A 2009 study (PDF) by UC-Berkeley public policy professor Jesse Rothstein found a correlation between North Carolina elementary school students' fifth-grade classroom assignments and their fourth-grade standardized-test performance. To fairly evaluate teachers using student test scores, principals would need to assign students to classrooms randomly, but Rothstein's findings confirm what most teachers already know—classroom lists are generated using students' reading and math proficiency, their disciplinary records, and their parents' requests for specific teachers, among other factors. Teachers who instruct classes full of gifted students have a better chance at posting test-score gains than their counterparts who work with remedial learners. In his study's conclusion, Rothstein warns that tying teacher evaluations to student testing "will reward or punish teachers who do not deserve it and fail to reward or punish teachers who do."Supporters of pay-for-performance bristle at accusations they are engaged in "teacher bashing". But the underlying assumptions behind this type of reform paint a different picture.
The proposed reform is targeted towards teachers who are performing poorly. While no one questions whether such low-quality teachers exist, there is reason to believe that this reform, even if possible to be implemented fairly, could have any more than a marginal effect on the fundamental problem of public school achievement. If we look at the real factors that effect student achievement, things like neighborhood and family are not only more consequential, but are correlated highly with demographics and therefore very predictable. Poor teaching is both less significant a problem, as well as difficult to predict, with wide variance even at the site level.
While the difference between a good and bad teacher can can have profound effects in the classroom, there is little reason to see how the fundamental inequities across American cities regarding human and social capital could ever be seriously altered simply through better teaching, even if we managed to attract the very best teachers to the very worst schools. Complicating matters, a teacher's efficacy may vary greatly according to what demographic they are serving. A teacher who seems amazing with high-SES kids might fall apart completely when faced with low-SES kids multiple grade-levels behind and bringing issues into the classroom that the teacher has no idea how to deal with.
And all of that is assuming that we can actually implement pay-for-performance in a way that is both fair and effective. As Calefati notes, there are numerous challenges in eliminating variables that might cloud the data and unfairly penalize certain teachers over others. At the district level, one might consider overall school API scores, and assume that teaching at a school that serves more prepared populations - that is, with better access to human and social capital - will always weigh towards better performance. For instance, if I have a student reading at grade level, you can be sure that it will be easier to make progress with him than one who is 2-3 grade levels behind. But even this broad adjustment is very rough and vulnerable to error.
Zooming in to the site level, we're now getting into even more difficult terrain. Even if students were assigned to each class at random, you'd have natural clustering and some teachers would be getting better "deals" then others, as their classes performance benefited from a larger portion of higher-performing students. A smart way to avoid clustering and get better data would be to extend the performance period over several years. But here you run into problems of student and staff transiency . Getting all the variables to line up is almost impossible. At the secondary level, you have the added problem of how to judge results in different disciplines. Some subjects are just going to be more of a struggle than others. How do you compare, for instance Art and PE to Math or Language Arts? Some subjects, such as AP Chemistry or Honors English will by definition select more motivated students.
Taking implementation into account, as well as the marginal effect pay-for-performance can be expected to have on wide disparities in human and social capital across demographic and geographic regions, the entire scheme seems not only woefully inadequate but insultingly hubristic in its devaluation of the task teachers are being asked to achieve. In courts across the country, the striking disparities across districts have been found to be unconstitutional. In California, Serrano vs. Priest found that per-pupil spending must be equalized. In Connecticut, Horton vs. Meskill in 1977 mandated that the state "provide a substantially equal educational opportunity", and Sheff v. O'Neill in 1996 reaffirmed the same right.
Yet we have yet to take this constitutional right seriously, choosing instead what amount to stalling tactics. Chief among them is "teacher bashing", or the insistence that the education achievement gap persists due to the failure of teachers to do their job properly. Yet what these constitutional challenges implied, yet stopped short of truly addressing, is the extent to which the achievement gap can only be closed by first closing the gap in human and social capital of students. Successful programs across the country - those who consistently bring poor students to real success - do so not by relying on one amazing teacher in a class of 30. They do it by pouring targeted resources in a comprehensive way into not just these kids but the community as well.
Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone (which get's 2/3 of its funding from private sources) on this strategy:
All of this doesn't come cheap. But neither does ignoring it. We can't continue to let kids suffer through a failing system and then blame them for not being successful in adulthood. We need to take a hard look at our priorities and decide what the point of public education is in the first place? Is it a building, a classroom, and a a teacher for every child, regardless of need or result? Is it a lump sum payment of cash for services provided? Or is it the promise that we make to every child that they too deserve, as an American Citizen, to receive as best as we can provide the human and social capital necessary to have an equal education before they reach adulthood?The first is to rebuild our communities. You can't have successful schools in communities where everything else is falling apart or falling down, where there are no block associations or tenant associations, where the parks are lousy and the playgrounds are lousy — it simply isn't going to happen. So we've begun to rebuild the infrastructure in the Harlem Children's Zone, building by building, block by block, apartment by apartment, forming tenant associations, block associations, making sure we don't forget about the neighborhood playgrounds and parks....... developing a catalog of best practices for each developmental stage of a child's life. They have to be basic, central tenets — we don't want or need to create anything new, because it's all out there. You do an Internet search under "early childhood" and you're going to get a thousand hits. But when it comes to identifying best practices and then making the case for those practices, we just don't do it. In fact, in poor communities, you see the worst practices. For example, in terms of grade-school instruction, we know the best practice is to limit the number of kids in a class and to teach them all day. But what do you usually find in poor communities? Large numbers of kids being taught half the day. And we wonder why children end up failing?......Our aim at HCZ is to have a best-practice recommendation for each developmental stage of a child's life, starting with pregnancy. So we have a Baby College, where we work on a regular basis with pregnant moms and moms of toddlers, sharing information with them from pediatricians and nurse practitioners and doulas and lots of other folks about how they should be taking care of themselves, making sure they're prepared, what to do when the baby's seven months old, nine months old, and so on......Then we go to pre-K and Head Start... Once kids are in kindergarten, first, and second grade, we really want to push to make sure they get a lot of attention, and our vehicle for doing that is the Harlem Peacemakers program, which works inside the public schools to reduce class size......Then we have a program for adolescents called TRUCE, where we use the arts and other activities to keep kids engaged and out of trouble. For example, some of the kids in the program put out a newspaper — I think the circulation is up to fifty thousand — and another group of kids writes and produces a TV show that goes out via the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, our local cable outlet. The idea is to use constructive activities as a counterweight to the kinds of leaders that spring up naturally in poor communities — you know, the kids who say, "Hey, I know where we can make some fast money," and then go out and rob a store or sell drugs. Our program, in contrast, tries to create situations where a kid can say, "Look, I know a place where we can go in and volunteer to help children learn to read," or where they can go to create a mural or build a Web site. The problem in poor communities is that they seldom produce that second kind of leader.
Poor students don't need equal funding, they need equal resources. This includes what they are less likely to be receiving at home. We can't give them all the stable families with low stress, rich language, cognitive stimulation, and positive role-models they need. But we can at least try. We can recognize that these teenagers need more. These children need more. These babies need more. They are starving in so many ways and that brief time they share with the teacher, who's already divided her time into 1/30s, isn't enough. We need to reach into our hearts and agree to paying the taxes the government needs to put these resources into the hands of the children who need them. The complexities of allocation and management can be handed over to our leaders - so we must elect men and women who will take up this task.
Higher standards, accountability, innovation and performance all sound good - and they are, as far as they go. But they are little more than rhetoric that is wasting precious time. These communities are lying out there, pock-marking the American landscape, neglected and dying slow, agonizing deaths. The children are humiliated, knowing nothing more than that they aren't important. We are the adults. We are the inheritors of this nation's dream. It is up to us to keep that promise.