concern for seniority.

All teachers surveyed were “slightly more satisfied with general working conditions” and “more satisfied with the status of teachers” than those surveyed in earlier years, going back to 1986, reports Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011.

Baby boomers are retiring: Less than a third of teachers are 50 or older and 22 percent are younger than 30.

Eighty-four percent of public school teachers are female, up slightly, and 84 percent are white, down from 91 percent in 1986.

Wisconsin teachers’ union backs reforms

In a surprising shift, Wisconsin’s largest teachers union has endorsed performance pay and evaluating teachers with value-added measures and peer review, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. In addition the Wisconsin Education Association Council proposed splitting up the Milwaukee Public Schools system, an idea the union opposed when it was advocated by former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Wisconsin needs an organized way to move underperforming teachers out of the profession, said Mary Bell, WEAC’s president. The union’s proposal includes “career transition services” for teachers who fail to meet performance standards over three years.

She also said that the state’s outdated model of paying teachers based on years of education should be replaced with one that rewards high-performing teachers who meet learning objectives with students. Instructors who take on hard-to-staff positions and additional responsibilities should receive extra compensation, as should teachers who earn their national board certification, she said.

WEAC’s proposal to break up MPS is not supported by its Milwaukee local. The governor and state education department officials had no comment.

State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon), the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called WEAC’s announcement a “huge move.”

“I think they know this is happening across the country, and we’re going to do it in Wisconsin, and so they decided, ‘We can sit on the sidelines or we can play ball,’ and I’m glad they’re interested in playing ball,” said Olsen, who is working on reform efforts aimed at ensuring that schools can remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

An eight-part Journal-Sentinel series, Building a Better Teacher, reported that Wisconsin legislators and union leaders have resisted teacher-quality reforms pursued in other states.

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.

Baltimore teachers reject new contract

Baltimore teachers rejected a new contract that would have changed the traditional salary scale based on seniority and academic credits.

The proposed contract included pay raises and kept health benefits at their current rate. But some were wary of a provision that would have replaced a system where seniority and degrees determined pay with one where they were paid by effectiveness in the classroom and pursuit of professional development.

Some 58 percent of teachers rejected the contract.

The contract had been hailed as a sign that teachers’ unions are open to reform, notes Teacher Beat. Apparently, the leadership of the AFT-affiliated union couldn’t persuade its membership.

Baltimore revamps teachers’ pay

Baltimore teachers will gain higher salaries and input on working conditions in exchange for abandoning the old pay system, reports the Baltimore Sun. Effective teachers could earn up to $100,000.

The new contract, being hailed as the most progressive in the nation, would in part link teachers’ pay to their students’ performance. The structure does away with the old model of “step” increases, or paying teachers based solely on their years of experience and the degrees they have obtained.

By the third year, all schools will let teachers “help set working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer work day or more planning time.”

Some teachers break ranks on seniority

Some teachers are breaking with their union to support performance pay and oppose seniority, reports the Wall Street Journal.

As a teacher, Sydney Morris wants to be rewarded if she can show she helps students make progress in her classroom. She also wants to make job protections such as tenure more difficult to get, and in the event that layoffs have to happen she wants the worst teachers to be let go first, no matter how long they’ve been teaching.

In March, the Bronx teacher and a colleague, Evan Stone, started Educators 4 Excellence to mobilize teachers who want to change the status quo.

Of particular concern is the practice of laying off teachers based on how many years they’ve worked in the schools. That “provides a safety net to be complacent,” said Margie Crousillat, a member of Ms. Morris’s group who is a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx in her seventh year of teaching. “Some veteran teachers have been teaching 25 years and they are incredible. But some aren’t. I don’t think age or experience should dictate whether you’re safe in your job.”

Three-quarters of teachers surveyed this year by the New Teacher Project said layoffs should be based on more than just seniority.

Value-added analysis has helped teachers prove their worth and keep their jobs in Tennessee, writes Stephen Sawchuk on Teacher Beat.  The state has collected value-added data for more than a decade, he writes, “and until recently, it was an optional but not mandatory component of teacher evaluations.”

According to (former Tennessee Education Association President Earl) Wiman, over the past decade, the union has actually used information from that state’s value-added system to save teachers’ jobs during tenure and dismissal hearings. In other words, the information showed that those teachers did make a difference for kids, and effectively served as a type of check on principals.

The TEA successfully opposed basing teacher pay on value-added scores — unless that’s negotiated by local unions in districts receiving Race To The Top funds.

On the flip side, Arthur Goldstein describes how a teacher could exploit performance pay to make more money at the expense of students’ learning.

Cheat sheet

When test scores matter, some educators cheat, reports the New York Times.

“Educators feel that their schools’ reputation, their livelihoods, their psychic meaning in life is at stake,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group critical of standardized testing. “That ends up pushing more and more of them over the line.”

Experts estimate one to three percent of teachers (and principals) give students an advance look at questions, give test takers the answers, change incorrect answers or otherwise cheat to make their schools look good or to earn performance bonuses.

The rise of performance pay could lead to a rise in cheating.

Update: The Times is making excuses for a small number of cheaters to attack testing, writes Richard Colvin on HechingerEd. “When students cheat, we don’t say that testing is to blame.”

Merit-pay study showed no gains

Performance pay for teachers didn’t boost student achievement, according to a Mathematica study of the Chicago Teacher Advancement Program. The first two years of the pilot also showed no improvement in teacher retention at participating schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan was running Chicago schools when TAP was started, with support from the teachers’ union, and his Race to the Top is pushing states to adopt performance-based pay schemes.

Nobody knows why TAP had no effect, reports Education Week. However, Chicago changed the TAP model, spreading bonus money among teachers, principal and staff instead of just teachers.

Because of problems with obtaining student-growth data linked to individual teachers, Chicago also paid bonuses based on schoolwide, rather than classroom achievement growth. The National Institute for Excellence recommends that at least 30 percent of bonus pay be based on the results of classroom measures of student growth.

Chicago also paid smaller bonuses than recommended — an average of $1,100 in the first year and $2,600 for  teachers in schools in their second year of TAP.

The federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports performance pay pilots, tells applicants “that average bonus payouts for educators should be ‘substantial,’ perhaps 5 percent of the average teacher salary, and that top-performing educators should earn far beyond that amount, perhaps three times as much,” reports Ed Week. Chicago’s plan may have been too diluted to make a difference.

Cheaters (and teachers) prosper

Students are incredibly clever and inventive when it comes to cheating on tests, writes Arthur Goldstein on Gotham Schools. A young teacher filled him on the latest techniques, including how to cheat with a water bottle.

If the teacher’s pay depends on students’ scores, Golstein wonders, why should she crack down on cheaters?

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.