by David Safier
Matthew Ladner released his 28 page pamphlet, "New Millenium Schools" last week. I find it to be a serious, intelligent, well researched document which, while I disagree with it in a number of places, presents a plausible alternative educational strategy. This is an action document that suggests a model for a charter school that would attract top quality teachers by paying them high salaries while increasing class sizes. There's no politicking by Ladner here. This is an honest proposal, so I'll give it the respectful, careful scrutiny it deserves.
Ladner's basic proposal is for data driven merit pay on steroids. He wants to reward teachers based on the amount their students grow academically while in a teacher's class compared to their progress during previous years. Teachers whose students show a high rate of growth are rewarded with higher salaries, and on top of that, all teachers are rewarded if an entire school meets an overall growth goal. Teachers who have proven themselves to be "master teachers" can request extra students in their classes and get a bonus for each additional student. In this school, teachers have the potential of earning six figure salaries.
The hoped-for result is a school which is a magnet for excellent teachers. Since class sizes will increase, teachers will earn higher salaries than in other schools without an increase in the cost per student.
This is a simplified but, I hope, reasonably accurate summary of the basic idea Ladner proposes. I would be genuinely interested in seeing an Arizona charter work toward this model. If the theoretical model works in the real world of the classroom — and that's a big "if" — it could provide a viable educational alternative for some students. That's one of the strengths of charter schools. A potentially good idea doesn't have to be good for everyone. It only has to work for the students enrolled. And if it doesn't work well, the charter school can shift gears, or close.
That being said, I want to look at Ladner's ideas more carefully and with a more critical eye after the jump. Click on the link if you're interested.
Ladner's premise is based on the philosophy of fiscal conservatism. He wants to improve education without spending any more money. This tax-and-spend liberal, on the other hand, believes that improving education will take money combined with intelligent improvements. Our philosophical divide drives a great deal of my criticism of Ladner's plan.
We both agree, there's nothing more important than a good teacher. If I had my choice of a great teacher in a mud hut with 40 students or a mediocre teacher in an educational palace with 25 students, I'd choose the mud hut every time. I taught in schools whose faculty contained both gifted, intelligent teachers and mediocre, not-so-intelligent teachers. Believe me, there's a huge difference in the education students receive from the two types of teachers. True, brilliant people can be lousy teachers, and some people with average intelligences have a gift that makes them good teachers, but among those who pursue teaching, you're going to find that high intelligence trumps average intelligence 95% of the time.
We also agree that the U.S. schools have far too many mediocre teachers. Our teacher pool draws heavily on the middle of the college pack, or lower. It's damn near impossible to make significant educational improvements without bringing more of our best and brightest into the field. Not only that, but we have to make sure the top teachers are in schools with students from all economic and social situations. It's unfair to have the best teachers concentrated in schools with upper income students, as happens too often today.
It's when we get to the topic of class size that Ladner and I begin to part company. He's careful not to say that class size is irrelevant. He just says it's insignificant when compared to the quality of the teacher.
Ladner implies it's common knowledge that class size doesn't matter much, while the truth is, the class size battle rages on in educational circles. A researcher Ladner cites on a non-class size issue, Erik Hanushek, is the patron saint of the "class size doesn't matter" school. A few decades ago when most people agreed that smaller class size made for better education, Hanushek gathered some data, crunched numbers and "proved" that students' achievement wasn't affected significantly by the number of students in a class. A cadre of researchers formed around him, citing his studies, then citing each other's papers on his studies, until it began to look like their research had reached critical mass — that is, until another reseacher found she could crunch the same numbers a different way and "prove" that class size does indeed matter. Since then, more carefully controlled studies have indicated that class size is important, and it's most important for students on the low end of the educational spectrum. Note I say "incidated," not "proved." My point is, many people, myself included, believe class size is one of the important determining factors in high quality education, especially with those who need lots of personal attention to overcome educational deficits.
Ladner wants to increase teachers' salaries to attract higher quality teachers. So do I. The fiscal conservative in Ladner wants to increase class sizes to offset the salary increases. Not me. I want to spend more so we can pay teachers higher salaries at the same time we make teaching more attractive by improving conditions for teachers, which includes lowering class size.
Another area where we disagree is in the importance Ladner puts on data collection. (Here, I have to admit, he's in the company of Arne Duncan, Obama's Ed Sec, who is also big on data driven education, while I'm a data skeptic.) Ladner wants test scores to be the main force driving teacher salaries, both the scores of an individual teacher and of the school as a whole, with the prinicipal having the authority to boost salaries a bit based on more subjective decisions about teacher quality.
If you think our schools are driven by testing now, it's nothing compared to what would happen if students' scores determined teachers' paychecks. High stakes tests, meet high paycheck tests. Expect non-testable material to be treated like unwanted step children by teachers trying to get ahead on the salary schedule. Expect drill, drill, drill, followed by practice test after practice test.
Ladner praises South Korea's education system and the high test scores of its students, but a closer look reveals a test-driven pressure cooker, with parents and students reaching unhealthy levels of obsession and outright panic about test scores. That's one reason why some South Korean mothers take their children to other countries to be educated, while their husbands remain at home. The parents complain about South Korea's "rigid educational system," the schools' "educational pressure cooker" atmosphere and their failure to teach "other skills crucial in an era of globalization, like creative thinking."
Merit pay sounds like a good idea in theory, but deciding what is meritorious in teaching is unbelievably complex. Our ability to create standardized tests that gauge a student's educational attainment is very rudimentary. They are a crude tool, a blunt instrument. Standardized tests have a place on the educational table, but we put them in the CEO's chair at our peril.
Finally, I'm not sure if this theoretical school will be as good in the classroom as it sounds on paper. With a select group of cooperative, motivated students — you can be selective at a charter school if you use finesse — it could possibly be quite successful. If the school were more heterogeneous, drawing from a wide socio-economic and educational range, I'm not sure things would go quite as well as Ladner hopes. But I would like to see this model succeed, especially if it demonstrates the importance of drawing more of our top level college students into education.
A less important comment.
Ladner doesn't say this specifically, but I think his model envisions a K-6 school. His assumptions about testing and salary seem to be based on one teacher with a single class of students for the entire day.
If that's true, I question his statistic about class size in South Korea. He says they have 49 students in each class. I've found articles that say their elementary school classes have more like 30-35 students. He also uses 20 students as the average class size here. I'm not sure, but this figure may come from confusing the student/teacher ratio with class size. The term "teacher" usually includes curriculum specialists, librarians, counselors, etc. The average number of students in the classroom is always higher than the student/teacher ratio. When I retired, I had 30-35 students per high school English class. I'm willing to be corrected on either of these assertions, but if I'm close to right, that means the difference in elementary class sizes between South Korea and the U.S. is less than Ladner claims. (It may be that he's using actual class size in South Korea and student/teacher ratio here.)
And a few last thought questions.
1. How can you use data to judge the effectiveness of teachers in the earliest grades — K, 1 and 2? It would be difficult to judge students' progress over such a limited time span.
2. Many schools have large transient populations where as many as 50% of the students at the end of the year weren't there at the beginning. This would vastly complicate the use of data to evaluate teachers. This probably wouldn't be a factor with individual charters, but if this method were generalized to school districts, it could cause problems.
3. I don't see how this system would encourage top teachers to teach at low performing schools. It's a hell of a lot easier to show progress when most students are at or above grade level, so if teachers want that merit raise, their odds are still better if they teach at high performing schools. To make a valid comparison of teacher quality, you would have to compare, say, a year of progress at a high performing school with 2/3 year of progress at a low performing school. (A third grade student with a second grade reading level has made 2/3 of a grade level progress each year, while one with a third grade reading level has made one year's progress per year.) So top teachers in the Foothills district, for example, should increase their students' performance by 1 1/3 year, while the equivalent teacher in a lower performing urban school should only be expected to show one year's progress. Ideally, you want the children who are below grade level to make large leaps forward, but it isn't fair to base a teacher's salary on that expectation unless you want to scare them away.