A blog post from a former teacher and current impact evaluator.
I venture to say that public education is in the midst of an identity crisis. Government-provided schooling is one of the world’s oldest social institutions, yet it overwhelmingly fails to act as an institution driven by a social mission. The United States is increasingly admitting that its public schools fail to deliver the social impact necessary to equip every young person to achieve the American dream. We acknowledge that students aren’t satisfactorily proficient in reading and math and that many are not graduating from high school. But why is this happening, and how can we fix it? How can we maximize the effectiveness of our schools?
The shortcomings of public education present a classic case of flawed social impact evaluation. Schools must wrestle with how to evaluate the educational outcomes they produce. How do schools figure out who is making the greatest social impact, and how do they find more of these people (teachers) – and enable and incentivize them to maximize their impact?
The success of any public institution of education has traditionally been measured by its students’ scores on state-wide standardized tests. (*Note: The validity of this measure depends wholly on the quality of the test and its alignment with the skills and knowledge students need to succeed. I have my own opinions about the use of standardized test scores as a primary instrument of measure, but for the sake of this article’s focus on the methodolgy of impact evaluation based on education’s current metrics, I will not address these opinions here.) The standardized test scores of each student are attributed to the individual teachers who instruct these students. Thus, to maximize a school’s SROI (social return on investment, or impact achieved per dollar spent), schools focus on hiring teachers who best instruct students to perform well on these tests. So the million dollar (or insert dwindling education budget number here) question is: how do schools identify those teachers who produce high-scoring students?
Currently, hiring decisions in the majority of our nation’s public school districts are based on the reputation of a candidate’s teacher training program, the number of higher ed degrees they hold, and the number of certificates on their walls. In essence, a school measures its collective potential for effectiveness by the sum of the resumes of each teacher it hires. There are three implicit assumptions operating in this model:
- Higher ed degrees, certifications, etc. make teachers more effective and therefore causally increase student achievement (rather than having a correlative or no relationship to student achievement)
- These factors are the only factors that have the potential to affect a teacher’s impact on a child
- Teachers should be rewarded for the degree to which they possess these factors rather than the degree to which they impact student achievement
To date, an increasing interest in social impact evaluation has led to analysis of higher ed degrees, teaching program quality, and certifications as predictors of teacher effectiveness. They have shown that these assumptions are largely misguided. This begs the question: If schools are looking to maximize their impact on students, why are they hiring their front-line change agents based on criteria that DO NOT predict effectiveness?
I’ll suggest several reasons. First, it’s easy to count and compare discrete items – the number of certificates and higher ed degrees that a teacher holds, for example. Second, it would devalue existing teacher training structures to acknowledge that certification and higher ed programs do not have consistent records of producing effective teachers. Third, Teachers’ Unions are now the largest labor unions in the country, and – as it is with most professions – it is quite comforting to teacher-employees when their accrual of advanced degrees and training is guaranteed to secure them raises and promotion opportunities. In other words, a teacher is currently able to buy a career-long salary increase by completing a masters’ degree. Here’s the problem, though. Public education is not a traditional for-profit institution; it is a social enterprise. Public education’s goal is to maximize student achievement, and the current industry-wide policy that rewards teachers for activities that are not proven to help them maximize student achievement is flawed. (It is flawed even if the current system gives teachers greater control over their employment and compensation.)
In this prevailing model of impact evaluation, in which teachers are incentivized to “increase their effectiveness” (i.e., hireability) and their salaries by accumulating degrees and honors, a school functions as a series of silos connected by hallways. In this model, the school is most effective when it fills each silo with a highly “qualified” (i.e. decorated), teacher. The school then provides each individual teacher with additional advancement resources and urges them to continue maximizing their individual efforts within their own silos.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published an article that discusses the shortcomings of this contemporary ideology surrounding educational impact evaluation. I agree wholeheartedly with the paradigm shift it advocates.
A short digest of the article: the SSIR claims that the current prevailing measurement of teacher effectiveness focuses too much on the merits and undertakings of individual teachers. What it does not take into consideration (and what must be acknowledged) is that teachers become more effective by doing something free, practical, but often discouraged: collaborating, sharing ideas, and learning from each other. Thus, the most cost-efficient way for a school to improve its students’ educational outcomes is not to enroll its teachers in online masters programs or hire the most decorated teachers but instead to build structures within the school itself that promote collaborative work – and to hire open, receptive teamplayers.
The moral of the story is: what we incentivize determines what we will get. Teachers with master degrees earn higher base salaries than those without. Financial incentives exist for National Board Certified Teachers, despite the fact that data regarding NBCT certification’s correlation with student achievement is mixed (Yay; Nay). Schools should incentivize factors that are proven to lead to student achievement. Data largely shows that schools do not.
But wait, hold up! Creating a system that predicts and incentivizes effectiveness based on un-quantifiable criteria like the SSIR suggests (teamwork abilities, willingness to learn from others, etc.) becomes messy. But if these factors lead to increased student achievement, two reforms can be made. First, principals can create an infrastructure within their schools to facilitate collaboration and break down the classrooms’ silo walls. Second, education can begin to acknowledge what it really is – a social enteprise – and compensate its teachers based solely on the impact they make rather than any factors that may or may not help them achieve it. After all, would you give a raise to a web programmer who has a master’s degree in computer programming but after 3 months has failed to launch an effective site? More importantly, would you even keep this decorated programmer on staff?
This is where the concept of pay for performance comes in. (*Note: I am not making a political argument here. I am making a logical one. Please continue reading even if you don’t support P4P.) Pay for performance initiatives are largely based on the idea of rewarding teachers for the degree of impact they make rather than for meeting quantifiable criteria that maintain no proven relationship to this impact. These systems, such as the pay for performance plan launching in the district in which I taught last year, do not differentiate pay for those with or without higher ed degrees. Instead they financially reward teachers for their impact on students. Pay for performance is a system that incentivizes teacher to maximize their effectiveness, period, by doing whatever it takes to achieve maximum student test scores.
Am I starting to sound like a social entrepreneur here?
I believe that a fascinating mentality shift will occur when a school remembers that it is a social enterprise. The shift in operating paradigm that occurs when schools begin focusing on maximizing impact rather than individual teacher merits is the transformation of the silo-classroom into the classroom-without-walls. Under the old model of compensation, teachers operated in a world where they were incentivized for their individual achievements, many of which had little bearing on their direct impact on students. When teachers are incentivized purely for the impact they make, regardless of how they made it, it becomes safe for them to open their classroom doors and do exactly what the SSIR suggests. When teachers share responsibilities, ideas, priorities, strategies, and knowledge, everyone benefits. Educational social change agents can collaborate with their colleagues to focus on what makes students learn better. They won’t feel the pressure to rush home to complete an online masters’ course because the school district has deemed this a more monetarily valuable use of their time.
We could throw out a social enterprise buzz word here to describe what happens when teachers work together: SYNERGY. A proof point for you: The teacher with the highest state test scores (i.e., impact) at the school where I taught last year was a member of the most active and collaborative professional learning community. (He was also a first year teacher, fresh out of college. No advanced degree, fancy that!)
Social enterprises measure their impacts based on the results of their efforts rather than the characteristics of those who work within its structure. Whereas a real estate firm might benefit from a portfolio of advanced degree holding staff, a school does not. Education must to remember that it is a social institution – one of the world’s oldest – and start acting like it. Public schools will not succeed in maximizing student achievement so long as they continue to incentivize its most important assets – its teachers – to pursue the wrong things.