Refinancing education's personnel

Human capital discussions in education nowadays typically start with
the problem of “incompetent” teachers and what to do about them. The
very notion of wholly-inept instructors in children’s classrooms
inflames the emotions (think Steven Brill’s colorful New Yorker piece)
and sometimes leads on to discussion of such other HR issues as tenure,
compensation, hiring and firing rules, and evaluation. But
“incompetents” are also a sort of distraction, as nobody thinks they
comprise more than a tiny fraction of the total teacher workforce. When
it comes to reforming HR practices, we might be better served to start
with the challenges of mediocre-to-average teachers (and principals,
too, for that matter) as they are far more numerous and cost
taxpayers--and children--far more.

Teacher salaries and benefits typically comprise at least half of
education budgets—and other school employees bring the total personnel
cost to about three-fourths. At our “Penny Saved
conference on Monday, devoted to finding (and illustrating) ways that
school systems can produce better results while spending less money, HR
issues came up in virtually every discussion. It was evident that any
serious budgetary reform in education is going to involve a serious
rethinking and resizing of school staffing. So will any serious quality
reforms. (You can access the conference papers here. They repay attention.)

Over the last forty years, we increased the size of the U.S. teaching
profession both in absolute terms (47.9 percent between 1980 and 2006,
for example) and relative to student enrollment numbers (the
pupil-teacher ratio dropped from the high twenties to mid-teens since
the mid-1950s). Though per-pupil spending rose dramatically, individual
teacher salaries barely budged (in real terms). That’s because America
opted for quantity over quality. (This point has been made before.)
And at no point along the line did we--our public-school system,
anyway--develop the kinds of evaluation systems we would need if we were
winnowing the teacher corps according to performance or effectiveness.
Almost no winnowing occurred, so why develop winnowing procedures,
which, in any case, teachers and their powerful unions disliked?

But budgetary woes, Race to the Top, and technology are starting to
turn the tide. Not only are teacher evaluations becoming
methodologically stronger, but actually using them in personnel
decisions is beginning to catch on. Not fast, to be sure, but there’s
every reason to expect early moves to lead to more.

Two tactics are getting a bit of traction: removing seniority as a
criterion of RIF-ing procedures and assignment practices, and breaking
down firewalls between student performance data and teacher evaluations.
On the first count, the Arizona legislature
has forbidden school systems to use seniority and tenure in making
firing decisions. This means districts can consider such factors as
classroom effectiveness in making those choices and can (and perhaps
must) renegotiate terms with local teacher unions on the subject. Rhode
Island State Superintendent Deborah Gist didn’t go quite as far when she banned seniority bumping rights in the Ocean State but California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently drafting legislation
that would loosen the state’s seniority-driven firing rules and
eliminate a state-run appeals process that typically overturns a third
of teacher dismissals.

As for linking student data and teacher evaluations, Arne Duncan has
given this a considerable boost both by jawboning about it and by
linking states’ Race to the Top eligibility to it (at least to not
having laws that ban it). In November, Wisconsin received plaudits for
knocking down the wall between student data and teacher evaluations;
unfortunately, almost in the same breath, the state also banned
the use of those data-driven teacher evaluations in teacher firing
decisions. Perhaps Houston superintendent Terry Grier will have better
luck. He hopes to implement a system
where the value-added teacher evaluation model that the district
currently uses to dole out performance bonuses will also be used in
firing decisions. He sought to do that in his last post in San Diego but
ran into a brick wall. Doing it well, of course, depends on having a
well-engineered and accurate evaluation system, both in terms of fairly
gauging teacher effectiveness and having the data infrastructure to back
it up.

Performance evaluations of teachers have historically been infrequent and perfunctory, because the alternative w
as costly and contentious. In a study of four states, The New Teacher Project found last year
that an absurd 99 percent of teachers receive A’s or the equivalent on
such evaluations. Last month we learned that Detroit teachers hadn’t
been evaluated at all in more than a decade. Gist mandated earlier this year
that Rhode Island districts revamp their teacher evaluation systems,
according to a set of new standards developed by her office, and use
them annually, a huge jump in frequency from previous practice.

We learned the other day
that Teach For America has been collecting data on its (now) 7,300
corps members in various forms for the last twenty years. Since 2002,
it’s been refining its recruitment and selection process to favor
candidates who reflect a few “superstar” tendencies, such as setting big
goals for themselves, constantly reevaluating their practice,
meticulous and outcome-orientated planning, and relentlessness or
“grit.” The real meat of TFA’s painstaking and highly-selective
admissions process, which uses such data to predict potential corps
members’ classroom success, will become public next month.
And overhauls like Gist’s will likely inform other states’ attempts to
make similar changes to their evaluation systems. The black box that is
the classroom is now dimly illuminated by a sliver of light.

Opening the shades a bit wider, we find the AFT’s Randi Weingarten
offering to reform teacher evaluations. In a National Press Club speech
this week (see below), she said that our obsession with ineffective
teachers “fails to recognize that we have a systems problem.” She went
on to outline a four-part plan to overhaul teacher evaluations and
dismissal procedures. Weingarten has thus given local affiliates cover
to agree to more robust evaluation systems. Which doesn’t necessarily
mean they will. But still and all, her words matter, because without
giving principals and district leaders the ability to use evaluations in teacher staffing and firing decisions, they will remain largely meaningless.

We’re seeing slow progress. We have better evaluations, better data
systems, state and local leaders somewhat more willing to use them, and a
union whose chief says she’s willing to help make this happen. In the
long run, changes in teacher evaluation could yield fiscal savings, too,
as well as better use of the available personnel dollars. After all, if
seismic changes in education finance are destined to force states and
districts to rethink their HR budgets, shouldn’t we make sure that the
teachers we engage, pay, and retain are the best ones?