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Monday, October 8, 2012

EdWeek Column Re-Print, Expanded Version

Last week, a column of mine ran with three other education policy experts in EdWeek. However, while the EdWeek editors did a fine job boiling down my column (and my colleagues'), I wanted to provide you the expanded version, which did not appear in EdWeek. But it will appear here. You should also remember that I wrote this prior to the Chicago strike being settled, in case the timeline in it confuses you. For those who are interested, I have also linked to my fellow authors' expanded versions on their websites at the bottom of the column.

The Fast and the Furious

By: Stephen Dyer

"I look at the Chicago Teachers Strike and really feel bad for Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Chicago’s teachers and especially the kids of that great, proud city. I only lived in Chicago for a year, but it was the first place I ever fell in love with.

While the strike is a terrible thing for everyone involved, I think if folks in Chicago had taken a lesson from our experience in Ohio, especially on teacher compensation, it could have been avoided.

In 2009, I was the lead legislator on a comprehensive, statewide education reform plan that dealt with teacher compensation, accountability and a brand-new school funding system. It earned the 2010 Frank Newman award from the Education Commission of the States for being the country’s most bold, innovative and non-partisan education reform of 2009.

I learned much during the development of that plan. But most importantly, I learned that many well-meaning education reformers make three basic mistakes that lead to all kinds of headaches when trying to implement the reform.

Many reformers move too fast, too unilaterally and too confidently. As a result, they alienate people who could be their greatest allies: Teachers.

If teachers buy in to what you are doing as a reformer, it enhances the reform rather than weakens it – a claim many reformers have made to me over the years. Cleveland reformers didn’t even engage its teachers on that city’s recent reform plan until after they introduced it to the non-profit and business communities. Somehow, teachers unions are seen as the roadblock to reform, despite the fact that the centerpiece of most reformers’ efforts – Charter Schools – came from a teachers union.

In 2009, Ohio took a different approach. We gave teachers a broad framework in which to develop a new evaluation system, but it was they who developed the details. The plan they developed even had test scores count up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

By the way, I’m still not sold on using tests that were designed to measure the level of student knowledge to also measure teacher excellence.  There are evaluation tools that do this, like observation and peer-review, but a student test is not one of them. Yet.

While certainly some of a child’s test success can be attributed to teaching, much can also be attributed to demographics. I analyzed Ohio test data and found that I could predict test scores in nearly 3 out of 4 school districts based on a few demographic measures like poverty and education attainment levels of parents. Others also have demonstrated that demographics or any one of a host of other issues other than teaching impact these scores.

Does this mean that the test scores of their students should not be considered in the evaluation? No. Does it mean we maybe should use sophisticated statistical analysis to try to control for demographics when calculating test scores so we find the true value of those results? Yes. We’ll find examples (as I did in Ohio) of children doing less well than their demographics indicate they should be doing, and we’ll find examples of students soaring in some of the most traditionally ridiculed districts.

Many teachers, and even their unions, have bought into the idea that test scores should count for something, just not everything. And this brings me back to the mistakes many well-meaning reformers make: moving too fast, too unilaterally and to confidently.

If reformers listen to teachers and seriously include them in the discussion over the change in their profession, they can become the reformers’ greatest allies – look at Denver’s experience. In Ohio, the statewide teachers unions bought into the teacher compensation system that they helped developed, and as a result it is serving as a blueprint around the state.

But this buy in won’t be instant. The state’s Educator Standards Board (made up of teachers and administrators) took about 2 years to develop the standards, but the result was an incredibly rich, detailed evaluation system that has a real hope of improving the profession.

And because the system was developed with teachers, not dictated to them, the chances of this system being successful rather than resented is much greater. Yet despite all these attributes, some Ohio reformers weren’t satisfied. They wanted teachers to have tests count for “at least” 50% of an evaluation, not “up to” 50%. Which brings me to the issue of reformer confidence.

I am still looking for the peer-reviewed, objective, longitudinal study that demonstrates tying teacher compensation to student outcomes substantially improves those outcomes. The first study done in Tennessee showed zero impact on student outcomes, and they offered up to a 33% bonus for high test scores.

So why the fascination with the “at least” 50% idea?

This allegiance to ideas that may or may not end up working to improve education is perhaps many reformers’ greatest blind spot.

While many reformers seem bent on blaming teachers for the system’s “failures”, nearly all those reformers were taught by a public school teacher how to think creatively and critically enough to want to reform education.

And there are many ideas that peer-reviewed research has shown would have a great chance of working, like smaller classes in early grades, which could increase the likelihood of graduation for kids in poverty by more than 100%.

Many reformers forget that teachers are proud people who want to be great at what they do. Dismissing their ideas, or worse yet, not even entertaining them, is a terrible mistake because it alienates a proud, committed group of people.

Mayor Emmanuel knows how to negotiate. His experience in Congress and the White House should give him the direction to work this out.

Treat it like a budget: resolve what you can now, and on the issues that cannot be resolved today, pledge to work with Chicago’s teachers on workplace and compensation reforms. Set up a commission where teachers have a strong voice. Give them 18-24 months to meet several broad goals on compensation and workplace changes that are based on peer-reviewed, objective research. Then commit to implementing and, most importantly funding those agreements.

While the development of this kind of plan could take longer initially, with the teacher buy in this process promises, the district likely will be farther along in 5 years than it would be if terms were dictated.

Chicago reformers will be surprised just how willing Chicago’s teachers are to be part of the solution. So both sides should end this thing and move forward together."
Here is Dr. Paul Thomas of Furman University's expanded take.

Here is Dr. Andrea Kayne Kaufman's expanded take.