Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wrongheaded Reform In Florida

The Los Angeles Times, part of the mythical liberal media, chose the headline "In Florida, teacher pay now tied to performance." Reporter Leslie Potal's description, however, belies the headline:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a far-reaching teacher merit-pay bill that will overhaul how teachers across the state will be evaluated and paid.

The law creates an evaluation system that relies heavily on student test score data to judge teacher quality. For new teachers, it also creates a performance-based pay system and ends tenure-like job protections.

Florida's merit-pay push is part of a national effort to improve education by tying teachers' pay to their overall effectiveness.

"Teacher pay now tied to performance" implies, obviously, that a teacher's pay will be tied to his/her performance. It is, though, nothing of the sort. Blogger Susie Madrak explains she once was in sales and

One of the first questions before taking a business development job always was, are my incentives based on things outside my control? I learned early on not to even consider working in a place where my commission was contingent on whether or not the salesperson closed the deal. "If you developed a good lead, the deal should close," one sales manager argued with me. Uh uh. Sales people screw up the close all the time, thus blowing up my commission. So that was a major issue.

But the new evaluation system "relies heavily on student test score data to judge teacher quality." The employee will be held accountable not for his/her performance, but for that of the students. And not even on the students' performance but on test scores.

How did that work out in Washington, D.C.? When Michelle Rhee took over as schools chancellor, she took a special interest in the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus. She boasted that implementation of her reforms took a school in which in 2006 only 10% of the students scored "proficient" or "advanced" in a standardized math test required by No Child Left Behind to one in which 58% achieved that level two years later. Noyes became one of 264 public schools nationwide honored as a National Blue Ribbon School. But a USA Today investigation has found

In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

Investigations of possible cheating thus far have been cursory and nothing has been proven. But it does go to (Donald T.) Campbell's Law:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

Rhee, whose reputation soared with the test scores, apparently understands Campbell's Law well, for she "bestowed more than $1.5 million in bonuses on principals, teachers and support staff on the basis of big jumps in 2007 and 2008 test scores." Three other schools won awards, at which "85% or more of classrooms were identified as having high erasure rates in 2008."

Presumably, teacher performance like that will in the future merit sizeable bonuses from the Department of Education in Florida, which will put on principals (who will pass it on to teachers) inordinate pressure to boost student test scores, somehow. As a former District of Columbia principal asks rhetorically "What do you do when your chancellor asks, 'How many points can you guarantee this year?' How is a principal supposed to do that?"

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