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No Teacher Left Behind March 14, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education.
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Happy Pi day, people!

The Obama administration had a full agenda for year 0 (I’m a computer scientist and we start counting at 0. In case you don’t know why and are curious, it’s because the address of an array in memory is the address of its first element. Get it? Never mind). Anyways, TARP, Fannie/Freddie bailout, the stimulus bill, Afghan troop surge, health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, Ben “60th vote” Nelson, and Joe “party of one” Lieberman, trying not to laugh when saying the words “tea bagging” and “cloture” (a word I actually used at a recent faculty meeting). Despite an effective Democratic minority in the senate, year 1 is looking similarly ambitious. Health insurance reform, fending off filibusters, “60th vote” Ben, “party of one” Joe, and “perfect game” Jim Bunning, a jobs bill, and now … sweeping education reform!

The primary aspect of this reform appears to be a reorientation of the preverse “No Child Left Behind” law that was one of 43’s first gifts to this country. I have read a few things about NCLB including that it spawned a practice in which schools would encourage weak students to stay at home on standardized exam days to raise the school’s average score. Lovely. The Obama/Duncan proposal would rephrase NCLB benchmarks from “measuring absolute student performance relative to grade level” to “measuring student improvement” and rephrase the end goal from “proficiency in reading and math” to “graduate from high school ready for college or a career.” Wow! I can’t wait to see the “ready for college or a career” standardized test. I hope it’s the Wonderlic.

Strangely, business leaders are cheering. Not so strangely, teachers unions are grabbing their torches and pitchforks. The Times piece didn’t cover this explicitly but I sincerely hope that “measuring student improvement” is code for “measuring teacher performance” and more significantly “rewarding and/or penalizing teachers based on that performance rather than based on seniority.” Performance-based employment and compensation is the teacher’s union worst nightmare. But it’s a necessary component of fixing the education system. Data that was recently released by Teach for America shows that a good teacher can teach students as much as 1.5 year’s worth of material in one year whereas a bad teacher can teach as little as 0.5 year’s worth of material at the same time. In other words, the difference between a good teacher and a bad one is a year’s worth of material per year. Quantitatively, the difference between having a good teacher and a bad one, is in absolute terms, the difference between having an average teacher and not going to school at all! Our education system will be infinitely better off if we could cull the lowest quartile of teachers and pay the remainder according to their performance. And this means paying the top teachers high-five/low-six figure salaries independently of seniority. If you have been teaching for three years and you have demonstrated the ability to consistently raise your students’ abilities 1.5 grade levels per year, you should be rewarded accordingly! Performance-based employment and pay is the norm in every successful enterprise. And it’s the only way to attract better talent to education. I am not saying that there aren’t talented teachers in the system already. There are. But these are people with rare passion and high pain thresholds who are succeeding despite the system, not because of it. The people who are succeeding because of the system have mediocre talent and a do-the-minimum attitude.

Unions are not inherently evil and collective bargaining is a useful mechanism in many industries, but teacher’s unions should be forced to accept individual teacher evaluation and performance based employment and pay, hopefully in exchange for a larger salary pool. If they refused, they should be locked out. And if kids don’t go to school for a year, so what? Going to a school with bad teachers is not that different than not going to school at all. If this happens, I would consider becoming a school teacher myself! I am pretty sure that there is something in the Obama/Duncan plan along these lines. Here is a wonderful article that describes all of this in much more detail and eloquence.

Of course, the other necessary component of fixing the education system is decoupling its financing from local property taxes. But that’s a different post.

P.S. Good news, nano Bloom Box may be on the way!

P.P.S. 2,500 meters in 61 minutes.

P.P.P.S. And finally, here are this week’s viral videos from CNN. Two things about this. First, the guy doing a handstand on his index fingers (second clip). Second, Josh Levs (the VJ) was my freshman suitemate in college. I hope he’s as proud of that fact as I am.

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