Monday, November 10, 2008

How Can Obama Help Rhee?

Today, Fred Hiatt asks if Obama can help Michelle Rhee reform the D.C. schools. Although he doesn't say so, it seems implicit that the help he wants Obama to offer is assistance in breaking the teacher's union. Hiatt remains the leading advocate of Rhee's "mystery meat" compensation system for teachers - yes, aspects of the proposal are intriguing, but why are the details being kept secret.

For example, given that only short-term funding is available for the new compensation program, a valid question is what happens when the money runs out? Does Rhee expect increased public funding? substantial corporate contributions that continue even after her program is old news? Or will it be "back to the old compensation scheme" but with no tenure? I'm not affected by the proposal and I want to know, so why cant the teachers who are being asked to get behind the proposal?

Hiatt serves up a couple of anecdotes, the first of which is a pretty typical story about Rhee, and I think it highlights why she inspires such support.
A principal recently was defending a teacher whom D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had observed in the classroom and found wanting.

"Would you put your grandchild in that class?" Rhee asked the principal.

"If that's the standard, we don't have any effective teachers in my school," the principal replied.

Recalling that comment a few days later, Rhee is still steaming. "I said, 'That is the standard,' " Rhee says, and you think: Whew, glad I'm not that principal
That story also highlights why she wants to be able to do something about D.C.'s teachers - clean house of perhaps entire schools full of underperforming teachers, and pay enough that good teachers who wouldn't otherwise consider D.C. may consider signing up.

I'm personally skeptical that good teachers can be transplanted into classrooms where the kids don't behave and don't want to learn while retaining their efficacy - achieving and maintaining classroom order, particularly in a difficult school environment, is a separate skill from being a great, inspirational teacher. But other than through high compensation, I'm not sure how else D.C. even has a shot at attracting quality teachers.

On the other hand, this anecdote about Rhee gives me pause:
Recently, she recounted at the Aspen Institute forum, a man approached her, spitting mad about her experiment to pay some middle school students for good behavior and good grades. "It is a sad day," he said, "when we are paying kids to be doing something they should be doing anyway."

"No," Rhee replied, "yesterday was a sad day, when only 8 percent of our eighth-graders were at grade level for math, and we weren't really doing anything about it."
This reminds me of the arguments I have heard for cutting music and art programs while maintaining football - despite its very high cost, it's "necessary" to have football teams because otherwise a body of marginal students would lose their principal incentive to go to school and pass tests. Now they get "paid" as well, to do what every other student is expected to do for free? While the services and amenities that make school a nicer place for diligent and well-behaved students continue to get cut? And what's the lesson? That the only way Rhee wants to throw money at you is if you're a good teacher or a crappy student?

No, really, the idea of throwing money at mediocrity isn't what bothers me. Nor is the funding of school programs for marginal or disinterested students at the expense of the diligent and gifted. Even in a school district that's supposed to be reinventing itself as an example of excellence, what else can you really expect? But dare I ask, is there any evidence that paying students does more than inspire a few more kids to show up in class, if that? Is that truly the best use of the money? And what after the money runs out or a student receives the maximum payment? Even a child can tell you that - literally.
Betts is talking about kids like Daamantae Brown, 14, a tall and lanky eighth grader. He's also a borderline C student and star athlete with a temper that can get him into trouble.

Brown is more afraid of being banned from playing football because of bad behavior or grades than missing out on the cash incentives for good academic and social performance.

Still, the boy says most students will behave as long as the money lasts.

"If the bad students, if they was acting up before this, then after it's done [the program], they're going to act the same," Brown says.
The evidence that this works? Let's ask the principal advocate of this idea, Harvard economist Roland Fryer:
"We don't have any data yet," says Fryer.
To me, "pay for performance" sounds like a gimmick. But you know, I'm willing to wait to see the data. The program is underway, so we'll have a pretty good idea of whether or not it works at the end of the school year. But here's a thought - what if it doesn't work? Will this experiment leave its subjects less motivated to show up in class when they're no longer being paid?


  1. How much "less motivated" can many of these students become?

    I have problems with the idea on general principle, but like you, I'd like to see some data . . .


  2. I recognize that we're supposed to respect the public school system as a sea of mediocrity, where the goal is to make the worst students show up in class just long enough for the school to qualify for state funds, er, I mean with just enough motivation to squeak through to graduation. But I just can't quite bring myself to do that. (I'm not actually joking about the state funds thing - although poorly devised privatization / voucher schemes seem to make things even worse - although I think Rhee's motives are more sincere.)

    I find it hard to believe that making the worst students show up in class enough times that you can justify social promotion or whatever grade constitutes "passing" will either provide those students with meaningful job skills or improve the learning environment for any other student, even if you successfully bribe them into behaving in class.

    If we're going to pretend that payment teaches kids "job skills" (i.e., show up, do your work, keep your head down, and get paid) and responsibility, and that we're at all interested in rewarding excellence, pay all students and reward excellence. (Not gonna happen.)

    Rhee's a big supporter of "No Child Left Behind", which raises questions of whether she believes that teacher competence should be measured on the basis of student performance on standardized tests, and if she recognizes the need for education that goes above and beyond what can be measured by filling in little circles on a test form. Sure, she's working in a system that's largely failing its kids, and getting to the point of basic competence may well be a huge improvement, but so far her policies seem very much in line with NCLB - the philosophy that smart kids will take care of themselves.

  3. So, we throw money at kids. Then what? Without fiscal responsibility--some of which comes with maturity--what will they do with it? And do we just pay them for showing up? Or do they have to maintain a certain GPA?

    I use make believe bank accounts as an incentive program for my kiddos (special ed, visually impaired) and so far, I haven't met a kid who didn't love the idea. But to give them real money with no further lessons--what are we teaching them?

    RE: the funding, Aaron, you're exactly right. Where I teach, some (not all) of the charter schools get the kids enrolled for Count Day and then start sending them back to the public schools. Special ed kids are usually the first ones out the door. (And please I don't want to debate charter schools...I'm not saying all of them do this, but I can name several).

    Overall, I think that this money could be better spent doing a few things--first, get more teachers and therefore smaller classrooms. My room is always small because I'm special ed and it makes a huge difference. Next, expand the curriculum to include what I call "real life classes"--balancing checkbooks, job skills, parenting skills, basic manners (I'm not kidding) and get vo-tech back into the schools. College is not and should not be for everyone. Also, early intervention services would be a great help. In four years of teaching, I have found that (not surprisingly) the homelife makes the difference in a kid. I have no idea how to improve a homelife and make people actually want to parent (instead of neglecting or just being friends with their kid), but maybe we could somehow identify problematic life situations early on and intervene then.

    I have hope that Obama will do something for education in this country. I don't know what, but...something.

  4. 1. The "smart children will take care of themselves" thing is pretty much a universal constant. TAG programs are pretty much always the first thing cut, and as we both know, teachers resent having the "smart kids" pulled out of their classes because it leaves them with less to work with . . .

    2. The purpose of our public education system is to help employers sort potential employees. School might not do much (anything?) else, but it introduces the ideas of compliance and showing up on time . . .

    3. Although I concur that teachers should do more than "teach to tests" I'm not real sure how you measure performance in a class room without relying heavily/primarily on standardized tests. (Unfortunately, I also have to acknowledge that the more weight you put on the importance of the standardized test results the more incentive the teacher has to do nothing except teach to the test . . . I give you the Detroit Public Schools.)

    4. I'm inclined to agree with Teacher Patti that a) bribery works in the class room and b) a level of removal from a pure "cash" system is a good thing.

    My concern isn't that we are giving them money without lessons in fiscal responsibility (we've done that for years through various welfare programs, look how well that's worked); it's that we are a) pretending a program will work when we have no idea if it will or not, and b) reinforcing the idea that we have to pay someone to do what they are supposed to have a responsibility to do in the first place.

    5. I also like the idea of vocational ed. and "citizenship classes" in the public schools. I'm a little iffy on how the ". . . improve a homelife and make people actually want to parent . . . " and the ". . . identify problematic life situations early on and intervene then . . . " thing would work. Does this mean that when "re-education" doesn't work we identify bad parents and take the kids away (maybe sterilizing the "under performing parents" while we are at it)? Hey I'm not knocking it, I'm just thinking it isn't likely to happen.

    Similarly, although I love the idea of citizenship classes (covering everythng from voting to basic economics through social issues like the meaning of consent and what constitutes a hostile enviornment) I see huge problems in picking the course content and tone. I'm guessing that you would be as disappointed in a course content that I approved of as I would be of one that you approved of . . .I'd sort of go for that whole "patriotism, personal responsibility, and public service if you want to vote" Star Ship Troopers model . . . : )


  5. "(maybe sterilizing the "under performing parents" while we are at it)"

    In the nicest way, I have to ask a question. Whenever people even mildly suggest anything relating to parenting, people (not just you, anonymous--you were very polite and didn't use the word Nazi like someone once did. That was interesting, esp. given that I am Jewish!) tend to jump to this idea. Why?

    I didn't hint at something like this, yet that is where the mind goes. I'm not knocking you, anonymous, I'm just saying that it is interesting how people tend to jump from "improving parenting" (through classes, education, training, whatnot) to sterilization. Perhaps I should have spelled out what I meant by intervention, so I will reiterate it now: education, training (kind of what Families First used to do...they would literally go in and teach parents how to teach to their kids to brush their teeth. I'm not making this up.). Family planning--of course not sterilization--is not a bad educational tool also.

    I agree with anonymous that citizenship classes should start early (and often :)). When I taught government, I had kids frequently say that they wish that they had learned this stuff much earlier in life.

    I also agree that it is tough to measure anything without standardized tests. I mean, what are you going to do--have every student give an oral report on a subject? Who the heck is going to spend 30 minutes x each student grading that?! And it would be subjective, of course. I guess my issue with the standardized tests is how much emphasis we put on them. In my day (late 70s, early 80s), we took the Iowa Basic Skills test. It was just that--a way to measure where we were at, and not a ton of pressure was placed on us. Now, I have kids throwing up and getting migraines from the MEAP, because they are so stressed.

  6. With standardized testing, there's also a matter of time investment, particularly as you expand the number of tests and the frequency of their administration. I will reiterate my proposal that standardized testing should occur early in the school year - a couple of weeks to brush up what was lost over the summer break, then the standardized tests, then a year of learning.

    I took standardized tests when I was in school. But we spend no time preparing or fretting. There was classroom teaching, then there was the day we took the test, then it was back to classroom teaching. The problem is not that standardized tests are administered; the problem is that in many schools "learning to do well on a test" has been substituted for actual mastery of a subject, and "teaching kids how to do well on a test" has been substituted for quality classroom instruction.

    When you take a kid who is coached into a higher score on a standardized test of "reading skills", and you hand him a book, does that actually translate into greater reading skill? Greater interest in reading? Is there evidence that increased performance on standardized tests actually translates into increased real world performance in the subjects tested? (I can coach you to take a college admissions test, or an IQ test, and probably raise your score by 10%. Does that increase your aptitude, or mean that you're 10% smarter?)

    I think one of the reasons that, when discussing family interventions, people come up with the reductio ad absurdem of sterilization is the fact that we're not willing to actually engage in meaningful interventions, and even if we did we have no real idea of how to meaningfully intervene. We're not going to invest the money and manpower into helping parents provide better homes for their kids - if that's not added to the high school curriculum in the context of one of the courses you propose, and internalized by a teenager then put into practice when the teen becomes a parent, it's not happening. It's too expensive, too intrusive, too this, too that... it's not happening.

    Interventions we do attempt, such as making parents attend "parenting classes" to train them that the don't need to use excessive physical discipline on their children, seem to have little impact - the parents typically return to the disciplinary techniques that they grew up with, that are the least amount of work, that have the most obvious immediate effect, and that make them feel better. The lesson the parents, fresh out of a CPS intervention and parenting classes, are most likely to try to impress upon their kids? My guess is, "Never, ever again tell anybody what happens inside the walls of this house."

  7. Sterilization. “Whenever people even mildly suggest anything relating to parenting, people . . .tend to jump to this idea. Why?”

    1. I can’t speak for “people” in general, but I used “sterilization” because it was the most extreme form of intervention that has been widely used in this country. I was employing hyperbole and I didn’t mean to imply that you were in favor of sterilization. Up until fairly recently (from an historical perspective) it was relatively common to sterilize certain population groups. Aaron can probably do more justice to the quote made by a famous judge in justifying the practice than I can but I believe it was along the lines of, “Three generations of pinheads is enough.”

    2. I think the knee jerk negative reaction to “intervention” comes from the fact that it is a fine line between “parenting skills” and “values and beliefs.” Aaron wouldn’t want me indoctrinating his family with my belief system and values (I can actually sense him shuddering as a I write this) any more than I’d like someone from the outside coming into my home and dictating the way my children should be raised. I know that isn’t what you are talking about. You are talking about what you view as more objective “parenting skills” but the distinction is a fine one, and no one is real eager to have themselves be judged. (My wife and I recently went through a home study for an adoption, we are pretty much straight laced middle class Americans, we were still nervous about the social worker going through the house and judging our “fitness” to parent. What would she think of the books on our shelves or the DVDs we watch . . .)

    3. The other thing that makes people nervous, and an issue that you failed entirely to address, is what is the state going to do when people either don’t cooperate with the “initial intervention” (refuse entrance) or don’t comply with the state’s wishes after the assessment of their parenting skills? (We believe in corporal punishment and we are going to practice it. We understand that you don’t agree with our religious beliefs, we’re going to teach them to our children anyway.) Will the children be removed from the home? Will the parents be criminally prosecuted? There are a “lot” of very conservative Christians where we live. A fair number of them teach their daughters that they don’t need educations because there place in God’s plan is as homemakers. Similarly, they actively discourage/forbid their daughters from pursuing higher education/college prep classes because they feel that this will only “give them ideas” or lead them astray. From my perspective, they are harming their children and the state has an interest in allowing those girls to “go as far as they can” their parent’s desires be damned. However, am I comfortable in actually seeing state social workers descend on the home and remove the children . . . On the other hand, if the interventions you propose don't have teeth, they will be ineffective.


  8. In Buck v Bell, upholding a state law permitting sterilization of the "feeble-minded", Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."