Spotlight on teachers

With Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett putting “identify and reward great teachers and principals” at the top of their education reform agenda, it’s a good time to share some of what’s being said and written about the subject of teacher quality.

The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, working in partnership with the New York-based Hechinger Report, is wrapping up a multi-part series titled “Building a Better Teacher.” Every Sunday since early November, the paper has included a story on the challenges to training, identifying and rewarding great teachers.

Topics have included teacher evaluations, merit pay, steering better teachers to high-need schools, teacher education, the role of unions and the importance of principals. The stories tend to focus on Wisconsin schools and issues. But they’re well reported and clearly written – a good overview of the questions that the Indiana Legislature will be considering.

Part Two, titled “Grading Teachers is No Easy Assignment,” and Part Three, “School Districts Evaluate Merits of Merit Pay,” report on the nationwide push to measure teacher effectiveness and use the results to determine how teachers should be evaluated, paid and retained in their jobs.

What does the public think?

According to an Associated Press-Stanford University poll reported this month, Americans think teachers should be paid more but that it should be easier to fire bad teachers.

The poll found that 78 percent of respondents think principals should be able to fire teachers whose performance isn’t up to snuff. At the same time, 57 percent think teachers are paid too little and only 7 percent think they are paid too much.

Only 35 percent said the number of bad teachers is a serious problem in American schools; and just 45 percent blamed teachers’ unions for the problem. Higher percentages were critical of parents and federal, state and local education officials.

A commission on teacher quality

The nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, announced recently that it will establish an independent panel on teacher quality, called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

The commission will include 21 accomplished teachers, who will be supported by researchers, policy experts and academics, the NEA said. Their goal will be to “craft a new teacher-centered vision of teaching and the teaching profession.”

The commissioners will meet four to six times over the next year and hold public meetings to gather input on the topics they’re considering, according to the NEA.

School improvement the Finnish way

Hechinger Report has a Q-and-A with Pasi Sahlberg, an official with the Ministry of Education of Finland, which was once again among the top-scoring nations on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Here’s what Sahlberg says about using “value-added” data from test scores to evaluate teachers: “It’s very difficult to use this data to say anything about the effectiveness of teachers. If you tried to do this in my country, Finnish teachers would probably go on strike and wouldn’t return until this crazy idea went away.”

Daniels and Bennett have said they want student achievement – measured by improvement in test scores – to count for at least half of the annual evaluation of Indiana teachers.

More Open Door Law problems for MCCSC board

Did the Monroe County Community School Corp. board violate with the Indiana Open Door Law by discussing a leadership team proposal in a Dec. 7 executive session?

Both the state public access counselor and the school board’s own attorney, writing in response to a complaint from Support Our Schools organizer Eric Knox, seem to have said that such a discussion is not allowed. Yet the board apparently not only discussed the proposal but decided to reject it and to come up with an alternative in the closed-door meeting.

And that’s why the board will be having yet another executive session on Tuesday, its sixth in the past month – this one to discuss strategy with respect to a threatened lawsuit over violation of the Open Door Law.

To recap, the proposal made in November by the MCCSC’s instructional leadership team called for having the 25-member team, made up of school principals and the directors of elementary and secondary education, serve as interim leader while the board seeks a replacement for Superintendent J.T. Coopman, who is retiring.

After getting feedback from the school board, the instructional leadership team revised its proposal, suggesting that a three-person executive serve as interim leader with support from the other 22 team members.

The school board never discussed the revised proposal in public. But board president Jeannine Butler told the team on Dec. 14 that the board declined the offer. Instead, it appointed retired school administrator Tim Hyland to serve as MCCSC interim superintendent, a position he previously held in 2008-09. Butler said the board would establish a committee of four principals to advise him.

Questioned about the decision, Butler said she believed the board had decided to reject the leadership team proposal during the executive session on Dec. 7. Continue reading

What happens when parents pull the trigger for a charter school conversion?

A little-noticed provision in the education reform agenda of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett is for a “parent trigger” law that would allow the state to “turn around” a failing school if 51 percent of parents request the change.

The idea is modeled on a California law that took effect in January. That law is having its first test this month in Compton, and tempers are flaring, according to coverage in the Los Angeles Times.

A group called Parent Revolution conducted a petition drive to convert Compton’s McKinley Elementary School to a charter school. Last week, it turned in signatures said to represent 62 percent of the school’s parents.

Now the California Board of Education is asking the state attorney general to investigate allegations of deceit and intimidation in connection with the effort – one parent, for example, said she thought she was signing a petition calling for beautification of the school.

Parent Revolution is fighting back. Its website blames the controversy on “lies and a misinformation campaign” by McKinley staff determined to prevent change.

According to the Times, McKinley’s test scores have improved by 77 points in the past two years, but it remains in the lowest 10 percent of California schools by student performance.

The parent trigger idea seems to envision grass-roots efforts in which parents rise up and take over their children’s failing schools. But Parent Revolution is a spin-off of the nonprofit Green Dot charter schools, which have been pledged $20 million from billionaires Bill Gates and Eli Broad, according to a favorable profile of Green Dot founder Steve Barr in Scholastic Administrator.

Wall Street Journal columnist David Feith says Indiana is one of five states where lawmakers plan to introduce parent trigger legislation in the next six months.

Why making adequate yearly progress can be a big deal

The Bloomington Herald-Times asked this question in a recent editorial: “With a vast majority of the state’s school corporations able to make AYP year after year — 94 percent made it this year — how is it that Monroe County’s public school systems aren’t?”

One part of the answer is that it’s a lot harder for large, diverse school corporations to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) under the No Child Left Behind Act than for small, homogenous school districts. Why? Because bigger and more diverse corporations have more opportunities to fail.

And compared to most Indiana school districts, the Monroe County Community School Corp. is big and diverse. It ranks No. 21 in enrollment among nearly 300 public school districts in the state.

Monroe County’s other public school district, Richland-Bean Blossom, did in fact make AYP year after year, for five years in a row, before missing it this year. The MCCSC made AYP this year after failing to do so for two previous years.

School corporations, in order to make AYP, must do two things: 1) meet required standards on state standardized tests for all students, or “overall AYP”; and 2) meet testing standards in at least one grade span – elementary, middle or high school – for each subgroup of students, such as special-needs students, minorities and those from low-income families.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading

More news on Daniels-Bennett education agenda

Thanks to Niki Kelly, Statehouse reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, for a clear and comprehensive story about the education reform proposals that Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett put forward last week.

Kelly focuses on the most potentially controversial elements in the Daniels-Bennett agenda: 1) publicly funded vouchers to pay for students to attend private schools; 2) changes in the way teachers are evaluated; and 3) financial incentives for students to finish high school early.

Bennett and Daniels provided details about their proposals for the 2011 legislative session Wednesday to the Indiana Education Roundtable. You can watch a video of Bennett’s presentation, view PowerPoint slides, and read the Department of Education news release and summary of the proposals.

The agenda includes:

— “Identify and reward great teachers and principals” – merit pay, an end to seniority-based teacher tenure, restrictions on union contacts, etc.
— “Real accountability and flexibility” – more aggressive state action and fewer union restrictions on low-performing schools.
— “High quality options for families” – more charter schools, state funding for students to attend private schools, scholarships for early high-school graduation.

The Education Roundtable (local members: Indiana University President Michael McRobbie and elementary teacher/Republican activist Danny Shields) endorsed two elements of the agenda: new teacher evaluations and early graduation. Continue reading

Report asks: Can attracting ‘talented’ teachers transform schools?

A recent report by the research and consulting firm McKinsey and Co. examines what it would take to induce more talented young people in the United States to become teachers.

The report, titled “Closing the Talent Gap,” makes a nice complement to most of the debate taking place on teaching quality – which focuses on how to improve the performance of those already in the profession, typically with merit pay and making it easier to fire “bad” teachers.

Newspaper columnist Andrea Neal of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation wrote about McKinsey’s international education research in a recent column. But it’s better to read the report, not Neal’s selective and slanted account.

“Closing the Talent Gap” looks at the K-12 teaching profession in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, three of the countries that do best on international comparisons of student performance. It describes how those countries draw their elementary and secondary teachers almost entirely from the top third of college-bound students. Admission to teacher preparation programs is highly selective, with only the best students getting in.

The report says that the U.S., on the other hand, disproportionately draws teachers from the bottom third of college graduates. (Note that’s the bottom third of college graduates. Neal, in her column, contrasts this with Finland, Singapore and South Korea, which draw teachers from the top 5-30 percent of high school graduates, as if it were an apples-to-apples comparison.)

The McKinsey report asks what it would take for the U.S. to implement a similar approach. While conceding that the research is mixed on whether academically “talented” college graduates make the best teachers, it concludes that experimenting with the approach would be worthwhile.

One obvious issue is money. Based on interviews with U.S. students, McKinsey concludes we could significantly improve the percentage of “top third” college graduates willing to become teachers and teach in high-need schools – if we improved starting salaries to $65,000 and maximum pay to $155,000.

Another striking factor in the report is the high social status and cultural respect accorded to teachers in countries with the highest performing students, but not in the U.S. High status is reflected by high salaries in Singapore and South Korea, but not in Finland, the report says.

McKinsey doesn’t provide a lot of support for people who think that merit pay based on student test scores will attract more talented people to the profession. Singapore does pay teachers large bonuses based on performance as judged by rigorous and broad-based evaluations. In South Korea, bonuses don’t vary much by teacher performance. In Finland, there isn’t merit pay, and “anybody who suggested it would be laughed at or hanged,” the report quotes an education official as saying.

But in the U.S., where professional status is so closely tied to money, it’s hard to imagine attracting more top college students to teaching without changing the pay structure.

The report says that teacher pay has stayed relatively flat in the U.S. while compensation for some other professions has exploded. It says that, in 1970, the difference between starting pay for a teacher and a lawyer at a top firm in New York City was only $2,000. Now the difference is $115,000.

‘Focused search’ likely for MCCSC superintendent

Look for the Monroe County Community School Corp. board to conduct a quick, focused search for a new superintendent to succeed J.T. Coopman, who is retiring Dec. 31.

Ron Barnes, a search consultant and retired Indiana University professor who is advising the board, suggested a focused search at a school board work session Wednesday. And board members clearly favored the idea.

Barnes said it might be possible to name a superintendent by February or March, with the idea that he or she would transition into the job by summer. “I would say ready, fire, aim – get it going,” he said.

Under the scenario he laid out, the school board would appoint a committee of six or so members to advise it on the search. Barnes said the panel might include IU School of Education faculty, business and civic leaders, and volunteers who helped lead a recent school funding referendum campaign.

Committee members would use their networks of contacts to identify, contact and recruit prospects. The board would screen them and conduct initial interviews. Although the job has turned over frequently in recent years, Barnes said it should attract good candidates.

“We’re bringing in leadership to a school corporation where great teachers are doing their job every day and great administrators are doing their job every day,” he said.

Focus groups and possibly a public meeting could provide input on what qualities the next superintendent should possess. When three or so finalists are chosen, the board could make their names public and have them speak at public forums, as it did when it hired Coopman in 2008.

Barnes said it’s likely to take a compensation package of $200,000 a year or more to lure a leader with the experience and ability needed. “I’ve lived in this community for 16 years now, and this job can’t have training wheels on it,” he said.

He said the board may save about $40,000 by doing a focused search by itself with help from a citizen committee, rather than hiring a consulting firm to do a nationwide search.