Friday, December 23, 2011

Bonuses for Sleeping Teachers

I've just read an interesting Huffington Post entry from a mathematics teacher in Los Angeles amenable to using student test scores as a factor in his professional appraisal. While his tone is commendably reasonable, both he and all others involved in this debate should beware the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between teaching inputs and student learning outputs, since other factors might be involved. Two immediate alternative explanations for high student scores immediately come to mind: the (typically Asian) use of tutors or cram schools and the 21st century solution of online tutoring, perhaps through recorded videos like those of the Khan Academy.

Here's a scenario that should give the simple-minded teacher-bonus-for-high-test-score aficianados nightmares, and the rest of us a laugh: two teachers, a retired-on-the-job old-time math teacher who never could teach and a frazzled incompetent rookie science teacher who has received a few days of training before being thrown in front of the toughest students anywhere, are both in hot water because they are about to be eliminated through the new performance appraisal system emphasizing student test scores, for which both are completely unprepared. But luckily into this new situation arrives an immigrant student whose ambitious parent immediately sees that neither of these teachers can teach, hires a tutor, sends her child off to an effective cram school, buys her son extra self-study books, and connects the boy with online tutoring help (perhaps by hacking into the brilliant online tutoring provision of Ontario, Canada); this boy immediately becomes a star student and, being charismatic, is able to turn his friends on to the same resources, and through another parent well capable of manipulating our philanthropic grant system, is able to secure like outside-of-class supports for all of the students in these two incompetent teachers' classes; and so while one teacher sleeps and the other is out of class in psychotherapy, student scores soar, and end-of-year test results determine that these are the most improved classes in the city. An enthusiastic superintendent, dependent upon her dashboards, scans the data and names our two unsuspecting teachers as teachers of the year (they barely beat out a jealous colleague who had helped his students cheat to gain their greatly improved test scores). The superintendent plans a surprise announcement of the awards and invites media cameras in for the presentation of the teacher-of-the-year awards to our two unsuspecting misfits, hoping to see spontaneous displays of highly effective teaching. She enters to find the old-timer asleep and, next door, the science teacher absent, with students studying to compensate for the missing instruction, led by the original star student.

The superintendent is embarrassed and puzzled, and so hires a young university researcher to determine which classroom practices correlate with these higher test scores. The conclusion: lack of teacher interference with student learning, prevented most effectively by absence from school and next best by in-class slumber, correlates most strongly with these students' improvement; and so "Stamp out teaching!" (our faculty was once led to chant "Stamp out literacy" by our school's literacy coordinator in the library of the old Locke High School) becomes the new, evidence-based mantra promoted in all of the schools under our enthusiastic, data-driven superintendent.

This farce might actually work as a movie, where as a comedy it might compensate for the tragedies currently being plotted in our schools.


  1. Thank you for your humorous and ironic vignette. As an 19 year veteran teacher I opted out of the traditional path and went wherever my curiosity and interests lead me so I have no pension but I do have perspective gleaned from a wide array of teaching experiences ranging from an affluent presidential blue ribbon IB public high school to K-12 homeschooling support to college. And presently I am at a high achieving inner city charter high school with really wonderful students.

    We are being subjected to Gates grant reform of our teacher evaluations in a move toward a hybrid of performance & outcome pay.

    This is not my first experience with Gates reform. His foundation rebuilt my son's high school in Monroe, Washington at the same time I was attending UW graduate classes with several young idealists who worked for the foundation.

    My son was so unhappy with the forced small school structure that despite loving some of his teachers he opted to attend Community College to complete his diploma through an excellent program called Running Start. My understanding is that within three years the Gates money was used up and the school resumed normal operation as a comprehensive high school but not without great turmoil during the transition into and out of the small school model inflected upon all by a presumably well intentioned benefactor.

    My fellow students at UW crystallized my understanding that this was a group in the rapture of theory without any experience or regard for pragmatism or application.

    It thus became clear to me as I gained a first hand experience of the Gates new and improved teacher observations that while again well intentioned it was no better than the previous dog and pony show we had before.

    Watching Gates TED talk was further enlightening as I saw a man enamored by data collection wishing to fill his computer engineering and programming positions with American workers. What he fails to recognized is that the purpose of public education is to produce a well rounded and informed citizenry, foster a love of learning, and application of critical thinking.

    So as to not show up without a possible solution or two, I would like to strongly suggest Gates put his money into nationwide magnet schools for those students who want to become computer engineers and programmers, offering them full college scholarships if they excell in his middle schools and high schools.

    As for me at this point in my career a bonus or greater earnings is no incentive to me.

    There has been little in any professional development that has improved my practice more than collaboration with my colleagues and those too rare opportunities I've had to observe others teach. From these two activities I've grown tremendously.

    I am not intimidated by standardized testing. When I taught AP all my students passed with a three or better. When I taught Sophomore English all my students passed the state exam in writing and reading. But I have been doing this long enough to know there is so much more, so much more we can do and be that makes kids excited to come to school.

    So if there were additional money coming into my school and if I got to allocate my portion over the next few years I would:

    Give my school a library with a librarian and a couple computer labs, a school nurse and a couple mental health counselors. If I were to be more selfish I would like a full time copy person for all the teachers and I'd like the $4000 I donate back to my school each year so my students have good quality art supplies to be in the school budget. And I'd really like to have a class load of about 100 students, rather than 150+, so that I could do my job well in 40-50 hours a week without bringing home work on the weekend and holidays. That would be awesome. One can dream a little...

  2. You have good dreams, Monica (you and I had lunch together at Locke once, as I recall). I agree very much with your advice as to where Mr. Gates might better spend his money, and have been in the process of starting a school that well matches your description, which you can learn more about as you hunt around this site. And I strongly advocate a lesson study approach, which would, in accordance with another of your dreams, well match the kind of professional development that you say you have found rewarding, as have I. Thank you for your comment.