False Claims and Old Ideas

Speaker of the House Jeff Hickman says he would like to have a new conversation relative to addressing the teacher shortage in Oklahoma.

Yet, almost with the same breath, Hickman goes on the record yesterday in an OpEd for the Oklahoman, employing the same tired talking points that have been circulating among conservative think tanks for the past thirty years.

Instead of “facts and new ideas,” Speaker Hickman dished up a heavy dose of false claims and old ideas.

He claims to have the facts and evidence to support his position while dismissing as hollow and meritless the claims of those in education.

My friends Rick Cobb and Claudia Swisher have already posted excellent responses to the Speaker’s fallacious diatribe HERE and HERE.

As part of his “facts,” the speaker asserts the following:

Between 1992 and 2013, enrollment in Oklahoma schools increased by 14 percent while the number of teachers increased by 11 percent. Administrative and nonteaching staff increased by more than 33 percent. If nonteaching staff had increased at only the same rate as enrollment, Oklahoma schools would have nearly $300 million more available annually to pay teachers higher salaries.

Wow, that sounds pretty damning. Yet, as with most statistics, context is always important. Unfortunately, the Speaker fails to cite his source for this claim, knowing that lacking this information makes it is difficult for anyone to refute the statement.

I am sure the Speaker read this story somewhere and believes it to be true. However, I doubt that he has taken the time himself to thoroughly analyze the research behind this reported finding. He is a busy guy.

It has numbers in it and we all know numbers don’t lie, right?

Actually, numbers like these do lie, or can at least be greatly misleading. This is especially true when we are given percentages without access to the sample size of the various groups.

A change from one to two is a 100% change while a change from 10 to 11 is only a 10% change. Yet, both represent a change of one to their respective sample size. This is why we should never accept a percentage growth or decline on face value. It is a meaningless number without further investigation.

We do know that “non-teaching” staff represent much more than administrators. One example that would be relevant is instructional technology staff. Do you think that districts have added a few IT folks to their rolls since 1992? The Speaker ostensibly considers these folks to be extraneous admin staff.

As Claudia also mentioned, many schools have also added teacher assistants to address large class sizes because: (1) they are less expensive than hiring teachers, and (2) because we cannot find certified teachers for many of these positions.

The bottom line is that if the Speaker wants to use this claim as the central support for his argument, he should provide his source for us to examine.

Then the speaker resurrects a favorite proposal of the reform crowd: merit pay!

Rather than maintaining the century-old method of paying for paper credentials and experience, we must move toward a teacher compensation model that rewards excellence, incentivizing outstanding teachers to stay longer. We need to eliminate the minimum salary schedule from our statutes and let school districts compete for teachers. Like a free agent in the NBA, a talented teacher with a track record of success will naturally earn more in an open market.

As we know, in politics words often mean the opposite of what they say. If an education reformer or politician says we need to do more to “protect excellent teachers,” they are actually saying “Let’s get rid of tenure and other teacher protections so that any teacher can be fired at any time.” It’s just good, old-fashioned doublespeak!

First, let’s address the NBA analogy. It is a specious comparison. An NBA team is a corporate-run franchise operated to make a profit. If the franchise needs to make more money, they can go out and raise ticket prices, charge $8 for a bottle of coke or a hotdog, and sell merchandising and sponsorship rights.

Schools have no comparable mechanism for increasing funding for teachers outside of the state budgeting process. We cannot charge students and parents an attendance fee or raise the price of our school lunches to ten bucks.

NBA teams can also pay the bulk of their money to their superstars (and do). The problem is that if you do this, there is less money available to pay your supporting cast (case in point–Lebron’s Cleveland Cavaliers). If you don’t pay them enough, the secondary players become free agents and leave.

The question is do we really want our public schools competing for teachers by encouraging an “arms race” with winners and losers?

School district A might decide to pay its teachers $50,000 yet have average class sizes of 50 students. District B might only pay $35,000 in order to hire more teachers to keep class sizes manageable for the benefit of students.

Do we really want to incentivize the behavior of district A?

Moreover, Speaker Hickman’s proposal displays an ignorance of how school budgeting actually works. What happens if a district follows the Speaker’s advice and increases their permanent pay scale for its teachers, and then is faced with a reduction in state aid the next year?

The answer is they would be forced to cut teachers and increase class sizes because they have budgeted for future expenses based on moving and often unreliable fiscal targets. In our state, this would be suicide for a school district.

I am all in favor of scouring the current state education budget—to include district budgets—to ensure classrooms are getting as much of the available funding as possible. At the same time, I think it is clear that public schools need new money, not just a re-stirring of money already in the pot.

Contrary to what Hickman and others might tell you, superintendents and school boards don’t have mason jars filled with money buried in the front yard, like Cousin Eddie in “Vegas Vacation.”

So, if we are serious about raising pay for our educators, it really is a straightforward process. Fellow education blogger Peter Greene has a simple, two-step process that I like:

1) Gather up more money
2) Give it to teachers

As Peter says, the problem with this plan is step one. One thing that Speaker Hickman and many of our legislators seem to agree on is that public schools should cost less. So how are we going to pay teachers more and make schools cost less?

When Hickman says he wants districts to pay teachers more out of existing money and establish a performance based pay system for teachers, what he is really saying is he wants to get rid of traditional salary schedules and step increases for experience in order to create a funding pool for bonus pay. This “excess money” will then be used to reward those teachers we deem “highly effective.”

Greene states that the two-step process then becomes:

1) Gather up money that used to be for step increases or longevity
2) Let teachers fight over it

So much for teacher collaboration and collegiality. When my paycheck is directly tied to my students beating your students on state testing, teaching becomes competition. We also compete for the best students and fight to ensure that “those lower kids” get assigned to someone else.

This is why the battle over TLE quantitative measures and value-added models is so important. Not only has national research shown these models to be inaccurate and inconsistent, the use of these measures— especially when tied to increased compensation—can destroy collaborative culture and promote unhealthy competition within schools.

Let’s move to this obvious question: How would we determine who are the highly effective teachers worthy of performance pay?

Of course, we would use the data derived from our wonderful Teacher and Leader Effectiveness (TLE) model, to include the quantitative portion calculated from student test scores. In other words, Hickman and others would likely propose paying more to teachers whose students get good test scores.

Of course, we know a student only scores low on a test because he or she had an ineffective teacher. It cannot possibly be any of those other “excuses” like dysfunctional homes, poverty, lack of food, limited school resources, high staff turnover, administrative changes, high mobility, or poor student attitude. Don’t be silly!

As Greene states in another one of his blogs:

  • Low-income students will always be taught by ineffective low-performing teachers.
  • If you define “bad teacher” as “whoever is standing in front of these low-testing students,” it doesn’t matter who stands there. Whoever it is, he’s ineffective.

As a result, if you are lucky to be teacher with a good class, you might get a bonus. Teach a lousy class, you will get squat. For those 70% of teachers who teach subjects that are not tested, too bad for you. What if a school or district has many teachers rated highly effective or superior? According to the reformers that’s just not possible.

The end result of performance-based schemes like Hickman’s will be that teachers will be forced to fight for their piece of the pie. If experience is any guide, the Oklahoma education pie will not getting bigger anytime soon. Therefore, as the Speaker says, the plan is simply to reapportion existing resources.

As I have written before, the idea of merit or performance pay is a zombie idea.

It is one of those ideas that has been around for decades and you think is long since dead and buried. And yet, every few years, the concept claws its way through the soft earth, ready to wreak havoc once again.

The concept of merit pay to reward exemplary performance seems to make sense. Hardly a day goes by without another politician or businessman calling for merit or performance pay to incentivize those lazy teachers to produce higher scores. However, there are many reasons to oppose merit pay.

  1. It doesn’t work. It failed just in the past few years in Nashville, where the bonus for higher scores was $15,000. It failed in New York City, it failed in Chicago. A New York City program that distributed $56 million in performance bonuses to teachers and other school staff members for three years was permanently discontinued in 2011. According to the city’s Department of Education, “The decision was made in light of a study that found the bonuses had no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes toward their jobs.”  
  2. It has never worked. It has been tried and failed repeatedly for nearly 100 years. The Obama administration put nearly $1 billion into merit pay, without a shred of evidence that it would make a difference.  Please, Speaker Hickman, show us your evidence that this is working anywhere.
  3. Modern social science says that it will never work. In reality, when you pay people a bonus to do what they want to do you actually decrease their motivation.  There is a huge accumulation of knowledge and experience about the uselessness of merit pay or pay for performance. Daniel Pink (Drive), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), and Edward Deci (Why We Do What We Do) have explained why intrinsic motivation matters more than bonuses, and why bonuses may actually impair performance by demoralizing people.

As W. Edwards Deming, a leading management expert and critic of merit pay, once put: The only reason an organization has dead wood is that management either hired dead wood or it hired live wood and killed it. Merit pay, by dividing and demoralizing employees, is a good way to erode initiative and overall quality.  

Consider this:

Can you imagine offering a dentist a bonus if she does her absolute best on your oral surgery?

How about offering your airline pilot a bonus for landing safely?

How about offering a newspaper editor a bonus for writing a really good article?

Merit pay is an idea from the 20th century that does not fit the context of public education or many other occupations for that matter. Teachers and schools do not create widgets, or Honda Accords, or McDonald’s cheeseburgers, or anything else one could say is standardized. Teachers who work in different schools, in different districts, in different communities, and with different students cannot and should not be compared with each other.

Here is a fact: schools have a finite amount of money in their budgets.

In a time of fiscal austerity, any money appropriated for merit pay is money that could be spent on reducing class size, preserving libraries or school nurses, or maintaining arts programs or other school-based services. This proposal would lead districts to lay off some teachers so that other teachers get bonuses. That will lead to larger classes for the remaining teachers.

I suppose this helps the teacher shortage by eliminating teaching positions but I’m not sure this is the direction we want to go.

Candidly, I believe Speaker Hickman’s true intent behind his opinion piece was to launch a preemptive strike.

He has no interest in addressing this teacher compensation issue because he honestly believes that public schools are inefficient, bloated bureaucracies which need to be starved. We already know there will be no new revenue streams and that tax cuts will continue no matter how bad the fiscal situation becomes. This is simply his attempt to sway public opinion to his side. The sad part is that it might just work.

The writing on the wall seems to be pretty clear to me. The speaker believes schools already have enough money to take care of their teachers and are just being poor stewards.

At any rate, public education will not be getting any additional revenue on Hickman’s watch. Sadly, this is also a fact.

He could have just said so.

Dear Teacher . . .She Loves Her Pontiac Aztek!
Recent posts