Tuesday, August 31, 2010

(Not) rewarding exceptional teachers

Rewarding Zenaida Tan: [...] as part of its big data dump on teacher quality in the LA Unified School District, the LA Times took the time to write a profile of one of the city’s most effective teachers, third grade English teacher Zenaida Tan. Her students show much bigger gains in both reading and math competency over the course of the year than do the average teacher’s students. [...] The LAT notes that the current system doesn’t allow Tan to be recognized as the brilliant teacher she is:
By the LAUSD’s measure, Tam simply “meets standard performance,” as virtually all district teachers do — evaluators’ only other option is “below standard performance.” On a recent evaluation, her principal, Oliver Ramirez, checked off all the appropriate boxes, Tan said — then noted that she had been late to pick up her students from recess three times. [...]
[...] Excellent teachers deserve to be paid enough money to keep them teaching, and they deserve acknowledgment for the crucial role they play in shaping the nation’s future for the better. But it’s impossible for them to get the acknowledgment they deserve if we assess them only on crude measures like “does she have a master’s degree?” and “did she show up on time for recess?” The main point of school is to teach kids stuff, so we need to measure what kids are learning.

Unions are typically criticized for this immoral state of affairs, but we should really look at administrators, school boards, and local politicians, who much prefer avoiding the complexities and conflict of true merit pay. It is very hard to take a limited raise budget and allocate according to performance. To reward exceptional performers, average performers will take a hit, and generate trouble for administrators in proportion to their relatively large numbers. Lake Woebegone-style, every teacher feels they are above average, and every parent feels that their child's teacher is above average. So, administrators stiff the exceptional performers to keep the peace. And they don't really pay the price, because exceptional teachers are more likely to love teaching beyond what it pays them, and stay even though they aren't earning more than their mediocre colleagues. Not a recipe to encourage extra effort from those who could be better teachers, but don't see the point. By stiffing the exceptional, the system sends the wrong signals to those who could become good.

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