I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Incoherent World of Arne Duncan, Part III

I'm breaking down a revealing interview that the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran conducted with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

  • Part I: Duncan's signature program, Race To The Top, has little evidence to back it up.
  • Part II: The real legacy of Duncan, Rhee, and Klein
On to the next part, which I found to be a real groaner:
Q. How important are the structural reforms, like promoting charter schools, when compared to personnel issues, just finding the best teachers and principals?
A. If you just had a lot of Michael Jordans, structure wouldn’t matter. But we don’t have enough Michael Jordans.
Really? We don't have enough Michael Jordans? We don't have enough "best there ever was" teachers?

You're a basketball fan, Mr. Secretary, so let me ask you this: how many Michael Jordans have there ever been in the NBA? How many "best there ever was" players would be on your all-time dream team? I'll tell you:

ONE. There is only ONE Michael Jordan; that's why he is the greatest of all time.

You know that new Dream Team we're all watching at the Olympics right now? The one that barely got past Lithuania? Those are the best (well, most of the best) players in the NBA right now. Would it ever make sense to think that every player in the NBA could play like LeBron James, the current best player (he is, come one, admit it)? Or is it possible to only have one best player?

Everyone can get better, and everyone should strive to improve (let's start with Melo's defense... oh, snap!). But if there is any variability in teaching ability, it's impossible for everyone to be the best. Not every team can be a dream team.

Some of you are probably saying, "OK, look, that was an offhanded comment. Duncan understands this; he knows not all teachers are going to be awesome. That's why he wants structural reforms."

Except the "structural reforms" he proposes are highly suspect. Continuing directly:
Q. In many of the leading countries on education, elite college graduates go into teaching. But not in America. How important is that?
A. Extraordinarily important. In Singapore and Finland, you have to be in the top 10 percent to teach. How we strengthen that pool, train that pool, compensate that pool and create career ladders for them is vital. This entire pipeline is broken.
That may be - but you won't fix it by picking out a scant few teachers for large rewards while the middle of the pack stays at the same level. The majority of bright young people who go to med school understand there is only a small chance they could become a top-paid surgeon (although some certainly aspire to that anyway). Most potential doctors understand they won't be at the top of that heap, but they can still make a lot of money at the middle, so the expense and hard work of med school is worth it.

It's the averages that count, not the outliers. According to Nick Kristof, teachers in Singapore make more than lawyers and engineers. In Finland, a veteran teacher’s salary is 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s; compare that to the US, where that teacher's salary is 40 percent below the average salary of other college grads. Could that be the reason Finland is able to recruit from only its top 10%?

It's also worth pointing out that Finland doesn't have merit pay. But that doesn't catch Duncan's eye; this does:
Q. What can we do?
A. One example: Denver put in two tracks. One track has higher compensation and less security. And they have a more traditional track. When they started, only a third of the teachers opted in. Today, it’s like 85 percent.
Q. Would that attract top college performers?
A. I would argue (it) would.
But there isn't any evidence that I've seen, Arne, that you would be right. The effect of Denver's system, ProComp, on teacher retention is positive but quite small. Here's what the author of that analysis, Eleanor Fulbeck, wrote about ProComp elsewhere:
Finally, my own research and research conducted by external evaluators of Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp) suggest small gains in retention (between 2-4%). Interview data, which I will discuss in a future post, support these findings: Although a few teachers indicated they considered ProComp financial incentives when making their career decisions, most said they did not consider the incentives to be important factors in such decisions. Rather, teachers indicated that other non-pecuniary factors, such as the principal and student characteristics, were more important considerations in their career decisions. This has been well documented in the research literature (Boyd et al., 2011Milanowski et al., 2009). 
Thus, the available body of evaluation research on alternative teacher compensation programs does not consistently suggest financial incentives improve teacher retention. In some cases incentives appear to be associated with small increases in retention; in other cases, incentives appear to be associated with decreased retention. 
The majority of evaluations, however, either found financial incentives had no effect on teacher retention or did not include an examination of retention at all. Accordingly, there is little reason to assume the availability of financial incentives will result in improved teacher retention. If anything, the research to date suggests that other considerations, such as working conditions and leadership, are more important factors in teachers’ decisions to stay, move, or leave the profession entirely. [emphasis mine]
Teacher retention and teacher recruitment are separate but related issues; if we can't keep teachers on the job with these kind of incentives, what makes us think we can recruit even better ones? We could study programs like ProComp and determine whether stronger teacher candidates are coming into the Denver system...

Or we could just "argue" that they do, like Arne Duncan, with no evidence to back him up. And in contradiction to what they do in the countries he points to as role models.

It worries me that we have a cabinet member in the Obama administration who takes so much on faith and so little on evidence. What if Hillary Clinton ran the State Department on what she "argued" instead of what the evidence told her was true?

More to come.


Ken Houghton said...

"[Duncan]: One example: Denver put in two tracks. One track has higher compensation and less security. And they have a more traditional track. When they started, only a third of the teachers opted in. Today, it’s like 85 percent.
[Moran]. Would that attract top college performers?
[Duncan]. I would argue (it) would."

This was the one that stopped me. I would argue it would, too--pay more, and more people will apply. We got a lot of Management Consultants from top-tier and second-tier schools.

The next thing that happened was we worked them to death, and a large percentage left for other areas. (I lost a good assistant to the School of International Affairs at Columbia.)

The question isn't getting people into teaching; TFA, G-d help them, does that. But TFA people are in it for the money, so they mostly move into Administration.

Why would Duncan expect those new recrtuits to be any diffrent?

Oh, right, he's got 130-140 thousand reasons his plan will work.

Waiting for you to get to the punch line...

Duke said...

I'm dealing with 130-140K next, Ken. He's been saying that for a while, but has never, to my knowledge, ever come up with a plan to fund this scheme of his.

Thx for posting.