Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Frozen Assets, Flawed Thinking

I was going to let this one go, because writing about every report that came out would make me Andy Rotherham and there can be only one, but then it came up in an editorial from the Washington Business Roundtable so I thought it deserved some commentary.

The report in question is “Frozen Assets: Rethinking Teacher Contracts Could Free Billions for School Reform” by Marguerite Roza at the University of Washington, published as a part of her work with the Education Sector, whose director (Katie Haycock) was one of the keynote speakers at the winter WERA conference, which was attended by my principal.
Hey, I just played “Six Degrees of Marguerite Roza!"

Anyhow, there are some severe flaws with the report, particularly if you try to apply it to Washington schools like the Business Roundtable did. Roza’s central contention is that reform is expensive, and (quoting the report):

One potentially valuable source of funds for reform are common provisions in teacher contracts that obligate schools to spend large amounts of money on programs that lack a clear link to student achievement.
This is not excess money that could be withdrawn from the public education system with no impact on student learning, but rather money that might be spent differently and with greater effect.

So, these are areas that she’s identified as being wasted money. It’s what she’s identified that is a problem.

  1. Increases in Teacher Salaries Based on Years of Experience. In Roza’s view, having your salary increase along with your years of experience isn’t a good thing because, “while salaries for teachers typically increase throughout their careers, research suggests that teacher effectiveness in the classroom does not increase on a similar trajectory.” The proposal, then, is to take the money that would be spent on yearly pay increases and instead move it into something with more proven effectiveness.

    Think about that for a bit. In Roza’s world, the salaries of teacher would be frozen at the beginning salary for a teacher, which is about $33,000 as a national average. Is this really a good thing? Is that really something that would attract more people to the profession? Would Roza be willing to take the first step and live on $33,000 a year so that the rest of her salary through the UW can go to other things? It’s for the kids, after all. She says that we would save about $830 per child per year if the lanes were taken out of the pay scale, but at what cost?

    Some of her math is also wrong for Washington. She uses the national average of 14.56 student for every 1 teacher, but here in the Evergreen State the number is more like 19 to 1. That lowers the “savings” from $830 to $636, about 24% less. Oops.

  2. Increases in Teacher Salaries Based on Educational Credentials and Experiences. Here we’re looking at the pay bump for a Master’s degree, credits, or clock hours. They have “little measurable effects in terms of increased student learning,” and cost $174 per child per year.

    The only thing I’ll say here is that if we want teachers to be lifelong learners, then there has to be an incentive, particularly in conjunction with her first idea to freeze salaries. I won’t defend Master’s programs—I only did mine because of the pay increase—but it’s ridiculous to think that teachers will pay out of pocket for learning experiences without reason.

  3. Professional Development Days. Maybe here she’s on to something!

    Or not. Roza says that the average teacher has 5 contracted professional development days. Here in Washington we get 2. She also asserts that,

    “contracts require that professional development activities occur in discrete, set-aside full or half days, precluding districts from offering programs of ongoing support in smaller units of time.”

    .....without offering any sort of an example of language or a citation to back the claim.

    Honestly, this one feels made up whole-cloth to me. I’ve never heard of a district, ever, that can’t offer other professional development to go along with the LID or PDD days. In my own district we have those days, but they’ve also offered book studies, work on Understanding by Design, additional time to do the work necessary to go along with Professional Learning Communities, etc. Is it that different everywhere else?

  4. Number of Paid Sick and Personal Days. Here Roza says:

    Employee absenteeism is a particular concern for K-12 schools. Unlike many professional occupations, a teacher’s work can’t simply be set aside for a day if she or he is too sick to come to school, or simply wants to take the day off. Substitute teachers can be a poor substitute for the real thing.

    Here she has a citation. Trick is, the citation is for a report from 1971. If that’s the best available research on the state of substitute teaching today, then I know what I’m doing my doctorate on!

    Roza goes on to note that, if teachers took sick days in a ratio similar to other professionals, they would only take 3 days out of each 180-day school year.

    The thing that I think she’s missing is that teaching is an occupation that appeals to people who have families, especially young mothers. Quite a few of the people I teach with take 8 to 10 sick days a year, but it’s almost never for them—it’s for their own children. If you were to take that away from the people who need it you’ve then made the job far less attractive, and you’ll lose talented people because of it. Family friendly sick leave is a great thing.

    Consider, too, the number of germs your average teacher sees in a day. Watch the snot fly around my room for a day and then tell me I can’t be sick.

    And I'll also offer my own personal experience as the father of a special needs child: one of the things that keeps me in the classroom is the flexibility it offers to me to do my job as a parent.

  5. Class Size Limitations. The darling of the unions, the bane of....well, almost no one. It’s a strategy that works best in the lower grades and with high-need populations, but ask any teacher and they’ll tell you that class size makes a difference. I won’t tell you that class size alone can cancel out ineffective teaching, but I will assert that I think a manageable class size can make good teachers great and great teachers legendary.

    And for a report that’s trying to present itself as scholarly, Roza sure does go heavy on the suppositions. She points to New York City as a district with class-size reduction policies, which would give most of their teachers a good chuckle. In the end she cherry picks some research from Michigan and California, finesses it to fit her needs, and decides that class size initiatives cost $187.40 per child.

    I’d love her to figure the costs of NOT having class size caps. You’ll save dollars, but you’ll lose kids.

  6. Mandatory Use of Teacher’s Aides. Uh-oh.

    Some (teacher contracts) specify that teachers are not required to supervise students during non-academic times (such as lunch or recess), thus requiring aides to be hired for supervision during these periods. … The research suggests that money spent on teachers’ aides does not yield increased student learning.

    Marguerite, ma’am, when the hell am I supposed to have my lunch if we don’t have playground aides to cover? Is it really the best use of my time to be on potty duty or monitoring the lunchroom, or would you rather I be analyzing data and planning specific interventions for my kids? You know, the stuff that actually makes a difference towards student achievement?

    For God’s sake, talk about squeezing a nickel until the buffalo poops. This can get ridiculous in a hurry: is there evidence that having school secretaries increases student learning? Is there evidence that having a principal increases student learning? Do they really need desks to learn, or can I sell those on Ebay? This is when it’s entirely obvious that someone from academia is talking, someone who doesn’t really understand what it’s like to teach. And it gets even better when we go on to item seven and eight…

  7. Above-Average Health and Insurance Benefits
  8. Above-Average Retirement Benefits

    She refers to both as “unusually generous.” I won’t speak for the rest of the nation, but I’m paying about $300 a month out of pocket for my health insurance, and anyone who thinks that TRS3 is a generous plan isn’t on TRS3.

    (TRS3 is the retirement plan for new teachers here in the Evergreen State)

    Again, these are the sort of features that draw people to teaching and keep them in the profession, like the sick leave benefits discussed above. The problem of rising health care costs isn’t a teacher problem, it’s a national problem, and this insinuation that we should suffer along with everyone else is asinine.

    It’s the same with retirement. I accept that pension plans are going the way of the dodo, but my guaranteed pension (the defined benefit part of TRS3) will be 1% times the number of years I work, and I can’t collect the full amount until I’m 65 years old. Yay.

    Roza almost seems like she’s having a breakthrough when she says,

    Unusually generous health and retirement plans create incentives for teachers to enter and stay in the profession.

    ....but to her that’s a bad thing, because older teachers might be less effective, and they cost more anyway. Push the bastards out!

    And Marguerite, if those are incentives, what would happen if you took the incentive away?

In short, this is just another slam on the profession. Reports like this one are why I’m active in my union—unchallenged, screed like this can take root and grow, harming teachers and making the job that much more difficult.

Fight the good fight!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had set this post aside and finally got around to reading it.

I'll have to call it a draw.

You aren't thinking clearly about elimination of the lanes... the result would be a much higher starting (and ending, if no performance pay is earned) salary... maybe around $40K... who knows? My daughter is a copy editor at a decent sized newspaper. Copy editors...and most employees in the world... are paid for the job, and don't get more because they do the same job for 30 years. Certainly not annual increases like a teacher schedule. And copy editors don't make as much as beginning teachers.

Ditto for advanced degree supplements. Although the savings is minimal, it's a pot of money that could go to performance pay.

You win on all other arguments. Especially health insurance... teachers do not have better insurance plans. They pay more and get less. Retirement plans are also not that great. The matching 401K plans in the corporate world actually are better... more lucrative and portable. The benefit of portability can't be seen by younger teachers.

Sick leave is unique, but not an overwhelming cost to the district and it's a system that works. The increased risk is real. Remember though, the the ultimate goal is to make teaching a profession that attracts everybody... not just moms. We've lost a lot of the moms to the corporate world over the last generation as hiring and promotion barriers fell in the corporate world.

Thanks for the analysis! I enjoy your blog.

7:53 AM  
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5:29 AM  

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