Sunday, May 20, 2012

Merit-Based Teacher Retention Worth Exploring, Probably Not a Neoconservative Plot

The scene on Tueday was just exactly as described in the P-G and at EPR.

And like any other protest. Sure, this gang had the pavilion and the stage at Schenley Plaza, but they also had a bullhorn and a chanting, fired up, diverse crowd of about a hundred. Eleven speakers from various organizations and communities delivered remarks.

"We love great teaching, don't we?" asked Carey Harris, director of the nonprofit advocacy group A+ Schools. Warming up the crowd.

"Are these teachers worth fighting for?" she asked -- and then received.

The teachers being cheered on are those newer city school employees who have seemingly demonstrated great and/or broad merit, by some evaluative methodology. In the event of teacher layoffs -- of which there shall certainly be some, soon -- under the current contract between Pittsburgh Public Schools and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers 400, only the most senior of employees will have a chance to stay on.

Many "Keep Pittsburgh's Best Teachers" rally speakers agreed that seniority was a very, very important factor indeed in employment considerations.

Most argued to the effect that winning state budget cuts back from the sadly misguided Gov. Tom Corbett, his austerity-mad Republicans, and their packs of giant spiders is also of acute importance.

All assembled however were passionately adamant that in the present moment, seniority itself ought not stand alone. And begged the stakeholders to consider merit.


Esther Bush from the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. Rev. Dr. William H. Curtis of Mt. Ararat. Lutual Love of the Anti-Bullying committee and Bully Police USA. Wanda Henderson, the AAASPS. Hey, is that Sala from CORO in the front row?

Wow, there are a lot of African Americans here! A little more than half, probably!

Meanwhile, over at the intense schools blog:

Is this a African-American movement issuing a decree to our schook [sic] system. How many African-American adults will be furloughed? (PURE Reform, Questioner)

Slow down, Jack. "Issuing a decree" is an awfully loaded term, good for using when one is suddenly and embarrassingly on the defensive about something. But it only stands to reason. This is Pittsburgh Public Schools. Who else in the flibbertigibbit would you expect to be passionately alarmed about our urban public schools system? Cultural minorities are not enrolling at Oakland Catholic or The Ellis School in any great numbers. They're in the majority in the public School District. It can be difficult for some White residents to apprehend this, as their public school youngsters are hardly fed in to some of the majority Black schools at all.

One can see how there is an anxiety about who the District can manage to "put in front of their children" at these schools, at any schools. Many desire informed decisions to be made to retain the best of the best teaching personnel on an ongoing basis, while continuing to weight seniority heavily.

The message was clear, because it was obvious.

"We have an evaluation system we can use. It was developed by administration and teachers. These tools are being used. [It is in the present] collective bargaining agreement."

A repeated coup de gras. A major component of the evaluation framework -- called "RISE" -- has for the last couple years thanks to the last round of union negotiations been used to determine merit pay. Why not some merit retentions?

The speakers were relentless.

"80% say RISE is fair."

"Extremely impressive, brave, collaborative efforts of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Everyone wants to elevate what we're doing in Pittsburgh."

"We're just putting our heads in the sand."

"I believe this is a fight for a reason."

That last, from a child, ominously. Uh oh.


"Unions are very sensitive to public opinion," former City Council member et al Sala Udin explained to the Comet afterwords. "They want to be seen as an effective institution for public education."

But isn't this union-busting? A ill-faith distraction from Gov. Corbett's proposed cuts? A stalking horse for privatization -- vouchers and charters?

"I think that is a danger that has been represented largely by the unions," replied Udin. "They see every threat as a 'break the union' threat. There are many people here who support the union including myself."

At the rally, Bush was especially complimentary of teachers' unions and the PFT's "contributions to equality."

Nonetheless, she was ruthless on the need to "put kids first."

Harris offered more recently in an e-mail to the Comet:

The PFT holds all of the cards in this situation, so I think they are in a good position to scope out a solution that is fair to their members while also putting their best teachers in front of our students. We’ve just posted ... a few examples of potential solutions we hope they will consider:

According to another source, the union wasn't even coming to the table as of Wednesday. Of course that was before their internal elections. Congratulations to Nina Esposito-Visgitis et al.


My friends, in the immediate shadow of Pittsburgh Westinghouse, Pittsburgh Obama featuring half of the Schenley Spartans by way of Bakery Square 2.0, and University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, fighting merit retention dismissively and on modestly trumped-up ideological grounds is bad for labor, bad for Pittsburgh, and probably bad for the students. The PFT should at least want to experiment with retaining "great" teachers, even if it has not become a perfect science.

Those newbie teachers are in the union too. A little solidarity for attempted rock stardom is in order.

So how about only the top "ranked" 5% of teachers -- the truly and frighteningly exquisite -- get to remain on board despite furloughs and despite seniority, until further notice?

Something along those lines? Something.

We are collecting so much data -- subjective and otherwise. It cannot all be completely worthless.

Hopefully, the foundations, parents and community members (White, African-American and other) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will persuade public school teachers to seek out something they can work with, declare a victory, and then bring to the old negotiating table for ratification.

On the flip side of that coin, it would be exquisite for example if those community activists could in turn be persuaded that state vouchers and subsidized privatization erode support for public education -- and be persuaded to be outspoken in that regard in the general direction of Philadelphia. Though that's asking a lot of some of them.


In the meanwhile, what exact data do we have?

Oy vey. There's no denying it: it's a jumble.

There are three components to the current ideal conceptual framework: the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation (RISE) Value-Added Measurements (or VAMs) and strategically designed student surveys.

RISE, which we are already using for merit pay, consists of rankings in 24 components (pdf) such as "demonstrated knowledge of content and pedagogy," "creating a learning environment of respect and rapport," "organizing physical space", "communicating with students, "engaging students in learning," "demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness," "implementing lessons equitably", "communicating with families", "showing professionalism."

It scores these in descending order as distinguished, proficient, basic or unsatisfactory.

There are guidelines for these in each component. The guidelines are pleasantly, clearly and surprisingly binary -- at least in concept.

But a cause for hesitation among teachers is the possible intrusion of subjectivity by the evaluators. Another is capriciousness. Finally there is plain old budget-driven over-zealousness to weed out anybody who has become expensive.

Another blog post has sprung up over there, based around:

Breaking the Silence is the first empirical report of the actual experiences of abused teachers; that is, what constitutes principal mistreatment and its impact on teachers and their work. (Chicago Union Teacher, May 2003 ) Blase and Blase sound the alarm on principals’ mistreatment of teachers, and begin the important work of finding constructive solutions. (PURE Reform, Anonymous Comenter)

There is an administrative practiced called, "focusing," which the District and its partners can employ on teachers who are deemed to need some extra attention. Or any attention, it would be expensive to focus on everybody at once. Nonetheless, the bullied teachers phenomenon is probably an issue worthy of due consideration.

I would be more worried about the fact of who is making those decisions, and how.

This gets us over to "the Teaching Institute" at Brasher and King, the Clinical Resident Instructors or CRI's and the almighty IQA-C (pdf, or document library).

And remember -- this is all just RISE. One component of the triad. There are also the Value Added Measures (spoiler: infinite loop) and the Tripod student survey. Though these are not presently baked into the collective bargain, may not actually be out of the oven quite yet, and we may be encountering a dearth of yeast.

How much is this all costing, anyway? Costing everyone?

Investigations continue.

Can aspects of the different evaluation methods still be combined roughly as originally envisaged? Would that even be cost-effective for the District and the philanthropic community anymore? Can something sufficiently vetted be implemented in time for the state budget cuts, even if all goes well with the union? What if in the age of merit retention, a sterling veteran teacher gets dealt a bad hand one year during a "crucial" year and misses the cutoff? Do we have enough semesters and years of RISE data to make high-value decisions?

What happens if we flatly refuse to explore merit? What happens next?

Finally, is there anything besides the Promise and teacher development we should be investing in? Healthy breakfasts? Humane starting times? Freeing up teachers to teach in other ways?


  1. While I like the idea of a merit-based system in the future, 400 jobs is too many to put on an unproven system.
    In any occupation there are people who should lose their jobs but know how to work the system, and people who do more than their share and get little or no credit. What guarantees are there that no good teachers will lose their job due to problems with the ratings system, people doing the rating, etc.?
    As there are no guarantees, then how many good teachers are acceptable collateral damage? Can we live with one or two, or is twenty acceptable to get rid of the 100 worst teachers?

    Also, future employers won't bat an eye at a resume that reads "furloughed by seniority". If you use a merit system, no mater how you angle it, it will be perceived by many as "canned for being a bad teacher."
    While the city ultimately needs to be able to get rid of the worst performers, 400 jobs is too many to risk mistakes at the altar of Good Intentions.

  2. Anon 2:04 - By all accounts, we won't be sacrificing or risking all 300-400 positions to good intentions. Seniority will ALWAYS COUNT. HEAVILY. Is there a slippery slope argument being made that I am not aware of yet?

    "Also, future employers won't bat an eye at a resume that reads 'furloughed by seniority'. If you use a merit system, no mater how you angle it, it will be perceived by many as "canned for being a bad teacher."

    Now that is an interesting point. It does seem relatively alien from what is probably students' direct stake in the game ... but whatever.

    Hey, we should be asking the student councils to sit in at the bargaining table sometimes! A civics exhibition. In addition to the idea of rewarding and failing teachers (hoho, the tables have turned!) there will probably also be a demands for art supplies, percussive instruments and ever-increasing access to the Net.

  3. To eliminate seniority will lead to subjective decisions by principals or administrators. A+ Schools alludes to other " objective" measures for teacher effectiveness. What are they? Are they public? Have all teachers been rated? Does the community and parents have access to this information?
    Layoffs is not the way to deal with poor teachers. They should be fired. The administration has the power to hire and fire.
    Seniority is objective, if you think teachers with more years of service are not effective, offer to buy out their seniority like was done with the "mellow" bill 20 years ago.
    If you want to get rid of " old" teachers, buy them out. They are paid higher salaries and can help ease the real funding problem (i.e. money for wars and prisons, but not for schools).
    Eliminating seniority will not solve the education problem. Most charter schools that do not have unions and seniority have the same education problem.
    The real hidden agenda, shared by both democrats and republicans is an attempt to weaken the unions and collective bargaining. They want all workers to work "at the will of the employer".
    Fight the cuts, not the teachers!

  4. Add nepotism and favoritism into the mix of factors affecting the validity of evaluations. We are only human, afterall. Relationships matter.

    Certainly explore some design of a system incorporating merit to a greater degree but we should not let people operate under the assumption that a new design can avoid what will take place in the next few months.

    When parents saw what was on the drawing board for RISE many asked at meetings about the impact to the students and we were clearly told time would not be diverted from teacher-student interaction. The RISE work was to be imbedded into work the teachers were already doing, is that still true? What flaws exist in the way the system works?

    Nice job on this Bram. Should be required reading for all underinformed parents.

  5. Add nepotism and favoritism into the mix of factors affecting the validity of evaluations.

    Those also affect hiring, but nobody working worries about that.

  6. There is no way to mix seniority with anything else. If some indicator overrides seniority then you are not using seniority. It is possible to use something other than seniority as a "tiebreaker" for the last workers being laid off with equal seniority.
    ram,good research and discussion!

  7. Unknown - There's that word again, "eliminate". Seriously, what is going on here? Because the news articles, this blog post, every speaker at the rally and my last comment all emphasized that nobody is contemplating "replacing" seniority.

    We could go with 80% seniority and 20% merit. Or 90% seniority, 10% merit. Or 95-5.

    Related, the rally and materials all dealt with "Keeping our Best Teachers", but Anon 2:04 and Unknown insist the proper agenda is to "get rid of our worst." Those would be entirely different projects. It's true there are already ways of firing ineffective teachers, or buying out more senior or expensive ones -- but that doesn't seem to be the concern expressed. This seems to be about gaining an ability to retain particularly awesome teachers, the top 20 percent or the top 5 percent of performers.

    And then there's your eloquently stated objection, "This won't solve the education problem." Well, no one *thing* will ever fix everything, clearly. But we need to be trying a variety of things to improve matters. Allowing for a way to keep some of our best teachers in the system might not hurt the students.

    "Fight the cuts, not the teachers" --> well, absolutely. But there are cuts coming, even if we fight with guns. The Republicans won a lot of offices, they get to rule, and they're not listening to unions and Democrats in Pittsburgh. So best to prepare for them. And even if cuts weren't coming, a balanced approach to retention might be a good idea anyway.

    I can tell from the nature of the push-back, there's a party line about how to define this issue that bears only a casual relation to reality or any concerns which might actually be expressed by parents. Disappointed to discover the onset of brainwashed hackishness here, considering many audiences will also note it sadly, and especially considering there are better grounds for being suspect of RISE et al. I worry about capacity-to-implement and opportunity costs myself.

    Now, Dee, nepotism, those are good points. Hope to talk to the District soon and learn a lot more about implementation before circling to the PFT for a proper look at their perspective.

  8. Unknown 10:33 / Carl - Carl Carl? Eep.

    Anyway, evaluate all the teachers. Take the top 20% of performers, retain them. Then retain the remain 80% based entirely on seniority (which will probably be more like 90%, since some with seniority probably would have tested in the top 20%). Have we not just combined merit and seniority, and weighted things heavily towards the latter?

  9. My view on this is that if teacher quality matters and strict seniority is maintained, then the school board (and therefore the voters) have no real control over the administration of the district to which they pay such a very large percentage of their taxes and that feeling of pouring money into something where they have no input is why the schools can’t maintain enrollment or get support against budget cuts.

  10. All of this talk is just noise. The PFT will not bend on the seniority issue. They will not yeild to anything that looks like or is outright identified as "reform". The answer has, is and will be "no". It's that simple.

    The lowest teachers on the totem pole will be let go, even if they've been awareded "teacher of the year". They'll allow the cuts to be made on seniority, even in the face of overwhelming public support for consideration of other determining factors.

    The "seniority only" position is, in my view, a misreading of the moment by the PFT. They have assumed that the public views the debate in the union vs. management paradigm. This has worked well for them, but it is not where the public is presently. With a wealth of information having been collected for several decades and the public support for education reform at its peak, this debate is really taking place in a traditional thinking vs. forward thinking paradigm. The public is not buying the "union busting" rhetoric. It is as though we are all standing in a room with freshly painted emerald green walls. We all see that it's green, but the PFT is arguing that it's not because the label on the paint can says "white", so therefore, that's what it is.

  11. Here's something that appeared in the New York Times about objectivity in the social sciences.

    The value of RISE is it allows for a forum in which teachers can reflect on and be self-critical about how they teach. When it was introduced, one of its greatest strengths was supposed to be the fact it's non-confrontational (Jeri Lippert was quoted as such). In my opinion, the few experienced teachers who should be let go are savvy and connected enough that it won't happen to them.

    Furthermore, anyone who has taught knows that ideas come and go and education is very faddish. Bill Gates who funded RISE is on his third "big idea" regarding how to transform education. First it was small high schools then it was a laptop for every child and now its some magical formula for great teachers.

    I think the issue that plagues schools will ultimately be found to be the value children internally place on learning and the fact many of them come to the classroom too stimulated (I don't mean on drugs) in ways that make learning a very secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) concern.

    If this is in fact the true issue as I believe, it is a factor that will be very difficult to deal with -- no political quick fixes there. So maybe it will never be faced.

  12. I think the issue that plagues schools will ultimately be found to be the value children internally place on learning and the fact many of them come to the classroom too stimulated (I don't mean on drugs) in ways that make learning a very secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) concern.

    In other words: It's all the parents' fault. Just send in a check for 3% of the price of your house and keep quiet.

  13. I didn't say it was the parents fault. For one thing, if you go there, then it's their parents' fault and their parents and their parents . . .

    But beyond that, we live in a larger culture and there are many forces parents don't control.

    Plus remember you need a license to drive a car and no training at all to raise a child. What kind help is available for parents? (I think I'd be better off if there were "parenting licenses") It seems to me for our society and the world at large, understanding the forces that turn children into well-adjusted beings is not understood and is not given the consideration it deserves.

  14. Just wanted to add (my post is the previous one also) reemphasize the main point of my first comment about teacher seniority and effectiveness.

    The very non-objective factors that surround teacher evaluations and the fact using RISE for furloughs will damage it as a useful tool are just two of several reasons against using factors besides seniority to furlough teachers.

    Whether or not it's the intention of all who advocate using other measures, it's my opinion that doing so will have only one lasting effect -- allowing the teaching profession to be overwhelmed by the forces that are riding high right now and are eroding the middle-class.

  15. This is indeed a danger, but so is the eroding of the middle class because public education is now increasingly tied to being able to afford a $350k house in a district that can actually educate the kids.

  16. Carly Dobbins-BuckladMay 25, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    I am not the first to say it here, but it does seem strange that there seems to be a strong reaction against ANY criteria other than seniority for determining furloughs.

    In general, I think it would be great if the world operated on a merit/performance based system. I know the old "who gets to be the judge?" question never goes away, but at the end of the day the decision will be made by somebody somehow.

    Seniority is a fine and important factor; it makes sense to value experience. It just doesn't make sense as the ONLY consideration.

    I realize people feel the other criteria are in their infancy -- but holding onto the existing criteria because it is familiar doesn't seem to be a good decision either. It is still a partial and imperfect system no matter how you look at it.

    I certainly hope the end result of all of this will be some kind of blend of seniority and performance metrics for retention, even if it needs to be heavily weighted towards seniority for now to reach agreement and keep peace of mind. To Bram's point, what about the shining stars, or even the top 20%? Some of them may be the teachers with the most seniority, and some of them may be relatively new to the system. Pittsburgh needs those teachers too.

  17. Is the district administration willing to make concessions in light of their desire to change the contract to which they agreed?

    They were not led blindly into this contract with the PFT in which seniority is the only factor. I guess, though, this is one of those working people contracts which can be changed when it's inconvenient, rather than one of those CEO contracts that can't be broken even if they rip off their company.

    The administration does have the ability and the capacity to get rid of bad performers. I understand your point about getting rid of bad teachers not being the same as keeping great (by nebulous measures which aren't the same for all teachers) teachers, but I'm not sure it really holds water. One person's "great teacher" is often another person's hated teacher.

    But the system in place is the system that was agreed to and so, it's up to the administration to either use what powers they do have (and have used effectively when they want to) or to offer enough concessions or changes to entice the union to want to break the contract.

    If a teacher were using the tactics being used by the administration currently, that teacher would be gone.

  18. What tactics being used by the administration currently? Begging and pleading? Everybody seems to agree, the teachers union holds all the cards here.

    I certainly hope the administration is offering enticing concessions and changes, in addition to attempts at persuasion.

  19. Have you heard of any concessions being offered? Has there been any mention at all of some exchange on the part of the administration? Even if they don't want to be specific, you'd think they'd mention the concept.

    The effective means were the firing of 100+ teachers in January of this year, all said to be ineffective.

    If the administration wants to find another 300-400 teachers with enough documentation to fire, they could prevent furloughs. Of course, it should be far fewer, because I would have to assume that ALL of the newer teachers aren't great. That seems unlikely, doesn't it? So cull another 100 - 200 bad teachers, and recognize that there are bad newer teachers who could also be just let go rather than furloughed.

    Then cull the upper levels of administration to a far smaller number (I'd love to see you do a story on the # of administrative employees in our decreasing student population district). For every 100+K administrator who is cut, we could afford to keep 2 new teachers at scale.

    Their main tactic currently is using A+ Schools as their PR arm. I've gotten robocalls at home from parents and emails from PPS students lined up and distributed by A+ to tell me about their protest and to beg me to go to the board and demand that the contract be broken (they didn't use that last phrase though!) They've managed to get a lot more visible coverage in the PG than is given for most issues that a hundred people (how many were A+ and PPS administration?) attend.

  20. Here is the deal. Bad teachers should be fired. That needs to happen throughout time.

    Good teachers in the wrong settings, perhaps, should be moved to different settings once or twice. But, PPS can't be keeping bad teachers.

    There are very few bad teachers, but they are exist.

    Furthermore, if we did fire bad teachers, then it would be easy to decide who needs to stay and who needs to go based upon years on the job.

    Because some bad teachers have stayed too long, because of failures of middle and upper management, and because of a lack of peer review among teachers, we are in a mess.

    Yes, teachers need to watch out for other teachers, helping and otherwise.

    I wish there was more peer review and more peer pressure.

    First, gang up on the teacher (among other teachers, staff and administration and even trusted parents) so that the challenges are overcome to make sure that the students are getting good opportunities, making progress and successes are delivered.

    But by the end of the year, the staff needs to realize that the hand holding can't be forever.

    Sadly, when a teacher is floundering, they don't get the help. And in due time, they don't get the next assignment nor the boot.

    Bad teachers that linger are hurting public education, PPS and the Teachers Union. IMNH, good and great teachers have to carry some (say 5%) of the blame. The principals get the lion's share of the blame. Central Admin gets some too.

    Great teachers know what's going on in their buildings.

    Ask how much impact in all the rubics outlined in the blog posting are with peer review?

  21. Mark - My impression is there is no "peer review" (excepting that the CRI's doing the RISE evals are teachers playing another role) but the rubrics are intended to stand alongside the value-added metrics (standardized test scores controlled for variables) and student surveys.

    And this will become clear, but despite the insistence of all commenters everywhere, the focus of the project really honestly does not seem to be on eliminating below-average teachers. It is on holding onto significantly above-average ones.