Category Archives: Teacher Effectiveness

Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results

Last week, two D.C. State Board of Education members wrote a memo to D.C. Public Schools’ new Chancellor — Antwan Wilson — asking him to focus less on district reform mandates and more on creating a culture of “transparency” and “support” in the district’s schools. The authors write that reforms such as teacher evaluation and school accountability based on student achievement have led to undesirable outcomes in the district, including higher teacher turnover. It is true that teacher turnover generally harms student achievement. However, what is true in general is not true in all places.

New data show that thanks to the teacher evaluation reform efforts in D.C. public schools (DCPS), teachers who exit the district tend to be lower performing:

Click to enlarge the image.

We also know from research that, on average, new teachers tend to be lower-performing than veteran teachers. But, that’s not what’s happening in D.C. The new teachers that D.C. has hired perform as well in their first year on the job as those they replaced:

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Can We Learn to Learn Better? An Interview with Author Ulrich Boser

Not only does Ulrich Boser hold down a steady job as an education policy wonk at the Center for American Progress, he also somehow has time to write books. They’re not wonky policy books, either; they’re about interesting topics like art heists and the science of trust. In his most recent book, Learn Better, Boser tackles the science of learning.

It’s a fascinating book, and Boser does an expert job of weaving together complex science with compelling stories about people learning all sorts of skills, including darts, foreign languages, math, medicine, and Scrabble. At one point, Boser turns his critical eye inward and writes about his experience of hiring his own personal basketball coach while in his mid-forties.

I spoke with Boser about the book, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

CHAD ALDEMAN: Learn Better talks a lot about the value of practice, and you give a number of lively examples of both “good” and “bad” forms of practice. Based on your research, what would you say are the key elements of good practice?

ULRICH BOSER: The key element is making it difficult, not making it enjoyable. A lot of times we practice things without really getting better. For example, I drive a lot and have been driving a car since I was 18, but I haven’t gotten better at driving because I don’t really engage in it in a deliberate way, I don’t make it harder for myself, I don’t focus, I don’t monitor.

So, when it comes to practice, making it more difficult for yourself, and monitoring the results, are really key. One easy way to make practice better is this idea called “interweaving.” There’s just a tremendous amount of research on interweaving, and the idea, in some ways, is quite basic.

Chad, I’m going to ask you this question: If you want to get better at practicing the piano, should you practice all of your Beethoven one day, and then, in your next practice session, all of your Chopin, and then the day after that, all of your Bach? Or in each practice session, should you mix it up a little bit? Which way would you go?

ALDEMAN: Based on what you just said, I’m going to guess that I should mix it up. Continue reading

Who Are the Winners and Losers in Performance-Based Compensation?

The other day I left a working session with a client where we were tackling the question of whether and how their team members should be compensated based on performance. Inevitably, it was a challenging and values-laden conversation. Performance-based compensation is an approach where some or all monetary compensation is related to how employee performance is assessed relative to stated criteria. This model is intriguing enough that it comes up in virtually every compensation or performance management project I’ve ever been involved in.

What does research tell us so far about compensation approaches? Most teacher compensation systems, in an attempt to be fair, base rewards off of years of experience and educational attainment using a “step and lanes system. Yet, research shows that advanced degrees have little effect on student academic success except in the areas of math. And while teachers’ increasing experience in the early years leads to greater student achievement, there is limited evidence that teachers continue improving after five years on the job. With recent attempts at less-traditional approaches involving performance-based compensation, we have learned a great deal about how compensation can help retain our most effective teachers and therefore improve student achievement. Yet the “perfect” organizational compensation plan remains elusive.

Why is there still no playbook we can all follow around performance-based compensation? Because every compensation decision is about tradeoffs, which means there are winners and losers. I have yet to meet an administrator who wants to pay their educators less, yet there is a literal fixed pie that goes into school budgeting decisions, and educator compensation is by far the biggest piece of that limited pie. While we might want a world where we can keep everyone’s pay at least as good as it is now and provide incentives for our strongest teachers to stay in the classroom, that extra money has to come from somewhere (and hopefully a funding source that won’t be gone in a couple of years).

So let’s look deeper at some of the tradeoffs that apply to three different types of performance-based compensation:

1. Stick with a traditional “step and lanes” system, but teachers only move up a step if they meet a minimum specified level of performance

What is this? This is the simplest variation from the traditional experienced-based step schedule we often see in education, and therefore the one most likely implemented in larger districts or those just testing the waters. Truly low-performing teachers stop seeing automatic increases every year. In systems with early teacher tenure — where administrators may otherwise find themselves with low-performing, high-seniority teachers making far more than newer highly effective teachers — limiting increases to those meeting a specified performance level can mitigate limited resources going to low-performing teachers.

Who are the potential winners? The freed-up budget can then go to things that might benefit students, including classroom resources, aides, or other supports. If low-performers self-select out because of lower compensation, that frees up funds and teaching spots to bring in more effective teachers.

Who are the potential losers? This is a policy that sounds like a step in the right direction but might maintain the status quo (if all teachers are rated “effective” regardless of performance). High-performing teachers are potential losers as this policy does not incorporate higher pay for higher performance — it only helps to potentially weed out low performers. Continue reading

Choosing to Teach, Choosing to Move Out of the Classroom

As another school year comes to a close, education critics will lament teacher turnover while school leaders scramble to fill vacancies. Teachers who have been in the classroom for less than five years will be accused of abandoning their students and letting their schools down. Yet in many other careers, short-term, sequential roles are seen as building blocks to a lifelong, varied career. Why should the classroom teacher be expected to teach for a lifetime, especially when their impact may wane?

Photo via Gabriella Nelson

According to TNTP, teacher improvement is greatest early in their careers, with the most gain in teacher effectiveness occurring in year one. Between years three and five, teachers effectively peak, with little improvement in effectiveness over a career that might span 5 years or 35 years. In fact, some teachers actually decline in effectiveness. Meanwhile, they work within a system of pension structuring designed to only reward the longest tenured career, with more than half never seeing any pension benefits and only one in five staying long enough to receive full benefits.

In other career fields, we recognize the need for changing roles. Consultants in a fast-paced, travel-intensive role with never-ending hours receive understanding nods when they move into a more stable, less life-disruptive role for both personal and professional reasons. Tireless entrepreneurs who start a business and build success by working around the clock are applauded when they sell to a corporation or hand the business off to a junior partner. Teachers should be afforded similar opportunities to transition into more sustainable roles, particularly roles within schools where they can continue to impact student achievement by supporting classroom teachers.

I have seen this choice at play in the career trajectory of my daughter, a college-trained, secondary English educator who chose to teach in an urban high school through Teach For America (TFA). Even with college training, student teaching, and additional summer training prior to entering the classroom, the role demanded endless hours with total physical and emotional commitment before she could see student gains in achievement. After completing her second year, she knew this role was unsustainable in the long term and grabbed an opportunity to take a hybrid role split between teaching and curriculum oversight at the same school. This allowed her to continue to teach AP classes, coach sports teams, oversee student government, and teach ACT preparatory classes — in short, to still impact students with less impact on her. Continue reading

On Being in the Closet at St. Ignatius

Originally posted on Where the Boom Bands Play.

St. Ignatius CollegeI distinctly remember one gay teacher while I was a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Chicago. Or, at least we all thought he was gay. He taught Spanish and was unapologetically flamboyant. I never had the pleasure of having him as a teacher, nor did I ever have a teacher who was openly gay until graduate school — I cried when she said it in passing on the first day of class. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher ever came out to students or ever said that he was gay. Frankly, it was none of our business. Even without the “official” confirmation, the students loved him. It was said that he was one of the best Spanish teachers in the department. In particular, the students loved that he was gay. However, students weren’t seemingly obsessed with the fact that he was gay because it was some kind of celebration of identity. They loved that he was gay because of the novelty of it.

I have vivid memories of male students making a sort-of-game out of approaching this teacher. He gave any student a hug when the student asked, and I remember watching male students dare each other to go up to him to get a hug. The male students would always approach timidly and reluctantly while a pack of friends stood back and giggled behind their hands. I wonder now as I wondered then if that teacher knew the spectacle those students were making out of his identity. I saw this exchange happen frequently during passing periods in the hallway. I have one particularly clear memory of a male student getting a hug and then promptly brushing off his clothes and skin as if he were wiping off the contact he had just had. He was a popular student, making his actions all the more “important” and the embrace all the more “egregious.” Everyone thought it was hilarious. The message that action sent has stuck with me over 10 years later. I can see that student’s face as he grimaced, wiping away this teacher’s homosexuality like it was contagious. I still know that student now. At one point that student was a teacher himself. I hope he gave hugs to kids that wanted them when he was a teacher. I hope no student ever wiped off his identity, his love.

I never got one of those hugs. I both thought it would be weird since I was never a student of this teacher (though he would hug anyone who asked, pupil of his or not). Moreover, I tried to avoid anything that might lead to the assumption that I myself was gay, since I was terrified of the truth that lie latent within me. I now wish I had gotten one. That hug could have been affirming for him and for me in a time when I felt like something was wrong with me; a time when I felt suppressed, confused, and invisible.

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