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WA State – Still behind in RTTT

July 29, 2010

Round two of Race to the Top is now over and the results are in.  My own State of Washington didn’t make the cut. No one is really surprised; our state didn’t even participate in Round 1. 

I guess where I continue to be, not “surprised” so much as disappointed is the continued emphasis on teacher and principal evaluation.  I don’t mean that knowing whether teachers and principals are effective is a bad thing, but it’s what and how these measurements are made that I think is problematic.

For one, Arne Duncan remains a strong proponent of merit pay, tying effectiveness of educators to their compensation. I’ve said before — and I’ll repeat it — I don’t think this is a good idea, nor do I think it’s fair. If we equate teacher pay to performance, how will this ever be fair?  Here are a couple of problems with merit pay:

  1. We already know that too many teachers are not as effective in the classroom as they should be. This may not always be their fault, however.  The classroom environment is made up of two stakeholders, when you think about it.  There are teachers and there are students.  We know that many teachers are never taught effective classroom management skills so it would stand to reason that “better taught” teachers would be more effective teachers. So, one obvious conclusion might be to add this important learning to their training, to yield more effective teachers.
  2. But that misses the second part of the equation: the students.  Even “great” teachers can have problems with students who cannot be managed.  We know that student discipline and behavior is a major problem in our classrooms.  When you have kids who come into school ill-equipped with the social skills, character and emotional competency they need to participate effectively in the classroom, they lack those essential abilities that allow them to be “managed.”  And even only a few disruptive, unruly students can negatively impact the learning environment for EVERYONE.

This is a huge issue.  On average, teachers are losing 30/40/50% or more of their productive teaching time on managing classroom behavior and discipline.  This includes the big issues — disrespectful, rude, violent students — and the “little stuff,” meaning the niggling “noise” level or inefficient transitions between activities and the like.

So, how can you tie teacher pay to performance when so much of their “performance” ability is wasted?  As I said above, even giving them better classroom management techniques won’t do  much if students lack the essential building blocks that prepare them to be “managed.”

When I do teacher training for SocialSmarts, I tend to ask this question of my audience, citing a phrase from No Child Left Behind:

How many of you have the majority of your students “adequately prepared to participate in a classroom environment?”

The standard response I get here is…laughter.  Then, when I ask for percentages, on average teachers will share that about 30% of their students in any given class are “adequately prepared.”

So, now we are proposing to tie teacher compensation to how well their classrooms “peform” but do nothing to stop the draining of time, energy and resources that contribute to the success of that “performance.” And so much of RTTT is based on evaluation and measurement — so there’s a problem.  We’re even tying “compensation” on RTTT on the issue of measurement and evaluation.

Mary Lindquist, head of the Washington Education Association, was mentioned in the Seattle Times article yesterday on Washington’s RTTT status as being against teacher evaluations being tied to student performance.  Problem is, how else are you going to tell whether a teacher is doing his/her job?  While I can’t say I’m against ALL forms of teacher evaluation, I do think you have to find some way that helps determine who is effective in their job and who isn’t. After all, virtually all other businesses have some form of evaluation process to see who’s doing their job properly and well and who isn’t, right?

But again, I go back to the underlying problem: we already KNOW that teachers are having issues with effectiveness.  And, as I said, not all of it is their fault. I would support the idea of helping truly “ineffective teachers” either improve their performance or find better teachers to replace them.  But you have to handle the other part of the equation, too, because it’s also incumbent on the students to do THEIR part to make learning happen.  I would think Ms. Lindquist would support that proposition, too.

So far, however, there’s nothing…NOTHING in RTTT or anything else that actually proposes solutions.  My biggest worry is that while we’re focused on who “wins” the big money in RTTT, without dealing with the real issues affecting education, our students — our children — will continue to be the losers.

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