What Teachers Make – Why Merit Pay is Crap!

In anticipation of my new blog post coming next week, I have decided to post this video. Often as I read and research for posting on this blog I become downtrodden and question whether the my work on this blog, your work as readers, and the work of many educators/allies across the country is worth it. In other words, sometimes the attacks on teachers get to me. Especially when they become coupled with delegitimizing my choice to become teacher with changes in law allowing relative novices to come into the classroom with no pedological foundations. Then I turn to this video for some motivation and realise that the work done across the country by great educators and educators who aspire to be great are not in vain.

Despite what many may say, teaching is hard! There are no quick fixes. There are no simple solutions. You can’t get more out of less. And it takes a special person to truly EDUCATE students day after day. Taylor Mali understands that, because he is a teacher.

Money won’t make great educators.

Have a good new year holiday! I am looking forward to the new year!

Shut Up Jasons (and Sandra)!

When the Jasons think about talking about education that should look to this man for some advice. (Photo Courtesy justadventure.com)

Maybe it’s the deadlines. Maybe it’s the lack of material. Maybe it’s because they are working for a struggling newspaper, and education seems to be a hot button issue. Our favourite Jasons from the LA Times, who help start the infamous LA Times Project and justified it with their weak online chat, are at it again. I am not sure what their motives are. However, whatever they are, I wish they would just shut up!

The Jason’s (and Sandra Pointdexter – boy did she hitch a ride on the wrong wagon) have written another article just in time for the holidays to further justify their project that uses “value-added” data to determine teacher quality. In their “In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked,” I found myself moving from angry to having pity on the two “journalists.” They were so desperate to make themselves seem on the right side of this issue that they contradicted themselves, use weak arguments, and glossed over important information in typical Waiting for Superman style.

“Despite the best efforts of…principals, and an army of well-intentioned reformers…[Markham has been considered one of the worst middle schools in California].”

While I was reading that line in the article I couldn’t help but hear the classical song the Funeral March playing in the background. The statement that is made here is that the principals and the “reformers” couldn’t do anything to turn that school around. That is a sad fact. However, does that mean it was automatically the teacher’s fault? Aren’t the principals responsible for maintaining their staff? If you are in it for the right reasons, aren’t reformers supposed to be there until the job is done? If the Jasons’ rhetoric reigns true, then no, these things don’t matter. The failure of the Markham Middle School is a function on the ineffective teachers that fill the classrooms in the building. (Sarcasm) What the Jasons failed to do (in their agenda riddled brains) is take a critical look at the principals and the reformers.

The more “journalism” that the Jasons expend on education the more and more it becomes clear that they are unaware of how a school should operate and how the stakeholders in the school play varying roles to make the school a success or failure. In the form typical of their “journalism” a seemingly terrifying narrative is set up:

In the last seven years alone, they tried changing the curriculum, reducing class size, improving school safety, requiring school uniforms, opening after-school programs and spending a lot more money per pupil.

In setting up this terrifying narrative they glossed over the fact that the school had nine principals in twenty years earlier in the article. Any good teacher or principal would know that in order for any reforms to come to fruition, there must be stable leadership. Clearly, this school was lacking stable leadership to make sure that the reforms were successful. Furthermore, seven years worth of various reforms isn’t going to change a school that is dealing with problems that are decades old. However, the Jasons rushed to say that:

“[T]he only thing they didn’t’ do was improve teaching – at least not until last year when layoffs swept away the school’s worst performers and test scores jumped.”

The expediency to make this point is supposed to set up in the readers mind that the kitchen sink was thrown at the problem, and at the end of the day the teachers were the ones that were the problems. Not the inconsistent leadership. Not the lack of time to see that the “reforms” were developed and implemented from leader to leader. NO! The problem falls squarely on the teacher. This is an absolutely disingenuous and weak argument that has the quality of a high school freshman.

You can add the Jasons to the legions of “edreformers” and “edpundits” that attempt to create this picture that political, historical, economic, and societal injustices and inequalities play a small role in schools and the lives of the students that attend them.

Markham, a maze of brick bungalows in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden parts of south Los Angeles, was not always considered a failing school.

Tucked away in a dusty storage area above a sixth-grade science classroom are several boxes of trophies from the 1980s that honoured the school for its academic prowess.

By 1991, however, the school’s test scores had fallen far enough to inspire a turnaround effort.

It is quite hysterical that the Jasons are trying to compare the contemporary Markham to the 1980s Markham to make a argument about the “good old days.” (In their defence this is a sentiment shared by many “edreformers.”) The most ludicrous comparison is “1980’s plaque standard” to the “2010 standardized test standard.” In other words, plaques were enough to prove academic prowess in the 1980’s, but we absolutely need standardized test and value-added data to make that determination today. That is essentially comparing grapes to watermelons (in the scale of the hype giving to standardized tests.) The second fallacious comparison is historic in nature. It is no mistake that this school was doing well (using the plaque standard) in the 1980’s, but then fell behind by the 1990’s. The 1980’s were also the years of the Regan-Bush era, which saw the end of federal involvement in equalitarian education and focused on the rights of individuals rather than the needs/rights of minorities. Furthermore, they created an apathy towards “the common,” arguing that it was a threat to liberty. This ultimately translated into a severe scale back in government spending for education, which was historically the case from Regan to Bush and through the Clinton years. This is all while white-flight was at its highest, many cities/states were struggling to reinvent themselves politically and economically after deindustrialization, and the country dealt with trade policies that were not favourable to economic development. However, the Jasons didn’t mention any of this. The Jasons set up narrative that seems to blame the teachers for the decline of the Markham School. They left out that as a consequence to conservative fiscal policies, many schools (including Markham) had unfavourable work conditions, lack of resources, and by the Jasons own admission – inconsistent leadership.

If credit is to be given to the Jason’s for their acknowledgment of history and the conditions upon which students live, it could all be boiled down to these two sentences.

“Research has shown the [standardized test] results are largely a reflection of socio-economic status: poor and minority students often start school well behind their wealthier counterparts.”

“When Watts has the same things as Breattwood does, then you might have equal scores,” said Markham English and Social Studies teacher Teresa Sidney.“

However, just because they mentioned it doesn’t mean they particularly believe it or really understand it. That became clear in their very next sentence:

Short of that, those students need to learn at least 1 1/2 years’ worth of material for every year of schooling to erase the achievement gap, experts say.

In this statement the words that should cause the most pause are “short of that.” They are essentially saying that short of making sure that two schools have the same number of resources and opportunities, the student need to learn at least 1 ½ years worth of material. That is like saying short of the fact that one baker has spoon and another has a mixer both must make 50 delicious cakes in the same amount of time, and that this precedent if acceptable. The Jasons are right; the students probably do need to learn 1 ½ years worth of material. However, is it not a valid statement that schools should receive equal funding/resources? Isn’t there an injustice that some schools get more than others, but all schools must “perform” at the same level? To the Jasons I guess not. To the Jasons, finding a score that “largely controls for socioeconomic status” is a better solution that finding solutions to helping students improve their socioeconomic status. Moreover, the omnipotent teacher must teach 1 ½ years worth of information with resources largely reflective of the students socioeconomic status.

The Jasons are simply beating a dead horse. They have decided to take the oldest marketing trick in the book and doll up inaccurate, unsupported, and in some case ludicrous arguments in the “stories sell” motif. It doesn’t matter how many stories they tell of individual “success,” there is still a problem around the country that is deeper than what the Jasons try to make believe is easily corrected. While I believe that everyone involved has to take a “no excuses” stance towards fixing the problems with America’s schools, that mantra has to be consistent in understanding, unveiling, and addressing ALL the issues that got us here in the first place. This includes teacher quality. I am convinced that the people involved aren’t ignorant to this; I believe what George Carlin is saying in this video:


In a Perfect World Part One

In the age of Obama, there have been few things that people on the left and people on the right agree on. The health care bill (aka Obamacare) had elements deemed unconstitutional after a relentless effort by Republican governors/attorney generals to get the entire bill overturned. Congress has been at a virtual standstill on whether or not to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich in this country. However, one thing that many Republicans and Democrats agree on is the need to eliminate or stifle the power/influence of teacher’s unions.

Some of the popular thought about teachers unions include:

“[Unions] are major obstacles to reform.”
-Newsweek – March 19. 2010

“The unions… are ‘special interests protecting the status quo’…pillars of ‘a system that too often rewards mediocrity and incompetence.’”
-City Journal Spring 1997

“This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”
-Houston Chronicle, 2007

And who couldn’t learn to hate teachers unions without seeing this YouTube video:

A fellow blogger, Sabrina, from The Failing Schools Blog responded to some of these notions in one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve seen in a long time. While I agreed with 100% of the arguments she made in her blog, I figured that I would take Jonthan Alter’s advice.

“It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time.”
-Johnthan Alter, Newsweek Columnist, on Waiting for Superman

I have decided to take the position of reformers like Rhee, Broad, Gates, and legions of other people around the country and think about what it would be like to live in a perfect word. A perfect world? Yes, a world without teacher’s unions.

Over the next three days I will posting stories of hypothetical teachers. Read there stories and vote on what should happen or what these teachers should do…IN A PERFECT WORLD.

Rachel Wood
Rachel Wood is a fifteen-year tenured veteran teacher. She works in a Title I school where 85% of the students receive free and reduced lunch. She has been teaching AP British Literature for the last five years helping her students get an average of a 4 on the final advancement placement exam. Mrs. Wood’s work in an inner-city school in Baltimore is very surprising to the people who knew her since she was child. She grew up in northeast Louisiana. Both of her parents were members of the local white supremacist group there. When Mrs. Wood told her parents that she was going to be a teacher in a inner-city school, teaching mostly African-American and Hispanic students, her parents essentially disowned her.

One day in late March she was excited about an activity that she was going to be doing with her class. She new that the AP examination was close and she wanted to get her students prepared for the writing response. Unfortunately, the period before her class the students participated in an assembly where a famous music artist came to school. When the students returned to class they were still very excited about the events of the last period. Mrs. Wood tried to get the class to settle down as she was ready to get started with the class. She tried turning out the lights, standing silently in front of the class, and even pointing out individual students on their behaviour. She became more frustrated as time went on. All of a sudden she screams loudly, “Please be quiet! We need to get started! What’s more important? You passing the AP exam or a nigger singing a song?” The class goes completely silent. She apologised for the remark and awkwardly returns to teaching.

Later that day she got a note from the principal in the mailbox to see him at the end of the day. The principal called Mrs. Wood in the office. He asked her, “Is it true that you used the “N” word during your AP British Literature class?” Mrs. Wood answered, “Yes, and I apologized for the remark soon after. I was very frustrated and the frustration got the best of me.” The principal explains to Mrs. Wood that there is no room for a racist at this school and she was fired.

Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.


Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois

Stories Sell: The Jasons and Doug Covered their Eyes and Put their Fingers in their Ears, while Telling a Story

The Jasons and Doug strike again in their new edition to proving the validity of Value Added Assessment in  “LA’s Leaders in Learning” published on August 21st. As I read through the piece, I was reminded of a lesson from one of my former bosses when I was in college. I was asked to create an advertising campaign showing the benefits of financial literacy for college students. My boss told me to keep one thing in mind, “Stories sell.”

It seems that the Jasons and Doug continue to cover their ears and close their eyes to the AMPLE evidence that their project is flawed. They used their most recent article to give you more anecdotes to get the reader to ignore the facts. Photo Courtesy: kidsatthought.com

I am not sure if my boss met the Jasons and Doug, but they surely got their information from the same school of thought. The striking thing about there most recent article is that it seemed like they were trying to convince themselves of what they were saying, but I digress.

Let me tell you several stories.

There is ample evidence that the use of any “high-stakes” assessment model to retain students, sanction schools, and punish teachers has lead to the increase of cheating incidents – most recently in Atlanta. This evidence has been well documented going back to the days before value-added became a prominent area of contention among educators:

Teacher’s Caught Cheating – CBS News 2003

Analysis Shows TAKS Cheating Rampant – Dallas News 2007

Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper with Test – New York Times 2010

There is ample evidence that the use of valued-added assessments in regards to assessing teachers is still largely flawed and needs further development:

Study by Kane & Staiger, 2002 for the U.S. Department of Education

Valued-Added Assessments have estimation errors from two sources.
1. Random differences across classrooms in measured factors related to test scores including student abilities, background factors, and other student-level influences.

2. Idiosyncratic unmeasured factor that affects all students affects all students in specific classrooms (e.g. dog barking or a disruptive student), which reflects year-to-year volatility

David Cohen uses satire to drive in the errors of the Valued-Added Assessment

There has been ample evidence that shows that the use of “high-stakes” assessments and analysis models (whether its API or VAA) lead to limiting of the curriculum to the “testable” subjects/skills along with other effects to students:

Analysis of Urban Schools by Diane Chung-University of Michigan

Problems with the goals of NCLB

While these stories only cover a small portion of the mounting evidence used to evaluate high-stake tests and assessments (which what VAA would be used for), the Jasons and Doug are intent on using their stories to prove their point.

The Jasons and Doug in many ways are contradicting themselves through their own rhetoric albeit implicitly. In their most recent article, they dedicated a significant portion to scrutinizing the limitations of API or the Academic Performance Index used by California to “rank” schools in accordance to No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

“The API obscures the fact that students at Wilbur had the potential for further growth that went unrealized. Instead, they tended to slip every year while those at other esteemed schools in well-off neighborhoods made great strides. It also obscures the gains in schools in impoverished areas.”

“In elementary and middle school, the 1,000-point index is based entirely on how high students score on the state’s annual tests, given in Grades 2 through 12. According to state data, 81% of the differences among schools reflect socioeconomic factors such as poverty and parents’ education.”

Scores like API were developed and implemented partly due to NCLB. Diane Ravitch discusses the many prongs of NCLB in her most recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. However, one of those prongs were particularly important here:

“All public schools receiving federal funding were required to test all students in grades three through eight annually and once in high school in reading and mathematics and to disaggregate their scores by race, ethnicity, low-income status, disability status, and limited English proficiency. Disaggregation of scores would ensure that every group’s progress was monitored, not hidden in an overall average.

That last line is particularly important here. The development of API was supposed to ensure progress was monitored. The monitoring of the progress was supposed to cut across the various population groups. In other words, this was an attempt to “control” for the outside circumstances that a student may deal with during and after school. To the Jasons and Doug’s own admission that is not what API has done.

“But even those who designed the API more than a decade ago…. recommended measuring student progress as soon as possible.”

“The superiority of looking at student growth was recognized from the very beginning,” said Ed Haertel, a Stanford professor and testing expert who helped develop the API for the state. “It’s much more sensitive and accurate than the current system.”

But California, like most states, isn’t doing it.”

They suggest on their “More on the Value-Added Method” page that “[v]alue-added measures individual students’ year-to-year growth. The API compares the achievement level of one year’s students with those in the same grade the previous year. Experts say both are important and tell parents different things about a school.” The question that comes to my mind is how is a parent supposed to choose which one is more important API or VAA?

This is the issue I am having with the entire LA Times “study” on education. I often get the image of a small child closing their eyes and putting their fingers in their ears. Despite the fact that API was all the rage almost ten-years ago and it is shown (even by their own analysis) that it has problems and limitations, they insist on using a new “trendy” statistical model for evaluating schools and teachers. It is clear that there is NO evidence that VAA will help close the achievement gap for the various populations that were “tackled” in the development of the first statistical model. However the use of stories about Wilbur Elementary School “starting out as high achievers but [losing] ground on state standardized tests” is supposed to convince us otherwise. Maybe they will use the story of Maywood Elementary and the high population of students on free/reduced lunch improving the most. Either way, the LA Times study is a disingenuous attempt to improve education and is offering convoluted and inflammatory rhetoric about teachers and schools under the guise that empiricism will save the day. Unfortunately in this case, the “facts” that the Jasons and Doug are using has done nothing but make the misinformation about the nature of schooling, teaching, leadership, and testing more prevalent.

It was issues like this that I wanted (and I am sure others wanted) to discuss in their “chat” last Thursday. However, they circumvented the concerns of many in order to replace it with tired rhetoric and ambiguous statements.

Unfortunately, they still haven’t changed since the “chat.” In the most recent article they said, “The approach generally doesn’t penalize schools for things beyond their control.” I generally don’t eat fish (because I am a vegetarian) but if there is nothing else available I will. Marriages are generally perceived as a life long commitment, but people get divorced.

I really hope that their true intentions surface as a result of this project.