Waiting for School Reform

Thanks to the highly hyped documentary Waiting for Superman, and President Obama's recent plug for education, making over our country's troubled schools is the topic du jour. Problem is, there's no one formula for success.

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In discussions about school reform, teachers are cast as either the heroes or the heels. President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative is a competition for $4.35 billion, but in order for states to compete, they must develop or already have teacher-evaluation strategies that focus on student learning. As a result, many states have adopted the most popular system of assessment: value-added models. Value-added models are designed to measure how much a student learns under a given teacher each academic year. Sounds easy enough, but the math and measurement that go into the models are complex.

Sean Corcoran at New York University recently evaluated New York’s value-added system and found that the measuring stick used to evaluate teachers was far from reliable. In his evaluation, he stated, “Teachers, policy makers, and school leaders should not be seduced by the simplicity of value-added.” The systems in place in New York, D.C. and even states like Tennessee, which pioneered the approach, have been called into serious question for improperly evaluating teachers. As surprising as it may seem, we are a long way from a system that accurately evaluates teachers. 

Paying Teachers What They’re Worth

We already know that teachers are underpaid. The average teacher in the United States made $51,329 in 2008, though salaries vary greatly by state. The big question remains: How can we increase teacher salaries and student achievement at once? Recently, merit pay, or performance pay, has gained attention as a possible solution. One highly visible advocate is D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who argued that merit pay could help teachers earn more and increase student achievement. Unfortunately, the most comprehensive study to date from Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives found that merit-based pay did not increase teacher effectiveness. In fact, the study’s authors said, “It simply did not do much of anything.” Paying teachers more across the board could attract talented individuals into the teaching profession in greater numbers.

Getting Paid to Study

Teachers are not the only ones who are part of the “pay to perform” movement. Children in multiple cities have been offered incentives for increased test scores. The most ambitious of these projects has been led by Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and chief equality officer for the New York City Department of Education. The basic idea is that middle-class students are routinely rewarded for high academic performance and thus are encouraged to work their hardest and get their best-possible grades.

To approximate this reward system, Fryer paid students when they did well on tests. The experiment ran in more than 250 schools in Dallas, New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with the goal of raising student achievement. Despite high hopes, Fryer found that incentives had little to no effect on student achievement. However, he found that incentives did increase the time spent reading or doing other positive academic-related practices, but still had little to no effect on shifting students’ performance. Despite not improving students’ scores, though, this is promising, and importantly reveals that students are not underachieving because they lack effort. Rather, their performance represents real gaps in skills that come from struggling communities and schools.

The payback for investing in education must be made clear to all students, but this will take more than short-term rewards. Children continue to see the struggles of the U.S. economy and wonder if there be work available when they complete school. The curriculum that we use in our school and the methods we teach must endow students with a belief that education is still the most consistent gateway to greater opportunity.

Promise Neighborhoods

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