Who’s Afraid of Data in Schools?

It’s hard to have a school-wide faculty meeting, or open an education magazine, without encountering the word “data.”  Once highly idiosyncratic, teaching has rightly become more and more a skill to be learned with outcomes to be measured.  I could not be happier about this move from teaching-as-witchcraft (or worse, merely bad theatre) to teaching-as-skill.

Those opposed to the use of data in schools are legion.  Some teachers say gathering data gets in the way of instruction.  Lots of stakeholders argue that it couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of good schools and teaching.  The most troubling objection is that data isn’t necessary to improvement; it’s somehow just a sideshow for accounting fetishists.

A recent post by Robert Wachter in New York Times puts it like this: “the objections [to using data] became harder to dismiss as evidence mounted that even superb and motivated professionals had come to believe that the boatloads of measures, and the incentives to ‘look good,’ had led them to turn away from the essence of their work…. The focus on numbers has gone too far. We’re hitting the targets, but missing the point.”

Then, quoting a “hard-nosed scientist” and measurement expert about how to improve the helping professions, Avedis Donabedian, Wachter claims he said on his deathbed: “The secret of quality is love.”

There you have it: love.  Retool, everyone!  Make loving schools and the rest falls into place.

Hardly.  Under the rubric of “love,” lots of pretty awful things happened: low expectations, damning “ability” streaming, corporal punishment, whole-language instruction, and on and on. Yes, teachers should be loving: but we know that because ample meta-analyses suggest that teacher-student relationships have a huge impact on student outcomes.  That’s data.

Why We Should Embrace Data

“Count something.” That’s the advice of Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer, health care reformer.  I am fond of borrowing his ideas, and this is no exception.  We ought to be counting more, not less; we ought to be asking research questions in our own schools and classrooms; we ought to be finding the best evidence about the effectiveness of our individual schools and making decisions based on it.

Ask Yourself: Without “Data” or “Information” or “Evidence”…

… How would you know if your classroom or school is functioning at its best?  Rather than gathering data, would it be better to merely guess?  Or perhaps listen to the loudest teacher complaining in the faculty lounge?

… How can you find improvements?  How do you know if your students are being well-served? How do you know if program changes are aiding student learning or the opposite?

Models of Using Data That Are Likely to Work:

– Validity: Measure what is valued instead of valuing only what can easily be measured

– Balance: Create a balanced scorecard

– Insist on credible, high quality data that are stable and accurate.

– Design and select data that are usable in real time.

– Develop shared decision-making and responsibility for data analysis and improvement.

(This list is taken from Andy Hargreaves, sometimes quoted as being opposed to the use of data in schools.)

Imagine This

Using the above criteria, I suggest that each school (or department within) embrace as their operating principles – something they just do as a matter of course – a set of measures.

ImagineColleagues getting together to decide, informed by stable accepted research (yes, it does exist) and professional judgment, what things really matter.  A few possibilities to illustrate: student engagement; preparation for the next step; effective instruction; and so on.

Then, consciously asking: how can we collect data – qualitative and quantitative, in valid and practical ways – to figure out how we are collectively doing across these domains?

Then, embracing an ongoing effort to track and discuss the data to improve programming or approaches.

The Scientist in the Room

I’m fond of saying that the best teachers are scientists in the room, looking for data about how the students are doing. That data could come from a lot of different sources: it could come from examining exams after students have written them; it could come from moderated or parity marking with colleagues; it could come from student surveys; it could come from student exit interviews; it could be routine (brief “stop/start/continue” surveys for students at the end of units). The more conscious we are of the information we base decisions on the better our decisions are likely to be.

The important thing is that we count, measure, and gather information, from a variety of sources to paint the most accurate picture of what we’re doing and how well it’s working.  We need to start now.  And we need to make it part of our regular practice.

We need more data, not less.  It needs to be collected efficiently and routinely, used consciously and conscientiously, for the perpetual betterment of our schools.  People have said the use of data harms children; I argue the careful use of data is the best defence against a complacent or dysfunctional approach to schooling.

If we won’t tolerate the random best guesses of heart surgeons, why would we demand any less from those that teach?

(Photo: JD Hancock)

Why Changing the Carpets Will Not Improve Schools

Abbey Lanes https://www.flickr.com/photos/abbylanes/3335173723/

We all want (even) better schools.  But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much.  Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.

“We should have a later start to the school day”

“We have to teach 21st century skills”

“We need more creativity in our classrooms”

… And so on.  Some, or all, might be valuable.  None might be.  But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”

In other words, to use the phrase of John Hattie, which change has the best impact?

Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools.  Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…

one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.


Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive.  The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms.  But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn.  “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit.  That’s what you took away?’  The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47.  As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)

I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us.  Our best systematic research efforts are underway.  The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success.  And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher.  These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.

But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools.  We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size.  We have only so much time.

I’m Curious:

How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?  

Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1? 

And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?

A Tale of Two Cities

Recently, Chicago resolved its teacher strike, delivering the teachers a 17.6% pay raise over four years. This was seen as an immense victory by many in the labour movement.

In Ontario, the dispute between teachers and the government still rages. (The Toronto Star has produced a helpful primer on the topic.) I’ve written before about the importance of teaching wages keeping pace with those of other professions, but the recent news from Chicago highlights two very different approches in these very different districts.

The stance taken by the province seems to be taking a position rather than negotiating in line with its interests, to use the language of Urry and Fisher in Getting to Yes. The province had no interest in most of what has emerged as contentions – they had an interest in keeping costs down and quality up. Now they have become embroiled in a dispute over the minutiae of the contract. In Chicago, they seemed to understand this difference.

We Hold These (Which?) Truths…

A recent editorial in the Toronto Star came out, strongly, against the apparently en vogue practice of conservative parents sending a letter to school asking to be notified if certain hot button subjects are likely to come up in their children’s class. The Star’s view:

Ontario has tried hard to accommodate parents with conservative religious views who want their children excused from sex education classes. Typically, that means some students head to the library when the health nurse comes to talk about condoms.

But now a small group of parents who are angry that they lost the battle to keep support clubs for gay students out of the schools are taking things to a new level by demanding the right to pull their kids out of a wide range of classroom discussions that do not conform to their particular beliefs.

Their demands are impractical, indeed unacceptable in a public school system. Everyone from the education minister down to individual principals must push back against this pernicious trend.

Something called “traditional values” form letters are trickling into boards across the Greater Toronto area from conservative Christian and Muslim parents. The generally ask that schools notify them before teachers deal with certain subjects, including evolution, the environment, wizardry or any discussion that portrays gay relationships as “natural, healthy or acceptable.”

This demand for prior notice is unreasonable. The schools need to be able to deal with these matters as they come up.

What’s a teacher to do when a student starts reading his English essay about Harry Potter flying his broom to the recycling depot? Whistle down the reader while the class is cleared of objectors?

Moreover tolerance and respecting differences is not something kids learn at 2 p.m. on Tuesday and then move on. It is imbedded, quite rightly, into the curriculum. No teacher should have to cover up a family drawing by a young girl with two moms, so as not to offend other students. How would the young girl feel to be told that some of her peers aren’t allowed to see her family portrait?

“A little person can draw a picture of her two moms or two dads, for example, and feel safe and accepted,” says Education Minister Laurel Broten. “That’s what happens in classes across Ontario and that’s what should happen.”

She’s right. But for it to remain that way, the education system must push back against this growing pressure from those who want to impose their agenda and censor what children are taught. The public schools serve a broader community.

We get that some may not accept the theory of evolution. That they may object to a novelist’s characters. Or that they may not be supportive of gays. But the public school system teaches science and literature and tolerance, and it must remain free to do so.

Introverts Unite?

I’ve written before – quite a lot, actually, here, here, here, here, and here – about cognitive failures. I think these failures – our ability to see the truth, put simply – corrupt many of our organizations, especially on matters of hiring. We choose to hire people, for the most part, based on a faulty set of ideas. And then we live with those decisions, in a kind of confirmation-bias prison, unable to see the folly of our ways.

I proceed from well-established premises: that schools can improve; that teachers are the most important factor in establishing quality schools, and that leaders are second only to teachers in their importance. One more: hiring the right people is crucial.

The kinds of traits selected for in the hiring process appear to be just that: traits. Not skills or abilities, but personality markers; markers that the hiring teams tend to be swayed by in the way we are sometimes swayed by a clever salesman. We end up with overly gregarious types, men who are tall and possessed of a firm handshake. This is especially true of leadership positions. And when these larger-than-life types create mediocre results, we pawn it off on outside factors (“Boy, that’s a tough job – I wouldn’t want it”), and sometimes even muse “how much worse it would have been without him.”

Enter Susan Cain. A Manhattan-corporate-lawyer-turned author, she tries to salvage the lowly introvert in the TED clip below. Like (the extroverted) Jim Collins in his wildly influential Good to Great (in his insistence that humility and will constitutes the best leadership), she points out that some of our most beloved leaders are introverts. If all we were looking for was a broad smile, firm handshake, and wonderful small talk, we would have missed out on some of the best, Abraham Lincoln included.

Also see Carla Luchetta, of TVOs The Agenda, on a similar theme.

(Whose?) Character Education

James Q. Wilson
A little while back, David Brooks, from his usual column in the New York times, praised a recently-deceased political scientist, James Q. Wilson – an academic most famous for his “broken window” theory of crime. Wilson, a professor at Harvard for most of his working life, had a larger impact that that single theory, though; the core of Wilson is his writings on character, says Brooks.

‘When Wilson began looking at social policy, at the University of Redlands, the University of Chicago and Harvard, most people did not pay much attention to character. The Marxists looked at material forces. Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition. Policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussing the problems of mankind,” he once recalled.’

And later in the NYT piece:
‘When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Behave in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent. He did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, by being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.’

Many school boards (and certainly many independent schools) have been in the embrace of character education for some time now, and – good or bad – some thanks goes to Wilson. Many fine schools have used the discourse of character to redefine their programs and restructure their school cultures. Some hold celebrations of one particularly important character trait each month.

Ontario, in particular, has turned to it in the past decade or so. As a jurisdiction with over 12 million people, one that spends a lot of money on education, and is possessed of many well-respected university faculties of education, Ontario’s influence (in Canada and more broadly) is weighty. And on this issue, it has led.

But an examination of the question is surely complicated. After all, if Wilson discounts ‘Marxist’ (though certainly more than Marxist) ideas of materialism, we’re left with little to explain divergent crime stats besides cultural and character matters. People steal not because of inequity, but because of personal failing? This might be so (I doubt it, but it’s not logically impossible), but as casual supporters of character education we often forget about the consequences.

Then there is the question of whose character – from which culture should we find the appropriate character traits and attributes? The Ontario government writes, “Character development is the deliberate effort to nurture the universal
attributes upon which schools and communities find consensus.” Character development is a-cultural, they say.

Are noble character traits universal, as the Government of Ontario suggests? In the words of Wilson, what does being ‘decent’ mean – and does it mean the same thing to all people? If contemporary character development isn’t religious education (something both Wilson and secular school authorities suggest), then how do we explain its similarity to Protestant values? I was raised with such values, and do admire them. But it seems hard to explain its coherence with a very sacred ideal: equity. Indeed, “respect for diversity” is another heading in the same curriculum document.

Is it possible that students who come from some cultures express respect differently than our own? That they might manifest as lacking in character, when other forces might be at play? Is there a tendency, a conservative one at that, to blame kids for things beyond their control – either material or cultural? (In this case, independent schools are on more solid ground by virtue of the choice involved.)

What would it mean, in real practice, to achieve the following government mandate: “The multiple perspectives that exist within our communities demonstrate the need for school boards to be increasingly responsive to the needs and aspirations of their diverse communities.”

The general consensus – and the easy answer – is to ask the community itself to identify attributes to reinforce and inculcate. But that presumes several things that might not be true: first, that the community speaks with one voice; second, that the voices heard at meetings represent all voices; and third, that the community is right. Where I grew up, the community was often vocally opposed to gay rights. It was a place where in the local Santa Claus parade, one ‘float’ was a man in blackface in a white Ford Bronco with a sign on the side: “OJ’s Back for Christmas.” This was 1995. That community, at that time, often showed poor values. Some of us would have benefitted from a defence from community norms.

I think of Catholic schools in Ontario and their discomfort with homosexual relationships. Is being gay (or expressing it at prom, say) bad character? If so, says who? And if not, what do we say to the folks who are upset by an acceptance of gay relationships? The complication arises here: it is easy to merely assign a judgment to behaviour in accordance with a shared understanding. But when various factors are at play – community values, the Constitution, school board directives – and when a ‘shared understanding’ is quite unlikely, any declaration that character matters is easy seems somewhat foolish.

Shame and Blame

It is a tired axiom that teachers get blamed for things that aren’t always their fault. And while that matter deserves exploration on its own, for today let’s leave it at a judicious reprinting of two worthy commentators.

The first is, William Johnson, a special education teacher from Brooklyn, NY, who writes in the New York times:

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.

When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

The other voice is Bill Gates, responding to a recent decision in New York State, also writing in the Times:

LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

Fixing Teacher Salaries

There are few professions with a reputation among members of the public so conflicted as teaching. On the one hand, most people do acknowledge that teaching is a noble job – often one, as I’ve written before, that has a certain charity feel to it (“Oh, you teach? Good for you!”) But on the other hand, few professionals are so widely regarded as being lazy and overpaid as teachers are. The issue normally lies dormant, but in an era of budget pressures the slings and arrows are readied once again.

The Ontario government, ignoring some of the advice of their advisor, Don Drummond, has made some strong early moves to curb spending. Since education spending is its second-largest program commitment, keeping the budget growth to 1% cannot be successful if previous trends were allowed to continue.

Two measures have been proposed, both of which seem to be counter to long-standing agreements and labour conventions: cancel retirement gratuities and “fix” the salary grid. The first refers to agreements that provide a lump-sum payment, reported as about half the final year of salary, for teachers who have banked most of their sick days throughout their career. Presumably, the measure was created to reward teachers who saved the system money by forfeiting their negotiated sick days. To cancel this for anyone who is anywhere near retirement obviously runs counter to collective agreements won over the years.

The second idea is to “fix” the salary grid. As I’ve written before, merely freezing new cost-of-living raises doesn’t achieve much, because yearly raises for years of experience are much higher than 1%. And Laurel Broten, education minister, has pushed for a two-year freeze of the grid, and moreover, a complete rethink of teacher salaries once that two years is up. What might that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean more money for teachers. Might it mean salary cuts? Almost certainly that’s the motivation. Might it mean some sort of new grid entirely, which lowers the majority of salaries in order to create new levels, in the name of ‘pursuing excellence,’ or some such – ie, a new level for graduate degrees, while all others get a 10% pay cut? Might it mean some version of merit pay, an idea that has been argued against by the former Deputy Minister of Education for Ontario? All these are possible, but the Minister isn’t saying much right now. (And the language of the debate – to fix what is broken – is appallingly conservative for a government that fashioned itself the carrier of the progressive banner.)

According to the Globe and Mail:

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation both reacted with outrage. In a scathing letter to his members, ETFO president Sam Hammond called the tone of the proposal “mean-spirited” and wrote, “To say we were insulted is an understatement.” The ETFO has also pulled out of two days of talks scheduled for next week.

The union is right to fight for the retirement gratuity if they are to represent the wishes of their membership, which happens to be fairly mature. But from a public policy standpoint, it is a relatively small measure: the entire obligation, province-wide, over what appears to be a generation for teachers, is $1.7 billion. To increase the gap in salary, not a bonus earned over 30 years, between teaching and the other professions is obviously short-sighted. And if you are a younger teacher, the freeze in wage growth is far more troubling – older teachers are already at the top of the grid, so it hurts them much, much less.

There is a lot to like about most of Drummond’s recommendations – again, in the broad sense. And of course this wasn’t the suggestion Drummond made – he was in favour of saving money through larger class sizes in the primary years, and the reversal of the hard cap by McGuinty’s government, since so very little evidence exists in its favour. And a delayed roll-out in the very expensive full-day kindergarten that, again, was an election showpiece.

But it is preposterous to suggest that in an era of inflation over 2%, and average salary increases across this country of 3.1% (according to the Conference Board of Canada), to freeze, then cut, teacher salaries, without expecting any concomitant long-term repercussions in the quality of education. If education is important, we needed the best and the brightest to enter the field. It isn’t enough to echo the old refrain, “No one becomes a teacher for the money.” (Or if the refrain holds true, it should hold true in all professions – a return to higher personal income tax rates on high earners should demonstrate that. The government would have all the money it needs with a high income surtax).

Teachers need to be paid at a rate similar to other professions of equal social value and equal educational requirements. I think we’re quite close at this exact moment, but with at least two years erosion by inflation, and then a complete overhaul of teachers salaries (downward), the gap between accounting, law, medicine, even law enforcement will grow so great that the only folks interested in the profession will indeed be the ones looking for summers off. And that’s a shame.

Teacher Pay in a Time of Austerity

In the rush to fix the many budget problems that have beset governments around the world, many have turned to spending cuts as a solution.  In education, this can sometimes mean larger class sizes, hiring freezes, layoffs, and pay cuts.  Some districts in the US have been fierce; in Canada, teachers have been spared.  But for how long?Ontario, a province with a significant structural deficit, has hired Don Drummond, a former bank economist, to find efficiencies, savings, and outright cuts.  Obviously, no jurisdiction can have, for very long, deficits that far exceed growth rates, so Ontario does have to act.  But with so much spending wrapped up in health and education, where to find the money?  Early in the new year, we’ll find out.The plan will be to keep spending increases to 1% in key areas – which would mean lower-than-inflation pay increases for teachers.  In fact, it might mean something much, much lower than 1%, and here’s why: pay increases occur in two ways – by moving up the gay grid with new years of experience, and with each new step of the pay grid increasing by about 2-3% each year (historically).  So, even if you stop the 2-3% yearly increases, the overall cost of wages will increase by much more than 2-3% per year because the yearly pay grid increase for each passing year of experience is often approaching 10%.The chart below is the Toronto District School Board pay grid, and it indicates the challenge:

Toronto Teacher Pay

Even if we froze that salary grid completely, every teacher who wasn’t yet at the top of the grid (any teachers in years 0-10 of their career), will receive a pay increase.  And it will cost more than 1%.  Much more.

To take a more radical step and freeze new levels of experience, freeze salaries entirely (not just cost-of-living raises), well much more savings could be found.  But to do so would put teachers in an even weaker salary position in relation to other professions.  And as that gap grows, will it be possible to find the best workers?

Everyone says “teachers don’t go into the job for the money,” but I disagree vehemently – this is one of those silly things people say to sound soft and fuzzy.  Teachers need to be paid fairly, and no teacher would work for free.  Money isn’t their key motivator, but wait to see what happens when salaries are cut or frozen and the gap between teachers and other well-educated workers grows and grows.  If good teaching is important, why reduce it to charity work?  Or on the other hand, why not apply the same thinking to medicine, or law?

Here’s Don and friends on a recent edition of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  (Also featured is Ben Levin, one of my recent professors.)

Why School Choice Fails (?)

I’ve written before that the idea of school choice has a lot of merit, especially for those of us still under the spell of elegant philosophies behind Enlightenment economic thinkers.  I argued that across a whole system, applying principles of choice might be able to achieve change in ways more profound than well-meaning school leaders.  I did point out there is no evidence for the idea (some to the contrary, in fact), and it is quite unpopular in academic circles.A new salvo in the war emerged recently.  Natalie Hopkinson, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, created some controversy this winter when she declared, more or less, the US experiment with school choice and charter schools a failure.

She tells of a system where “neighbourhood schools are dying” because of school choice and charter schools.  The problem? Washington, D.C., like many cities in the US, in an effort to improve its school system, created choice-based incentives for schools to improve: “if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.”  Schools would be accountable to their stakeholders, and in so doing a “second education system” was created.

But a cycle emerges: local neighbourhood school, not doing so well, loses more and more students to the competition; eventually, stripped of resources, it is shut down and the kids move to a nearby public school that is not doing so well; soon, it is shut down, too.  Each wave of the cycle brings greater cynicism and disillusionment with the public system.  The second, shadow education system consumes resources that once went to local neighbourhood schools.

All of this leads to a few avenues: rich neighbourhoods have great schools with great programs; poor nieghbourhoods have poor schools with weak programs, and ultimately get shut down; the kinds in poor neighbourhoods have fewer and fewer options.  (Most Canadians are surprised to find out that one of the best options is to win a lottery to attend a better school out of your neighbourhood.)  Her son attended three elementary schools by the age of 11, and all of them were closed.  Living in an under-served, mostly black neighbourhood, means you probably won’t have a local school worth wanting to send your kid to.

She looks out at the broader US experiment with school choice and declares the future grim: “Like us, those places will face a stark decision: Do they want equitable investment in community education, or do they want to hand it over to private schools and charters? Let’s stop pretending we can fairly do both. As long as we do, some will keep winning, but many of us will lose.”

She does make a compelling point.  But given the obvious criticism supplied by some of her detractors, I think she has the wrong problem in mind, and the wrong solution.  Kevin Chavous, the chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, writes in response: “Ms. Hopkinson points to what she deems the fundamental unfairness of the lottery aspect of the charter school law. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system, but luck and chance have always determined where one attends school. If you are lucky enough to be born to reasonably well-off parents who can write checks to private schools or buy a house in an expensive suburb, opportunity is everywhere.
“If you aren’t so fortunate, your parents grit their teeth and send you to the neighborhood school, chosen for you based on nothing but your ZIP code. If access to high-performing schools has to come down to a number, better it be a lottery number than a ZIP code.”

A good point, though there is a lot less to find agreement with in his views in this clip:

The debate over choice is far from the centre, though; the solution to all this is not to quibble over school choice, but to examine the sources of funding.  In the US the tradition has been to fund schools from local tax bases – the richer the neighbourood, the richer the schools – ad vice versa.  It was like this in Ontario, too, but (under a very conservative regime, even) the province decided to apply a provincial funding model where the school receives the same amount for each student, no matter how rich the local neighbourhood.  This kind of centralized funding is an easy way to provide for poor niehgbourhoods – and it isn’t incompatible with school choice.