Category Archives: High Caliber Schools

Students in Tiny, Rural Kansas Town Are Outperforming Global Competition

I have a very intriguing story to tell you about a small, rural community that seems to be outperforming both American students from wealthier schools and students in developed countries around the world. So, what do they do that makes them so successful? Well, let’s take a look.

First, let me introduce you to the rural Waconda Lake area in North Central Kansas. The Waconda school district is made up of four small towns: Cawker City, Downs, Glen Elder, and Tipton, with seven schools that are spread over a 411 square mile area. The people in the community either work in agriculture or manufacturing. This is a quiet, agricultural community, whose best known local landmark is an enormous ball of twine, which they claim is the largest in the world.

But their real claim to fame is more academic, according to The Global Report Card, which was published in Education Next. According to this recent report, the average student, in this district of 385 students, scores better than 90% of students in 20 developed countries on their math and reading tests, and it is the second highest performing school district in math in the U.S., in spite of the fact that 65% of its children live in poverty.

Jeff Travis, the district’s superintendent for seven years, reported that 65% of the students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunches through the federal government. And yet, unlike other high poverty schools in our nation which tend to produce low test scores and high dropout rates, this district has risen above its poverty level and is outperforming affluent school systems.

What, I’m sure you’re wondering, does this district do to be so successful? Travis suggests that one possible theory is that the kids at Waconda have no realization that they are materially deprived. . “North Central Kansas is rural, and urban poverty is kind of different [from] rural poverty,” he said. “A lot of our people don’t even understand that they’re living in poverty.”

There are no students who need English learning classes, and most of them are white, according to state data. Travis also said that about 10% of the students are in foster homes. “We just [have] a lot of adults that care about kids, so it’s been a popular thing for parents to take in foster children,” he explained.

Travis also attributed their success to the simple matter of expectation. He said that after years of earning high test scores, it has become an expectation in the community that their students will excel. He said that in most years, no one drops out of high school! Imagine that! Additionally, over the past four years, the district has earned 14 Governor Achievement Awards and one national “Blue Ribbon Award School.”

Travis said, “It’s a tradition now, and they expect themselves to do well. Like a ball team that continues to win because of a tradition, we have an academic tradition. Everybody’s pretty happy [but] nobody understands how big a deal it is.”

He attributes three essential factors to the district’s great success. First, is the tremendous amount of parental involvement which occurs in these schools. Almost every parent attends their child’s parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level, and Travis says the participation is still very high in the older grades.

The second factor, according to Travis, is small class sizes. He explained that the district is committed to keeping classes from pre-kindergarten to third grade very small. With only 12 to 15 students in each class, he said, “We get to a lot of problems quickly and early in child development,”

The third factor is the district’s assessment card which follows each student from grade to grade. This is a card, created by the district, which lists the skills that the state expects children to master in each subject. These cards are updated by teachers all the time, which gives them a good idea of what they need to work on in order to pass their state standardized tests.

In spite of national education reform movements which advocate linking teacher pay to student test scores, Travis said that their district doesn’t keep up with these education trends. “We don’t believe in the next biggest thing or the next biggest theory. We’ve not made any major changes.”

But the news in Waconda is not all good; like districts everywhere, they face funding challenges. About 10% of their staff positions have been cut over the past few years due to budget cuts, and the average teacher only makes about $40,000, making theirs the lowest teaching salary of any district in their state. Travis acknowledged, “It’s going to get tougher as we go.”

Travis also shared that the district faces an additional challenge; many of the high-achieving students go to Kansas City rather than staying in their home towns.  “It’s where the services and the goods and fun are,” he said. But they do what they can to encourage them to come back after college by challenging them to design a small business plan for the area.

While one of the authors of The Global Report Card said that the small size of this district may have slightly skewed the results of their research, it is pretty clear to me that this district has something really awesome going on. And I think that Travis hit the nail on the head when he said that the community expects that its students will do well, and the parents are actively involved.

I wonder how many districts can say the same thing. Maybe education reform is more about attitude, expectation, and community involvement. Maybe this little community has a thing or two to teach us all…

Seven Arrested in SAT Cheating Scandal in New York

Just when I think I can’t be surprised anymore by ridiculous news in the education field, I am. If you haven’t heard about this one yet, hold on to your hats; it’s pretty crazy!



Sam Eshaghoff was a 2010 graduate of Long Island’s Great Neck North, a public high school that is ranked among the nation’s best. In fact, the school has some notable alumni: Nobel Prize-winning biologist, David Baltimore, Olympic figure skating champion, Sarah Hughes, and filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola.

Apparently 19-year old Eshaghoff has been a busy and enterprising, young man since his graduation. Now a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, this young man has been providing his services to some of the students at his old Alma Mater. Okay, get your head out of the gutter; I don’t mean sexual services. No, his services have been of the cerebral kind.

According to Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, between 2010 and 2011, Eshaghoff has been paid by six students at Great Neck North High School to take the SAT for them. Eshaghoff flew home on various occasions in order to impersonate these high school students on test day. In fact, on one weekend, he took the test twice under two different identities! For his services, he received between $1,500 and $2,500 per student.

Prosecutors explained that the six students involved registered to take the SAT’s at different schools so that they wouldn’t be recognized, and Eshaghoff would show up presenting a forged driver’s license with his picture and the name of the paying student.

A perfect score on the SAT is 2400, so when he took the test for these students, Eshaghoff would score between 2140 and 2220.

The cheating ring was busted when faculty members at the high school became suspicious after hearing rumors of students paying a third party to take the SAT for them early this year. Prosecutors reported that the faculty was able to bust the six suspected students by comparing their past academic performance to SAT scores of students who had taken the test at a different school.

Rice reported to FOX News that the giveaway was “large discrepancies between [the six students’] academic performance records and their SAT scores.” She explained that administrators were able to track the tests to Eshaghoff after analyzing his handwriting.

All of the seven students were arrested Tuesday morning for their alleged roles in this bizarre cheating scandal. Eshaghoff faces up to four years in prison, while the six who are being charged with hiring him, whose names are not being made public due to their ages, face misdemeanor charges.

And the district attorney’s office is also investigating the possibility that Eshaghoff took the exam for other students and whether similar cheating has occurred at at least two other high schools in the county.

Eshaghoff’s bond was set at $1,000, while the other six were released on their own recognizance.

Matin Emouna, Eshaghoff’s attorney, said of his client, “He has cooperated with the investigation, and he denies the charges.”

Rice said, “Colleges look for the best and brightest students, yet these six defendants tried to cheat the system and may have kept honest and qualified students from getting into their dream school.”

A statement released by the Great Neck School District said it “does not tolerate cheating” and remains “committed to cooperating with law enforcement in the matter.”

I don’t know why stories like this still surprise me, but they do. I am always amazed at the nefarious lengths people will go to in order to get what they want, rather than just working to get what they want.

These students had all the right resources at their disposal, in this highly ranked school in an affluent part of New York, to earn their own college-appropriate scores on their SAT’s. Instead, they have quite possibly destroyed any chance of being accepted into the type of college they had aspired to, and will have to work very hard to overcome the cheating-stigma which has become associated with their name.

And Sam Eshaghoff, who is clearly a very intelligent, young man, may find his intelligence squandered in a jail cell.

I guess all the brains in the world don’t necessarily make you smart!

Newsweek Names America’s Best High School

For more than a decade, Newsweek has been ranking the top public high schools in America. This year, they tried something new, asking a panel of experts which include Wendy Kopp of Teach For America, Tom Vander Ark of Open Education Solutions, and Linda Darling who is a Stanford professor of education as well as the founder of the School Redesign Network, to come up with the criteria to judge a school’s success at producing college-ready and life-ready students. Using their model, each school is judged on six components: graduation rate (25%), college matriculation rate (25%), AP tests taken per graduate (25%), average SAT/ACT scores (10%), average AP/IB/AICE scores (10%), and AP courses offered (5%).

Based on this newer rating system, the Dallas Science and Engineering Magnet School was ranked as America’s Best High School. American Morning live on CNN interviewed its principal, Jovan Wells, asking her first to explain what made her school so successful. She said, “I guess the secret is a combination of several different things. But the one thing that stands out of course is you have to have great teachers, and teachers who are willing to go above and beyond, and willing to train throughout the summer, and willing to stay long hours without being paid. And we have an abundance of that at the School of Science and Engineering, and they really make the difference. They’re there for the students.”

Great teachers are definitely a must, but this school has something most public schools do not have: the luxury of hand-picking their student body. Here’s how it works. This school pulls students from the whole Dallas area, looking at their ITBS scores, their GPA, as well as an on-site math assessment, an essay, and an interview. 

Why so many hoops to jump through to get into this school? Wells explains, “Because it’s a school of choice, and they have to be interested to want to go through this rigorous process.”

Wells said they look at the scores carefully, trying to pull evenly from the whole Dallas area, so that their enrollment is a representation of the whole district. But is it really?

What this process spells out to me is a cream of the crop student population, which automatically puts this school on a different playing field from most public schools. Let’s face it! These are students who really care about education, who are incredibly gifted in math and science, and who probably have a lot of parental support. They don’t show up at this school by accident. With a student body such as this, the sky’s quite literally the limit!

The amount of time students spend in this school makes a huge difference, too. The school day itself is pretty traditional; next year the school day goes from 9:15 to 4:15, but the school actually opens at 7:30. At that time, they have what they call a zero period or students might be tutored by their teachers, and, at the end of the day, there is a 9th period that lasts till 5:00 in addition to after-school tutoring.

“It’s maximizing the time on task, and students are there before and after school just as if it was the entire school day. I mean, they’re there working and really taking advantage of that extra time available to study and work with the teachers,” said Wells.

Again, this is great, but they get this kind of turnout due to the nature of the kids they have the honor of teaching. These are gifted, academically-successful kids who are motivated to learn. All of you teachers out there, just imagine what you could do with a classroom filled with these kinds of students!

And what was Well’s advice to parents who live in school districts that don’t have the option to send their children to a magnet school like this one? How do they help them to be successful in the school that they are currently attending? She recommends getting their children involved in chess camp, math camp, and supplementing what they are learning in school in those areas of interest to them through programs available at the university level. She encourages parents to be proactive and research what is available in their local area which could provide extension opportunities in their children’s areas of interest.

What makes the students at the Dallas Science and Engineering Magnet School so successful? There is a correlation between the higher expectations of their parents and teachers to their desire to achieve. Can that same formula work elsewhere? It seems very likely.

The key to this school’s success? Certainly, the students that this school gets to work with are exceptional. That is a huge advantage. But it is the dedication, long hours, and hard work of both the students and the teachers in this school working together with a common purpose which spells success.

Last in a Series: Diane Ravitch on NCLB

This is the last in my series on Diane Ravitch. I have been blogging about her recent article from the August/September issue of neatoday magazine. In her article, “Stop the Madness”, she explains why she no longer supports NCLB, and she ends her article discussing how we can improve our schools.

According to Ms. Ravitch, “We must first of all have a vision of what good education is.” We should be asking what constitutes a well-educated person, what we want students to learn before they graduate, what we want them to accomplish, and why we educate students. In other words, we need to agree on what education is, what it looks like, and why we want to be a part of it as teachers.

Second, she says we need to look beyond reading and mathematics and decide what other qualities are synonymous with a well-educated, well-rounded student. We want to turn out students who are able to think for themselves, have good character, are able to make good decisions, have courage and humor, and who treat others with compassion and fairness. And we need to teach students to be responsible citizens who make educated decisions by rationally studying different points of view.

Finally, she states that we need to send out academically well-rounded students who are able to use both math and science to understand and solve real problems in their communities and in their world and who can also appreciate and participate in their artistic and cultural heritage. In other words, we need students who participate in  significant ways, who enjoy the world around them, and who are willing and able to work to improve it. We need to teach them about the world in which they live and help them to find their niche within it.

What kind of test could ever adequately measure these truly important things? There is no such test because the true test of these qualities is life and the purposeful living of it. As Diane Ravitch states, “If these are our goals, the current narrow, utilitarian focus of our national testing regime is not sufficient to reach any of them. Indeed, to the extent that we make the testing regime our master, we may see our true goals recede farther and farther into the distance.” She concludes by stating that, if we continue on this current path, we are likely to produce a generation who equate learning with the drudgery of “worksheets, test preparation, and test-taking”.

In her final plea to turn the current tide by doing away with NCLB in the hopes of saving our public schools, Ms. Ravitch wraps up with this eloquent, heart-felt statement: “As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. In fact, we must take care to make our public schools once again the pride of our nation. To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy.”

(Diane Ravitch’s article was based on her book entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,)

Could This Go National?

This is a follow-up blog from the article in Forbes, June 7th edition, as promised. While I recommend that you read the article, “What Educators Are Learning from Money Managers”, for yourself, in case you don’t get the chance I would like to explain a little bit more about these charter schools in New York and Connecticut, how they operate, and how this might translate to public education. (See previous blog, “What Forbes Magazine Can Teach Public Schools”)

First, clearly the charter schools mentioned in the article have resources that most public schools do not, especially in terms of technology and the ability to offer teachers a higher income than traditional public schools can. So, how do they accomplish this? Well, Achievement First, the nonprofit discussed in my last blog,”has a $60 million budget and 17 schools with 4,500 students, making it the equivalent of a good-size school district. The company spends less than 10% of its budget on central administrative costs, compared with 15% to 25% at most urban school districts…The savings get spent at the school level. Teachers receive higher salaries-and help.” A typical ratio of “helpers” is about 23 teachers to 5 administrators, which includes deans and coaches. So, in other words, they pay teachers well, but the expectation is that they will be continually coached and trained to ensure that they are successful at closing the gaps in education and proving statistically that their students are making constant progress.

One would assume that teachers would be drawn to these schools due to the promise of a higher salary, but it sounds like a rigorous program. Achievement First tries to draw in young and creative teachers who have been in programs like Teach for America. While they get paid more, they work 10-hour days and the school year is longer. “Roughly 10% to 15% of its teachers quit each year; another 5% or so are fired for poor performance, compared with 9% attrition and 4.4% dismissal rates for public schools.” I can’t help but wonder if there is a higher burn-out rate due to the longer day and longer school year. Frankly, I find the concept of a 10-hour day outrageous. Not only would it be mentally and physically exhausting for both students and teachers, but it would make it extremely difficult for students to be involved in any outside activities such as sports, scouts, or any other outside lessons and would take away from family time as well. Likewise it would be restrictive for teachers. It would take a fair amount of sacrifice on everyone’s part, and therefore, this is one aspect of these programs which I would not advocate.

The article ends on a sad note for public educators like myself when it states, “It’s lamentable how many defective products the U.S. education industry sends out of its $660 billion factory. But it’s encouraging to see that there are ways to boost the output.” Then let’s really boost the output! Apply what is applicable to public schools nationally. Share the wealth, and let all students reap the benefits. If our goal as a nation is to send out young people who are adroit and capable of competing in our global economy, and we have evidence that the techniques to do so may be available, then it behooves us to make these techniques available to all. Hook up all schools to software that will do for public education what it is apparently doing in these charter schools; giving teachers the data and the resources to best meet students’ academic needs.

What Forbes Magazine Can Teach Public Schools

The June 7, 2010 edition of Forbes featured an article entitled “What Schools Can Learn from Money Managers”. If you can pick it up and read it, I would strongly recommend that you do so, as it is well worth reading. In the next few blogs, I will be discussing some of the important concepts addressed in this article.

The article zeroes in on Achievement First, a nonprofit out of New Haven, Connecticut, which operates 17 charter schools in Connecticut and New York and is described as “more like an information-driven company than an old-fashioned school district”. The emphasis in these schools is on closing educational gaps, particularly among African American students and students from low income households, showing yearly progress as well as successful passage of state achievement tests, and increasing graduation and college-bound percentages.

In a nutshell, here is a basic outline of how these charter schools are attaining success. First, children in kindergarten through second grade are given one-on-one reading comprehension tests which are graded on a scale of 1 to 12. If the results indicate that the entire class struggled on the tested concept, teachers would reteach that concept. “But if individual students fall behind, the school pulls them out into separate groups for intensive instruction on their individual weak points. The extra lessons can be delivered on a computer or during a lunchtime tutoring session; the important thing is that teachers and administrators are constantly watching and adjusting their methods as test results come in.”

Additionally, some companies, like Wireless Generator, who have traditionally worked behind the scenes in the medical industry, are now in the business of providing software that teachers can use to regularly assess students in reading proficiency and math skills. “The software can differentiate causes of failure, distinguishing between students who are too slow and those who make errors; it can also flag kids (who don’t understand the concept).Then it prompts the teacher to group children at similar developmental stages together and provides proven instructional techniques for their particular problems.” How awesome! Software that is set up to evaluate individual weaknesses, compile lists of students with similar weaknesses, and recommend the appropriate remediation to resolve those weaknesses! And the article is quick to point out that this information is in no way used to discipline or call out a teacher, but rather to teach them how to be most effective in providing students with the skills they need to master problematic concepts.

It boggles my mind, and hopefully yours too, when I wonder whether such an approach to education is possible on the national level, which is the gist of this article! We have a head start already: nationally aligned standards. What if… now just imagine this…what if each school district was linked into a national data base like Wireless Generator with the same national assessments to be administered periodically throughout the year, and providing the same kind of feedback which is available to these charter schools? Imagine if teachers whose students scored well on an assessment were utilized to tutor those students at that grade level who were red flagged for that skill. Or, they could be used, along with the instructional techniques offered through the software, to help coach teachers at that grade level to work with students who were struggling. Imagine if we looked at our individual classes as the launching pad from which students would be moved throughout the tutoring time to different teachers in order to achieve the best results for all students. And imagine if all of this was orchestrated through a national program that all schools had access to rather than each school system doing their own thing and reinventing the wheel to develop formative assessments, evaluate test results, and decide what to do from there.

When I read about the success of these charter schools, I can’t help but be a little envious of the resources they have that most public schools do not. But, at the same time, it motivates me to use this information to get something going on a smaller scale in our school next year. Next year in our district, teachers will be meeting as a grade level once a week for both reading and math to look over results we are generating from formative assessments and use those results to plan effective teaching strategies to meet the needs of those students who are not achieving. After reading this article, I am hopeful that we might implement some of these same techniques. And in the meantime, I can always dream that at some point we will experience the kind of reform mentioned in Forbes on a national level.

What is Race to the Top?

Over the next few weeks, I will be blogging about Race to the Top, the national contest to find creative ways to improve education in the United States. First, let me give you a brief summary of the goals of Race to the Top, or RttT, as it is called.

It all started last February with the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 by President Obama. The purpose of this legislation is to “stimulate the economy, support job creation, and invest in critical sectors, including education. The ARRA lays the foundation for education reform by supporting investments in innovative strategies that are most likely to lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in school and school system capacity, and increased productivity and effectiveness”. This act is providing $4.35 billion in grant money to the RttT fund, to “encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers; and implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas:
Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.”

The states chosen as finalists in this national competition are Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. Winners will be chosen in April, and the school systems that were part of their state’s application process will be the models for implementing their detailed plan of recovery for their state.

Wow! Quite a venture with some awesome potential! If you haven’t read anything else about it, follow my link above, and do some other reading about it because, in my next blogs, I will be discussing my state’s plan and what I think of the process and the proposals. Interesting reading! Talk to you again after you’ve done your homework! Enjoy!

Rhode Island Blood Bath

Okay, by now we’ve all read about it and seen news reports about it, but it continues to shock me as I consider all of the ramifications of the recent firings of all teachers in a poorly performing school in Rhode Island. As educators, we need to watch what is happening very carefully because clearly, this is coming down the pike for other schools as well. Here are some of my thoughts about what happened.

First, I find it ludicrous to buy into the philosophy that the answer to turning around ineffective schools is to fire all of the teachers in a building. Are we serious? Do we really not get the fact that the main reasons these schools are ineffective is because of their environment; the poverty, the crime, the drug and alcohol abuse, the gang violence, and myriad other factors that make more than just the schools ineffective. How do teachers get students to care about test results when they are wondering where their next meal is coming from, whether they will get beat up on their way home from school, if they will be the victim of robbery, assault, rape, or a drive-by shooting? We all watch the news. We know the prevalence of crime in these high poverty areas. Isn’t that what needs to be resolved? How will shutting down a school help solve crime and poverty; clearly roadblocks to achievement in school? And how much parental support do many of the students in these schools get? Is education a priority in these homes? How do teachers educate children who place no value on education because their parents don’t? Don’t get me wrong, I know there are many hard-working, good parents in these areas who are pushing their children to succeed, but it doesn’t change the simple truth that environment is a critical issue.

Second, is the school board in Central Falls really trying to tell us that all of the teachers on that staff were ineffective? There were no teachers on their staff worthy of retaining their jobs? While I am sure that there were teachers who were burned out and just going through the motions (which is somewhat understandable given the atmosphere in which they teach), it is beyond my ability to grasp the idiocy of lumping all teachers in that school together as incompetent. Mark my words, there were teachers on that staff who were battling against factors we cannot begin to imagine trying to elevate their students out of the environment they live in by providing them with the tools a good education would give them. How dare this board of education tell them that because the test scores have been very low, they are under qualified and do not deserve jobs! Again, when does environment take the blame? And shame on the superintendent of this school for not taking stopgap measures along the way to avoid this bloodbath. She bears equal responsibility since it is her school, and she ultimately determines who gets hired and what their credentials are. Why isn’t she being fired as well for not doing her job more effectively?

Finally, in the New York Times article reporting on the firings in Rhode Island, it was reported that Frances Gallo, the school’s superintendent, originally planned to extend the instructional hours and make additional changes to turn this school around but decided to fire all of the teachers when the union fought for extra pay for the additional 25 minutes to the teacher work day. Okay, I understand being annoyed, but is this taking it a little too far? Surely, some intermediary steps could have been agreed upon. The article goes on to say that Dr. Gallo later agreed to the possibility of hiring back some of these teachers, but she and the union could not reach an agreement. It makes me want to scream! Careers are at stake here, and an agreement cannot be reached? Preposterous! 

Needless to say, I am befuddled and angry over this decision. But the final straw for me is that President Obama supports it and applauds it. This was just the start, ladies and gentlemen. So, what that tells me is that we all need to fasten our seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Co-Teaching: It’s Worth Doing Right

For the second year in a row, I have been working in a co-teaching classroom, and, while I love the premise behind this innovative approach to teaching SPED children, I contest that something may be getting lost in translation. Is the purpose to improve the motivation and job performance of the SPED student, or is it to overload these classrooms to such an extent that success is difficult, if not downright unattainable?

I team teach with another colleague, and both of our classes have a 25% SPED population. Now, that alone is a significant challenge, but there seems to be a misconception that our classrooms should be used for those other at-risk students who might benefit from small group and one-on-one instruction, too. Unfortunately, as a result, our classrooms are so overloaded with students who did not pass last year’s OAT tests for math and reading that we feel that we have been set up for failure. How do we provide services to our IEP students, even with an intervention specialist or paraprofessional in our room, when so many of our regular education students require the same degree of intervention and additional instruction as our SPED students? Making matters even worse is the fact that between the two of us, we do not have even one gifted child. Zero, zip, nadda! Does this sound like a formula for success?

I think the premise behind co-teaching is awesome. I saw its benefits last year when we had a more heterogeneous grouping of children, and we were very successful. And that is the key: there needs to be a range of students from gifted to SPED students to make this teaching strategy work. That means that teachers need to alter their view of the co-teaching classroom. They cannot make promises to parents of every struggling regular education student that they will place them in the co-teaching classroom where their needs will more adequately be met. Because, frankly, when the number of students who require extra services far exceeds those who do not, everyone in that classroom suffers, including the teachers who can never do enough to keep up with the wide variety of demands in their classroom.

If co-teaching is worth doing, and I believe it is, it’s worth doing right!

First in a Series: The Merit Pay Conundrum

After spending quite some time reading a variety of articles both for and against the issue of merit pay for teachers, I feel, as all teachers should, the need to weigh-in on this important issue. Especially as President Barack Obama plugged teacher bonuses based on student achievement in the first education policy speech of his presidency.

We all know that in education, as in any profession, there are employees who produce average work with average to little success, and are unmotivated to do much more. A common fallacy in the teaching profession is that it is predominately the veteran teachers who fit this scenario as they have become burned out and are simply waiting to retire. While I do not deny that I have seen my fair share of this condition, I must also adamantly state that this attitude has no age requirement. I have seen the same attitude in teachers fresh out of college, and some who have a few years under their belt. In teaching, as in any profession, our labor force ranges from the dedicated, hard-working, and tireless to the “I’ll-do-the-bare-minimum”, and various stages in between. The difference between the business and education world is that our teachers’ unions, which protect us in a multitude of important ways making our work places fairer and safer places to work, also do our profession the disservice of fighting to protect teachers, both young and old, who legitimately deserve to be let go. In the business world, job retention is directly related to job performance. If our unions did not work so diligently to protect teachers whose performance necessitated their being weeded out, does it not stand to reason that we would be left with a higher caliber of teachers who, by that very definition, are all deserving of merit pay?

I propose that unions should establish strict and multi-layered guidelines for teacher dismissal and should ensure that these guidelines are followed to the letter. But when thorough documentation proves a teacher’s unwillingness or inability to take the necessary steps to improve their teaching skills after a methodical, multifaceted evaluation process established by the union, it becomes counterproductive and hurts a school system when its union fights for that teacher. Allowing the administration to release these teachers from their contract would ultimately create a higher caliber school system which encourages respect from the community and makes it far more likely for these community members to support levies that pay all teachers in these schools the salary they deserve.