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6/15/15

Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?

   I will admit that I was more than a little skeptical when I learned about the group appointed by Governor Deal to investigate the possibility of updating the decades old formula used to fund education in Georgia.  It wasn’t necessarily the membership that made me suspicious, but the motives behind such an effort.  Governor Deal has shown himself on more than one occasion to be a supporter of the privatization of public education, one who believes that charter schools will provide a magical answer to the effects of poverty on learning and one that believes public schools and public school teachers must be the both the problem and the enemy because every student in public education does not succeed at high educational levels.  Career politicians like the Governor seem to have developed a sincere belief that quick fixes and silver bullets will solve educational issues and that if only teachers could once again do more and more with less and less they could overcome the problems created by poverty, society, single parent homes, hunger, unemployment, the economy and rural isolation.  The real reason behind the “study” became evident last week when Erin Hames, who oversees education policy for Governor Deal, said that if the group doesn’t recommend doing away with paying teachers for training and experience, then “I’m not sure that we’re going to change anything about the way business is done.” She also said research is “pretty clear” that teachers with advanced degrees do no better in the classroom.
    I was surprised to hear that.  Not surprised to hear about the desire to find what amounts to a gigantic teacher pay cut but to discover that research, however deceptive, played a part in any educational decisions made politically in Georgia.  On the face of things, it would seem that experience and advanced academic study in almost any profession you might name would be desirable for employees and those that employ them. Quick - make a decision - you have a choice between 3rd grade teachers for your child.  You can have the new one fresh out of college or you can have the one that’s been teaching for 12 years and that your neighbor’s kid loved.  Would you choose the new one still finding her way through the maze of new teacher mania and discovering what does and what does not work through trial and error, or the one with a clear idea of what she expects, how she handles behavioral issues, how she assesses students and their progress and her network of professional contacts to help her solve any problems or issues that might arise?  Seems like an easy one to answer, doesn’t it?  For that matter, how many politicians cite their own political experience as an enticement to voters for re-election?  I haven’t seen much research on whether or not it makes them more effective politicians but incumbency does seem to have it’s own set of political privileges.  Surely teaching experience and advanced education counts for something?
    The research in question does indeed state that teacher training, including in-service training, undergraduate training and advanced degrees, play little or no part in improving student achievement as measured by standardized achievement tests.  Value added statistical models also show that teacher training and experience have little or no effect on student achievement scores on standardized tests, so on the face of things it might be reasonable to assume that experience and educational attainment make little difference in student learning.  Looking further, however, shows us extensive additional research indicates that even the most effective teachers account for only 1- 15% of student improvement on standardized tests in any given school year.  There are additional issues with the assumptions that student learning is accurately measured by standardized testing and that 8 hours of teaching can overcome the influences of life, society, parents, poverty or television for the other 16 hours.   Over a week’s time, for example, students spend about 40 hours at school and about 80 hours at home or other places not counting weekends.  Over the course of a 9 month school year (assuming there are no furlough days in effect) that would mean 1440 hours in school and around 2880 hours at home, again not counting weekends.  That is a rather large chunk of student time that teachers don’t have to teach that hasn’t really been part of the responsibility discussion.
“The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”

   I also think most teachers would agree that the vast majority of in-service training they attend is a waste of time.  It is invariably presented, with few exceptions, using methodology that would result, when observed over time by an administrator, in the non-renewal of a beginning teacher’s contract.  Many administrators and professional in-service providers seem to have overlooked the somewhat obvious fact that group lectures and death by powerpoint are not only ineffective in the classroom with students but with captive audiences of teachers.  I overheard one veteran teacher say that she hoped that when her time came to die it would be during an in-service presentation because the transition from life to death would be so subtle as to hardly be noticeable.  
    Advanced degrees for teachers also seem to have little effect on student scores on standardized tests.  I would suggest that this is just another indicator that what those tests measure is not student learning but test taking strategies.  Teachers and administrators would never make the mistake of believed that authentic student learning is measured by standardized testing.  Neither should you.  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar99/vol56/num06/Why-Standardized-Tests-Don't-Measure-Educational-Quality.aspx
    What does, however, invariably affect student standardized test scores is the economic status of the parents.  Studies again and have serve to point out that students from more affluent families score higher at every grade level and with every imaginable test than students from families struggling in poverty.  Conversely, research has also shown that the only accurate predictor of student success in college are the grades provided by high school teachers. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/19/study-finds-little-difference-academic-success-students-who-do-and-dont-submit-sat
Think that over for a moment.  Not the SAT, not the ACT, not the EOCT, not the CRCT, not the Georgia Milestones…not even Pearson... teacher grades that students earn in high school.  So it would seem, in spite of the “blame teachers for everything wrong” movement that the vast majority of teachers do conscientiously administer grades and employ defendable grading methods.  Just as there are some politicians that don’t follow ethics rules and some policemen that don’t follow departmental procedures and some doctors that practice illegally and some lawyers that end up getting disbarred, some teachers and some administrators are the exception to the effective grading continuum.  For the grades to be valid predictors, as research suggests, the vast majority of teachers must follow sound methodology and grading practices in their classrooms.  Teachers and administrators know that if you are basing your evaluation of teachers, teaching and learning and public education on standardized test scores then you are measuring the wrong thing with the wrong instrument.  As my mother used to say, you have the ac - cent’ on the wrong sy - la’ - ble.
    Georgia’s reformy leaders continue to ignore this research because it doesn’t fit in with their goals to allow more and more public money to be used to pay for private education and for private gain.  It’s pretty inconvenient for their cause so it usually just ignored.  They use research only when it can support the implementation of policies that increase the amount of public tax monies available to testing companies, charter schools and the private investors that support them.  
    Georgia doesn’t spend much on individual teachers.  The base salary for a beginning teacher is $33,473 annually and a little under $2,800 per month.  The education budget for 2015 includes a total amount of $3,474,099,349 for T and E (training and experience) raises statewide.   Teachers may earn incremental increases every few years for experience and may also earn increases for advanced degrees, as long as those degrees are in their field of teaching assignment.  Without the raises for experience and advanced degrees, it would be safe to assume that a teacher with X years of experience might still be earning the same amount as a beginning teacher.  It would also seem the removal of those incremental increases would serve to make teaching even less attractive than it already is.  Like the failed effort to change teacher participation in the Teacher Retirement System in SB 152, the sole purpose of removing T and E from the state education budget would be to discourage experienced teachers from remaining in the profession and to further discourage recruitment of college students to teaching, unless perhaps redirecting the money used for T and E from the education budget would be just about enough to fund an Opportunity School District.  Such an idea might make the idea of a constitutional change more palatable to Georgia voters...except maybe for teachers.  Hmmm...it’s not an election year, the Governor reduced the austerity cut to education and called it a raise, the State will pay for insurance for part time Legislators but costs for cafeteria workers and bus drivers have been passed on to local boards...who needs those pesky teachers this year anyway?
    Governor Deal recently announced 10% raises for much of his staff.  These raises come in addition to the performance review incentives, bonuses and other added income for key members of his staff.  The Governor failed to mention any research citations that supported the necessity of his decision to increase staff salaries, but did say “they could all make higher salaries in the private sector.”  So if I am following the Governor’s logic here, it’s necessary for him to keep his staff from going to other positions by raising their salaries but it’s OK to cut teacher salaries and expect them to keep working at their jobs without any hope for an incremental raise that doesn’t even approach the 10% given his staff.  Curious logic, but here again, it’s not an election year.
    The research often cited by reformy- minded politicians is often research of convenience to support their anti-public education sentiments.  Even as the study of the New Orleans Recovery School District touting wonderful progress and academic gains was labeled as “inaccurate” by the executive director of the Cowen Institute John Ayers and withdrawn, the Governor went ahead with his “Opportunity School District” plan for Georgia based on that same information.  
    If the Governor were really interested in improving public education in Georgia, perhaps his model could have included schools in Finland rather than those in New Orleans.  Rather than measuring success with standardized test scores, VAM and “no excuses” models that ignore the causes and effects of poverty on student learning, he could focus on the things that help teachers make a difference in teaching and learning; cooperation, commitment and a positive school culture.  There are places like that in Georgia, if only he would look.  There are models to follow if only it weren’t so inconvenient.  There are educational leaders to listen to if you don’t mind hearing that the reforms you are proposing are a waste of time and money and won’t help students in rural or urban locations.  There are ways to improve educational outcomes and educational opportunities if you care to measure the right things, and read more than just the educational research that fits a plan to privatize public education.  Yogi Berra seemed to have Georgia politics and education in mind when he said “If you don’t know where you are going you might not get there.” Research can tell us that, too.

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