Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Governor Schwarzenegger's Merit Pay and Tenure Proposals

While I don't know of any teacher who thinks of him/herself as a below-average teacher, about half of all teachers outside of Lake Wobegon are below average. Is that bad? Even if every teacher were Superteacher, there still would be some Superteachers who were not as good as other Superteachers. This is what happens when you use norm-referenced criteria--someone is always on the bottom.

The question should be: is a teacher competent? If a teacher is competent, but not as good as Superteacher, that teacher should still be able to teach. Not every wide receiver in the NFL is as good as Jerry Rice (used to be), but there are certainly other wide receivers worthy of an NFL job. I have no doubt some airline pilots are better than others, but given their frequent evaluations I'm sure they're all competent. Not every choir is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but plenty of choirs hock their cd's on infomercials, so they must be good at singing.

The question becomes, how do we determine if a teacher is competent or not? And then, how do we determine if a teacher is really a Superteacher and thus reward him/her with merit pay?

Governor Schwarzenegger is backing some proposals to initiate merit pay and increase the number of years, from 2 to 5, for a district to grant tenure to a teacher. You can read the Sacramento Bee blogger's takes on those proposals here, here, and here. Said blogger, Dan Weintraub, usually has his head screwed on straight when it comes to education issues. I think he's pretty much got it right in these cases as well.

I support merit pay. I'm not convinced I'm Superteacher, although I do try, but I'd like to think there would be a financial payoff for becoming Superteacher in addition to just the psychological benefit of a job well done. Of course there are problems with certain merit pay proposals, and I discussed the subject of merit pay here.

I don't understand the governor's tenure proposal, though. Why should it take 5 years before a school district determines that a teacher is incompetent? Is it not better to make this determination in the first 2 years, rather than let 5 years' worth of students get a substandard education? What is truly accomplished by not granting tenure after 2 years?

Let me be clear here. I'm all about competence testing. In fact, I had to pass 2 fairly rigorous, and 1 not-so-rigorous, tests to become a math teacher. Of course, that was after passing the at-most-8th-grade-level California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST), which doesn't test educational skills as much as it tests if you have a junior high knowledge of math, reading comprehension, and written communication. Had I received my Bachelor of Science in math here in California, instead of at West Point in New York, I would not have had to take the 3 subject matter competency tests mentioned above. Seemed a bit odd and unfair to me; every prospective teacher should take subject matter competency tests. That would establish a level of competence in the classroom; I'm not sure how you'd go about testing the ability to convey knowledge, the essence of teaching, without some kind of value-added study. Something like that would have to be worked out.

So what is the governor trying to accomplish with his tenure proposal? There's no doubt he's after the California Teachers Association (CTA), and rightfully so. I've addressed the CTA in this blog so many times that I won't even link back to the posts here, but you can find posts about the CTA in each of the monthly archives listed in the left column. I think that with this proposal, Governor Schwarzenegger has missed his target--he aimed for the union, but got the teachers instead. Making enemies of teachers not only isn't smart politically, it's just plain not smart. Teachers aren't necessarily the problem. Teachers don't determine if they themselves are competent, teachers often don't get input on curriculum, teachers often lack the authority to truly deal with students who disrupt the learning of an entire class. A teacher will try to teach, however, if the state credentials them and a school administration doesn't tell them they're doing anything wrong. Fix the kinks in the licensing program and actually expect administrators to evaluate their newest teachers, and not within 5 years. Give substandard teachers the opportunity to improve their craft. There will of course have to be some due process in place, but let's not make it so difficult to identify a truly substandard teacher (as opposed to a competent teacher who isn't Superteacher) and remove that substandard teacher.

Remember, as nice as it would be for every teacher to be Superteacher, that's just not realistic. Nor is it reasonable. But it's entirely realistic and reasonable to expect every teacher to be competent.

I don't see how the governor's tenure proposal accomplishes that goal.


Rick said...

Perhaps the theory in not granting tenure for two to five years is that many people can be on their 'best behavior' for a year or two, but the wheels begin to fall off shortly thereafter. Take marriage for example.

Thanks for the airline pilot reference. We are tested semiannually and the FAA can give a 'pop quiz' whenever they feel like it.

Thanks for the education.

Darren said...

If someone isn't competent in their subject area, it would probably be difficult to fake such competence. And administrators should be competent enough to know the difference between the truly competent and the incompetent. If an administrator can't figure it out in 2 years, how can they do it in 5?

Again, I don't see how raising tenure time from 2 to 5 years helps anything. In fact, because of law relating to "temporary" and "probationary" employees, this proposal makes it *more* likely, or at least easier, for an administrator to dismiss someone whom they merely don't want around. I don't like giving anyone that much authority over someone else. If you're worried about getting rid of dead wood, get rid of the "undue" process that we currently grant to tenured teachers and make the "due process" procedures more realistic and less cumbersome. That makes eminently more sense to me.

Edward said...

Do any of these school accountability measures being talked about in various political circles address accountability of administrators in particular?

I remember reading on another post that you have a BS in math. I presume you teach math. How many high school math teachers have a BS in math?

In case you didn't guess this, I'm currently a grad student in the math department at UC Berkeley. Lacking any outside fellowship, I have to GSI math classes for the time being. Last semester I did first-semester calculus, and this semester it's multivariable calculus. What brought me to read teachers' blogs in the first place was a sort of curiosity about what happens to these kids before I get them. It seems like they come out of high school knowing all sorts of weird things that it's not really at all important that they know, like being able to rattle off derivatives and antiderivatives mechanically before entering calculus, or this thing called synthetic division of polynomials that I learned about from one of my students last semester. On the other hand, there are other things it would be nice for them to know coming into calculus that they don't, like really having a decent understanding of what a continuous function is, or what happens to quantifiers under negation, or that a statement and its converse are really not logically equivalent.

Having been through the rigors of real classes in analysis, algebra, etc., do you find that your focus as far as what to teach is different from the other math teachers?

Darren said...

Synthetic division isn't good for much except quickly determining if a number is a root of an equation, or perhaps evaluating a polynomial for a specific value. However, I teach to the state standards, and other teachers are coming along in that department.

In this age of Accountability of the Teacher, we don't really have a choice but to teach to the standards, and I'm ok with that. I teach a pre-calculus course, though, and often check with the AP Calc teacher to see what areas *he* would like me to focus on (or not).

There is little accountability for administrators, except they run the risk of being reassigned if their schools continue not to make adequate yearly progress. I'm lucky in that the administrator that evaluates me is a former math teacher, so he knows what quality instruction looks like. I doubt there are many math teachers or science teachers across the country who have that luxury.

Do *most* teachers have a BS in math? I don't know, but I'd assume not. I know some who have BA's in math (what the heck *is* that, anyway???) and several who have minors in it. Then there are those with supplementary credentials here in California, but NCLB will move those by the wayside. And someone with a Multiple Subject credential (elementary school) can teach up through Algebra I, since some schools are still K-8 and Algebra I is an 8th grade topic.

Edward said...

What do the California state standards require the kids to learn in math class throughout high school? (or, do you know where to find this information presented in a relatively succinct manner...)

A lot of students who took the AP Calc exam and scored well were really struggling in first-semester calculus at Cal last semester. From what I've heard, the AP Calc exam is just a tad too easy.

Darren said...

2nd one on the list is a link to the Math content standards in both html and pdf formats. Free this way; you could order the pamphlet (and read it in less than an hour) from the CDE for a few dollars if you're so inclined.

Since the AP Calc kids came in to CAL doing not-so-well, check out the Calc standards and see if you can compare them to the AP Calc curriculum. I'll forward your comment on to the two AP calc teachers at my school and see what they think.

Is it possible that your students took AP Calc but didn't do so well on the AP tests?

Edward said...

Well, I asked some of my students how they did on the AP exam, and I don't think I ever heard a score below 3. 80+% of the students had taken some form of AP Calc (AB, BC, or whatever else) before MATH 1A at Berkeley.

With at most one or two exceptions out of 50, none of my students had ever heard of the epsilon-delta definition of the limit before. The CA state standard seems to indicate they should have at least heard of it, even if they have trouble writing simple proofs that use it. It also says they should understand the relation between continuity and differentiability. For the final exam last semester, I graded a problem where the students were asked to show that some piecewise-defined function was differentiable, and close to a majority of the students correctly showed that it was continuous and then wrote that the function is continuous and therefore differentiable. I attribute their mixing that particular theorem up to cramming, but if the state standards were being followed they would have known something about that coming in so that they wouldn't have had to cram. The proof that any differentiable function is continuous was something they'd never seen before either. This stuff is all in the textbook all professors use for the course as well.

In short, first-year university calculus (at least here at Berkeley) is very different from what they're getting in high school calculus, despite what the state standard says.

Darren said...

I don't recall seeing an epsilon-delta proof until advanced calculus, the course where you prove everything that you accepted back in differential and integral calculus. Then again, the state standards weren't in place in California at that time, and I got my degree in New York.

I'll probably hear from my school's calculus teachers tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Back to the original topic, my wife (having advanced through the ranks with being a teacher for 10 years before becoming a principal, then asst supe for inst, and finally supe) frequently bemoans the fact that tenure decisions have to be made within three years. Four years or even five years would be much better. (1) People change, and not always for the better. (2) Principals tend to err on the side of leniency (not my wife, though)instead of acting as the gatekeepers to the profession. It is simply difficult to tell someone that the four years of college and three years of learning a new profession have been wasted. This really applies to the marginal teachers, though, and not the ones obvously unqualified. Some marginal teachers get better, but others get worse. Frequently, a marginal teacher will have the tenure decision extended for another year if the state laws provide for such an extension. Making the initial decision at the 4 or 5 year mark would eliminate the need for this.

Darren said...

My recommendation, as I said when I posted, is to get rid of the *excessive* barriers to removing an obviously poor teacher, even if that teacher has tenure. Don't give one person the power to hold the Sword of Damocles over another person's head for so long. There's too much opportunity for abuse.

Anonymous said...

If you had been educated in California you still would have been required to take the CBEST. All California educators are now reqired to take subject matter competency, and elementary educators are required to be tested on literacy training competency as well. Furthermore, the district I work in keeps you on a temporary status for one to three years, and tenure cannot be reached until you obtain probationary status for three years. The time to reach tenure while working through temporary to probationary status can easily be five years to tenure.