Maureen Downey: Going after teachers

At researcher Richard Ingersoll’s Ivy League university, there’s no undergraduate degree in education.

“Very few undergrads at Penn want to do it,” said the University of Pennsylvania professor of education and sociology. “Most want to do law, medicine, business or veterinary school.”

A former high school teacher turned academic, Ingersoll has more than a passing interest in whether students choose teaching careers. He is one of the nation’s foremost experts on teacher turnover, and he fears that one-sided accountability measures drive good people out of the profession and deter promising candidates from entering it.

He cites the misinformation on the shortage of math and science teachers. In a given year, the United States produces four times as many new math and science teachers as leave the classroom due to retirements, Ingersoll said.

So, while he applauds President Barack Obama’s plan to add 100,000 new science and math teachers over a decade, Ingersoll said, “We lose 25,000 math and science teachers each year.” Of that number, he said only 7,000 are due to retirement. He does not believe that incentives — performance pay or bonuses — are enough of a carrot to reverse the trend.

As two recent studies suggest, paying teachers bonuses doesn’t appear to lead to higher student achievement. Yes, teachers would love a $1,500 performance bonus for meeting targets, but a new RAND study out of New York and a National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University last year out of Nashville both found that many teachers are already pedaling as fast as they can under new accountability systems and the bonuses appear to have no impact on student achievement.

“We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives — does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes? — and we found that it does not,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of the National Center on Performance Incentives.

The RAND study was commissioned by New York City, which wanted to find out if $56 million in performance bonuses to school staffs over the last three years improved student performance. The finding: No improvement.

What teachers want most, Ingersoll said, is to be regarded as professionals and valued for their judgment, their intellect and their ability to think on their feet and problem-solve.

On scales of motivation, teachers and nurses are the highest for wanting to do good with their lives rather than earn a lot of money.

As one teacher noted, “We not only buy school supplies for students, but we also must buy classroom supplies, white board markers, copy paper. Can you just imagine if employees of Coca-Cola were asked to purchase their own copy paper and pens and paper clips?”

Ingersoll understands the common-sense appeal of merit pay and performance bonuses, and why Obama and U.S. education Secretary Arne Duncan are such proponents.

As a young high school teacher, it annoyed him that his colleague in the next classroom read the newspaper all day while he was up until midnight each night preparing lessons. “Yet, he was making more than me because he had been there longer,” he said.

“We all know that some teachers are better than others, and there do seem to be some teachers who are not working very hard. Then, we find out they are all being paid the same,” he said.

The problem is that we haven’t devised a good way to fairly and objectively judge the most effective teachers and separate out what a teacher brings to the student performance equation.

Ingersoll hoped that the new science of value-added measures — using student growth as measured by tests to analyze how much a teacher advanced the learning of each individual student — would offer a reliable yardstick.

But he’s wary now because of the rising doubts of statisticians about the reliability of value-added data and studies showing that a large proportion of teachers who rate highly one year tumble to the bottom the next.

“That raises a real monkey wrench in our belief that a good teacher is a good teacher and a bad teacher is a bad teacher when you have that drop from the top quintile to the bottom in one year,” he said.

(“Some of my fellow professors are very zealous about value-added measures,” added Ingersoll, “until I say ‘What about using it for us in higher education?’ Then, there is ominous silence in the room.” )

Ingersoll sees greater potential in Denver’s performance pay system, crafted by teachers and administrators, that incorporates 10 weights to assess success, such as pursuing professional development, working in a high-needs school, receiving a glowing evaluation and raising test scores.

But Ingersoll said no performance pay system can work if we don’t address the deprofessionalization of teaching, citing his own research that teachers in virtually all states report less of a role in decisions about textbooks, content and grading —all of which are integral to their jobs and for which they ought to be consulted.

“The whole accountability regime tends to be a top-down thing that hasn’t included teachers. It violates basic management principles — you can’t hold employees responsible for things that they don’t have any control over or don’t have the tools to do,” he said.

“If you give people autonomy and tools and don’t hold them accountable, then you get corruption,” said Ingersoll.

“If you hold them accountable and don’t give them autonomy and tools, then you drive employees out — the best ones first.”

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