Monthly Archives: September 2010

No leader left behind

The former president who gave us the No Testing Opportunity Left Behind Act is now lending his name to another education initiative, this one allegedly designed to improve the crop of principals heading our public schools.

Former First Lady Laura Bush unveiled the program yesterday in Dallas. The Alliance to Reform Educational Leadership, as it is being called, will receive initial funding of $1 million from AT&T. It will be the first largescale policy initiative of the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University and will involve educators, nonprofits and businesses in an effort to train half the country’s public school principals over the next 10 years.

That’s an ambitious and potentially scary prospect, given the track record of Bush’s landmark educational product as president.

Initial participants include the Dallas, Plano and Fort Worth ISDs and school districts in Denver, St. Louis and Indianapolis as well as SMU and the University of Texas at Dallas. Nonprofit collaborators include Teach for America, KIPP, New Leaders for New Schools, the Rainwater Leadership Alliance and the Council for Education Change.

Apparently, public school teachers will be eligible to participate. I certainly hope so. But, according to The Dallas Morning News, the program is to develop a fast track into principals’ offices for experienced or promising leaders – including business executives and retired military personnel – who don’t have training as educators.

In other words, let’s see if some noneducator administrators – after some classroom and onthejob training – can do what educators and the No Child Left Behind Act have been unable to do – whip struggling public schools into shape. That seems to be the theory.

I am sure there are some capable administrators out there who can make the transition to a successful and productive educational career. And, there are others who will be miserable failures, taking jobs from career educators who, I fear, will be cast aside for being perceived (unfairly) as part of the problem.

This is strictly hypothetical, but I can easily imagine a retired military officer running a tight ship at his new high school – until the first kids show up for class. One of the worst teachers I ever had during my entire formal education was a retired military officer and newspaper executive (topnotch in both professions) who was a total flop as a college journalism teacher. But, then, he didn’t have the benefit of this upcoming Bush program, did he?

Like everyone else, I will have to wait and see how this initiative plays out. Meanwhile, I will be dubious.

Longer school year? Not now.

Emerging from the fog (and house arrest) of a cold, I notice that the most recent U.S. president aspiring to be SchoolSuperintendentinChief thinks it would be a dandy idea to lengthen the school year.

Without debating the educational value (if any) of the president’s proposal, it is safe to assure the school kids of Texas they needn’t worry about sacrificing any additional summer vacation time because a longer school year isn’t going to happen here, at least not now. A longer school year shouldn’t even be considered until our state “leaders” figure out a way to adequately pay for the school year we already have. The last time legislators tackled school funding, they gave Gov. Rick Perry some transitory property tax cuts to brag about during his 2006 reelection campaign but ended up $4.5 billion a year short of paying for them.

Remedial math, unfortunately, is not a requirement for election to the Texas Legislature…or the governor’s office.

The current Texas public school year is 187 instructional days, already significantly higher than the U.S. average of 180 days. On top of that, school districts also offer summer school classes for students needing extra help or trying to get ahead.

Legislative support, however, is lessthanstellar. Texas ranks 38th among the states in the amount of money spent on perpupil instruction and 34th in average teacher pay (as of the 200809 school year), several thousand dollars below the national average. And, yes, higher teacher pay would have to be part of any effort to lengthen the school year.

But there is little need to worry about that fight now, what with the Legislature facing a revenue shortfall in January already estimated at $21 billion today and who knows how much tomorrow.

No, a longer school year is not in the foreseeable future for Texas, and no amount of presidential lecturing is going to put it there.

Public schools are…public

Public schools – the backbone of our state’s educational system – are just that, public, offering opportunities to millions of kids, regardless of family income – or lack thereof. We all know that, right?


But I get a little concerned (annoyed may be more accurate) every time someone in officialdom starts comparing the public schools – or any other component of government, for that matter – to capitalism or the corporate world. The latest example is Abilene ISD Superintendent Heath Burns, quoted today in the Abilene ReporterNews defending merit pay for teachers, despite a new study (at least the second in less than a year) showing that merit pay doesn’t work.

“I would say one of the foundations of capitalism is that the highest performers earn higher wages,” Burns said. “I think it’s unfortunate that hasn’t been a common practice in public education, and I am pleased that public education is moving in that direction.”

Burns, however, is not engaged in capitalism. He is the superintendent of the Abilene Independent School District, not Abilene ISD, Inc.

Burns does have a duty to his school board and the taxpayers to apply sound business practices to the administration of public education, practices assuring that tax dollars aren’t wasted and that taxpayers are getting the best product – welleducated kids – for their investment.

Merit pay, however, is not a sound business practice for the public schools, according to researchers.

This week, researchers at Vanderbilt University who spent three years studying a merit pay plan in the Nashville school system concluded that teacher bonuses as high as $15,000 didn’t improve math scores for their students. They determined that the teachers in the study didn’t need the lure of bigger paychecks to perform at their best.

In a similar study released last fall, researchers from Vanderbilt, Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri concluded that the meritbased Texas Educator Excellence Grant (TEEG) program had no impact on TAKS reading scores in Texas. The TEEG, which had been championed by Gov. Rick Perry, has been discontinued. But it has been replaced with another merit plan, the District Awards for Teacher Excellence (DATE), which some districts, including Abilene, are using.

Texas needs to increase teacher pay, but not through dubious “merit” plans. In a blog post yesterday, I noted that teachers are in the classroom because they want to educate kids, not because they plan to get rich. I also noted that teachers who decide they can no longer afford to teach will soon try something else.

Some even may choose to ascend the pay ladder by becoming superintendents.

No merit in merit pay

I am not sure who came up with the concept of merit pay for teachers, but I suspect it wasn’t a teacher. More than likely it was a collection of selfanointed education “experts” who haven’t set foot in a classroom – except for maybe a few photo ops – since their own graduation days. Those are the folks, including Gov. Rick Perry, who have been persistently promoting the bad idea.

As you may have read by now, merit pay was shot down (again) by a new study. This one was conducted over three years by Vanderbilt University on the Nashville school system. It reinforces a study, released last fall, dismissing as ineffective a $300 million, Perrypromoted merit plan in Texas.

The Nashville study concluded that offering teachers annual bonuses of as much as $15,000 had no effect on student test scores. It suggested that teachers already were working so hard that the promise of extra money failed to convince them to work harder or change the way they taught.

About 300 math teachers in grades 5 through 8 participated in the study, which was backed by federal funding. Half the teachers were offered bonuses for hitting targets for gains on annual test scores, and half were ineligible for bonuses. Researchers found no significant differences on class results between the two groups.

“Pay reform is often thought to be the magic bullet. That doesn’t appear to be the case here,” Matthew Springer, a Vanderbilt education professor who led the study, was quoted in the Washington Post.

In the Texas study last year, researchers from Vanderbilt, Texas A&M University and the University of Missouri concluded that the meritbased Texas Educators Excellence Grant (TEEG) program also had no impact on student achievement gains. Their findings were based on TAKS reading scores for more than 140,000 students from participating schools.

The TEEG program, which grew out of a pilot merit pay program established by Perry, was discontinued by the Legislature after the 200809 school year. Lawmakers replaced that plan with a $200 millionayear firstcousin, the District Awards for Teacher Excellence (DATE), which also is based on improved test scores, among other indicators of student achievement. The program is optional with districts.

Merit pay is based on a faulty premise, the premise that teachers are in it for the money. Teachers want and deserve decent pay, but they aren’t in the classroom to get rich. They are in the classroom because they want to educate kids. Teachers who decide they can no longer afford the profession will soon try something else, not wait around for a chance at bigger paychecks because their students had higher test scores than the kids in the classroom down the hall.

Texas needs to take steps to increase teacher retention, including more opportunities for professional development and higher pay for experienced teachers. But merit pay isn’t the answer.