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Teachers must be held accountable for bad results

Why is accountability always about teachers?
Owner – Pemberton Research\sFormer Brookings Expert

Most school reform attempts to concentrate on what teachers are doing — professional development, new curriculum, bonuses and incentives to boost scores, and so on. All are founded on the premise that instructors can teach more successfully if their abilities can be enhanced, their tools can be better, and their efforts can be more active.

Teachers are the biggest group of workers inside the K-12 system, and their abilities are important for its success. But they do not manage or steer the system. Do companies desiring to improve assume that they can get it done by upskilling simply their line-level staff? If Walmart were losing money, would it conclude that management was doing a wonderful job but the floor personnel required professional development? The more natural emphasis would be on the choices and acts of executives, managers, and senior administrators.

An average instructor is very experienced
The de jour emphasis in education reform (now customized learning, differentiation, and hybrid learning are topical) often presumes instructors have an appetite and readiness to adapt their classroom methods. But teachers are both highly experienced and operate in severely limited contexts.

An average K-12 teacher has been teaching for around 14 years.

1 A normal school year is 180 days, and a typical school day is 6.5 hours—so average instructors have taught more than 16,000 hours. During those hours they have worked with hundreds of youngsters. If they teach at middle schools or high schools, it may be thousands of youngsters. From those many hours, instructors have gathered pedagogical approaches they feel work for their pupils. These techniques may be successful or defective or simply incorrect, but the point is that instructors could not be readily divorced from their practices.

And these instructors confront a lot of limitations in classrooms. Teachers are allocated to grade levels, their pupils are assigned to classrooms, their textbooks, and materials, including software and computers, are picked for them, and the whole school or district is lockstep in a timetable that defines how much time is spent on each topic. Teachers determine how much time they commit outside the classroom to investigating new teaching techniques or learning about what others are doing that could work for them too. But whatever ideas kids acquire in this form of self-study still need to fit inside the limits. A teacher who hears about a fascinating strategy for, say, teaching fractions, has to battle with a textbook and exam materials that could concentrate on a different approach to teaching fractions.

Evidence is scant on how instructors can be more effective
A group as big as teachers (there are around 3.1 million public school teachers) will contain those who are more effective and others who are less successful, and enough evidence exists that instructors vary in their efficacy.
2 With the exception of how many years a teacher has taught, however, what separates highly effective teachers from less effective teachers has proven to be a tough nut to crack, and, relatedly, far less evidence exists about how to move teachers from the lower side of the effectiveness curve to the higher side.

Related K-12 Education Students return to school with much lower achievement levels Report Teacher observations have been a waste of time and money Education Plus Development Examining breadth of learning possibilities in 21st-century education systems

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) recently looked at professional development in big school districts and a charter school network and concluded that “We found no evidence that any specific style or quantity of professional development consistently helps teachers improve.”

3 It’s not for want of investment to help teachers improve—TNTP found that major districts were spending approximately $18,000 extra a year per teacher on professional development. TNTP also reviewed the broader research literature and commented on findings from the most rigorous studies that had been done by the Institute of Education Sciences: “teachers who received the best of the best [professional development] were no more likely to see large, lasting improvements in their practice, knowledge, or student learning.

In fact, many did not apply the procedures they’d been instructed to employ—even while researchers were in the room to witness them.” 4 This second aspect may relate to the teacher experience described above—a teacher who has been teaching a topic for years could not be readily persuaded to teach it some other manner based on a presentation at a workshop.

These ‘top-down’ efforts to enhance teaching have been supported by ‘bottom-up’ initiatives that give financial incentives for instructors to improve. The notion of financial incentives is founded on the reasoning that economists find perfectly sensible—workers perform more when money is at play, so providing instructors better compensation for higher test scores should lead test scores to go up.

An appealing characteristic of financial incentives is that instructors may map their own routes to progress. This is the ‘bottom-up aspect. It’s a hypothesis worth testing, and two recent studies have. Both were huge and developed to the greatest scientific standards. They are worth exploring at some length since both studies give insights about teachers and districts that contribute to the picture of how accountability may be better directed.

The first research was on incentive compensation (bonuses) for middle-school math instructors in the Nashville school system.

5 The greatest incentive was hefty, $15,000 a year, for instructors whose performance was in the top five percent of teachers based on prior district statistics. Currently, the district’s compensation for a teacher with 14 years of experience (the US average) and a master’s degree is $56,000, thus the bonus was around 25 percent of yearly income. Amounts of $5,000 and $10,000 were rewarded to instructors in the top 20 percent and top 10 percent. The limits on instructors noted above were not loosened by the incentive-pay program—teachers still were assigned their grade levels, their pupils, and their curriculum.

But exam results did not improve. And two additional fascinating discoveries surfaced showing why scores did not improve. One was that instructors claimed on surveys that they did not do anything different in response to possible incentives since they already were working as well as they could. A second was that instructors did not feel that a teacher who won a bonus was a better teacher, or that teachers who did not win incentives needed to improve. It’s impossible to expect bonuses to achieve anything if instructors thought they already were redlined and did not agree with the rationale of incentives.

A second research assessed the impacts of incentive compensation (the government ‘Teacher Incentive Fund’) in 10 districts and revealed similar findings.

6 Test results scarcely altered (they increased by an amount approximately comparable to one to two-tenths of an IQ point) (they improved by an amount roughly equivalent to one to two-tenths of an IQ point). The survey also showed that districts did a lousy job explaining incentives to their own instructors. In the fourth year of the program, forty percent of instructors who were qualified for incentives did not realize they were eligible.

7 Eligibility varied per school, although even instructors in the same school disagreed on whether they believed they were eligible. And when asked to anticipate how much their incentive for raising scores would be, their responses were considerably lower than what the genuine program was going to give them. Teachers stated they were entitled to a maximum bonus of around $3,000. 8 Districts reported awarding maximum incentives averaging roughly $9,000.

One of the program’s objectives was that districts design procedures for paying incentives that discriminated amongst teachers—the entire concept of bonuses is to reward above-average performance. Yet seventy percent of instructors eventually earned incentives. The incentives totaled $2,000, approximately 4-5 percent of typical teacher salaries. Knowingly or unintentionally, districts basically changed their incentive schemes into teacher increases.

Accountability has to be fair
The results show top-down and bottom-up efforts to enhance teaching are unlikely to achieve much. Yet the past ten years have seen considerable expansion in teacher and principal evaluation systems that depend on test results and observations to assess instructors. If sending teachers to professional-development courses or giving them actual money to better do not provide outcomes, it’s at best unclear why spending considerable sums to evaluate and observe their performance can give results.

The systems concentrate their measuring and analytic equipment on instructors, who have the least capacity to improve what they do. Senior leaders make choices that touch every element of life for teachers in schools. Senior leaders choose instructors, following criteria they’ve set.

They offer tenure to teachers using criteria they’ve selected or agreed upon. Senior leaders assign teachers to grade levels, give them textbooks and curricula, buy and set up their technology, lay out their schedules, create disciplinary policies they need to follow, and choose programs for how they will work with students learning English, and students with disabilities, and students with reading difficulties, and students who are homeless. And top executives decide to alter them –they adopt new curricula, set up new testing programs, roll out new technologies, adjust scheduling for courses, and tweak punishment policies.

Teachers are not making these judgments. They could be asked for feedback on the choices, but they do not make them.

A teacher does not state that next year the school will be utilizing this curriculum as its math series.

An essential qualifier is that certain systems, such as the DC IMPACT system, offer a foundation for removing poor teachers and rewarding highly successful instructors.

9 Eric Hanushek has written previously on the significant expenses associated with incompetent instructors. 10 To yet, these systems have reported huge numbers of successful instructors, and, before, I remarked it is improbable that 98 percent of teachers actually are effective, assuming the phrase has any meaning. 11 But being able to identify the lowest-performing instructors at least gives administrators a basis for eliminating them.

Accountability for administrators is challenging when organizations are not for profit. Private-sector firms have profit as a natural measure, and the market performs the job of assessing it. School districts do not have a metric of profit to judge their progress. They need to identify which ‘interventions’ or procedures to test, which outcomes to concentrate on, how results will be monitored, and who is accountable for them.

For example, Whitehurst previously has written on the possibilities of picking more effective textbooks and curricula. 12 Selecting a new arithmetic series, for example, should initiate an assessment cycle: Decide on outcomes, how they will be monitored, and how much they should be anticipated to rise. Then review the results and discover if the series worked. If it looks restricted by implementation issues, alter them and evaluate again. If results increase, the change will be experienced both by instructors and administrators who decided on attempting the new math series. Equity in accountability is just as desired in schools as it is in private-sector companies.

Finding what works to improve requires risk—ideas could work well or they might not. Under the present system, administrators design the frameworks and administrators come up with ideas about what may work. Teachers are then evaluated on the findings. We need to look at how to move risks back to where they belong, which is with people who make the choices.

The author did not receive any financial assistance from any company or person for this essay or from any firm or person having a financial or political interest in this article. He is presently not an official, director, or board member of any organization having an interest in this article.


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