Sunday, April 11, 2010

Points, Anti-Points, and Extra Points

Most grades in a modern American high school are awarded on the basis of points. Students are awarded points for completing homework assignments, projects, and tests. In some classes points are also awarded for various forms of "participation." Generally, activities deemed more important by the instructor are awarded larger numbers of points than other activities. But when you look at the final grade on a report card, are you truly seeing a simple accumulation of points earned by that student?

    One of the biggest problems I see with this sort of system is that there are actually "negative" points hidden within the final letter grade assigned to any single student. These anti-points are usually based upon behavior and can have dramatic impacts on achievement. For example, students are often penalized for turning assignments in late. I used to deduct 10% of the overall points possible for every day a major project was turned in late. A perfect project turned in five days late resulted in a failing grade.

    Another example of anti-points occurs when we average retakes on assessments with older scores. For example, a student takes a test and gets a 50%, then retakes the same exam and gets a 100%. When a student's new test score is averaged into the old test score, you are actually doing two things. First, you are reporting the number of points the student accumulated on the second exam. You are then penalizing the same student for the points that he or she missed on the first exam. This communicates to your students that simply learning the concepts and skills on the test is not enough to erase the taint of failing the exam the first time.

Another example of hidden points can be found in the practice of assigning points for participating in classroom discussions or activities. Students who raise their hand often, ask pertinent questions, and express enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter are rewarded with points. Students who are withdrawn, tardy, apathetic, or absent find themselves penalized by losing valuable participation points. The idea behind this is to reward positive behavior which, in the minds of teachers, will ultimately result in higher academic achievement on exams. The reality is that high-achieving students will throw their arms out of joint in the effort to ask questions during class and earn their participation points while struggling students will stare silently, sleep, or goof around despite the fact that they are losing points every time they engage in such behavior.

    Finally, there's the phenomenon of extra-credit. These points, awarded for a hazy collection of projects and assignments given outside of the normal curriculum, can magically turn B's to A's and F's to C's. Extra credit points may be awarded for advanced activities that only the most high-achieving students can attempt. It is also common to see extra credit awarded for relatively easy, time-intensive activities that low-achieving students can complete who need to boost their grades at the last minute. The end result is that extra credit traditionally rewards students who already have A's while artificially inflating grades for low-achieving students who have not really improved their mastery of a course's learning goals.

    There's a big problem with all of these systems of anti-points and extra-credit points: if our goal as teachers is to create positive changes in student behavior and achievement, such point-based systems are an abject failure. They reinforce pre-existing behaviors (both positive and negative) while doing little to produce any sort of meaningful change or growth.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why Merit Pay is Worthless Concept In Education

Every once in while, politicians will pull the concept of merit pay out of a drawer, blow the dust off it, and hang it up in front of voters so that they can whack at it like a dime-store pinata. The fact that this particular pinata never seems to break open is probably a blessing in disguise, because I don't think anybody wants what is inside.

Taxpayers seem to think that merit-pay is a no-brainer, and that only poor teachers involved in scamming the system would protest it. After all, why would a good teacher be worried about getting extra money for their wonderful efforts in the classroom? The efforts to block merit-pay on the part of teacher's unions have routinely failed to make arguments that show teachers in a flattering light. Instead, we tend to come off as cynical time-servers who are willing to trade the minds of our future generations in return for job-security. It appears to many taxpayers that we are willing to protect incompetent teachers so that our own jobs will not be threatened.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with providing external motivation to inspire greater effort on the part of an employee. A worker in a factory, for example, may work just a little bit harder in order to earn a bonus due to their increased production. A salesman will hustle that much more for clients if they know that increased sales will result in healthy bonuses at the end of the year. Money talks, and it can be a powerful motivator. The problem is the act of teaching is fundamentally different from building a car, shoveling coal, or selling time-shares. The difference is not necessarily because teaching is more "noble" or "worthy" than selling vacuum-cleaners. It is simply because the definition of "success" for teachers is poorly defined, and the means by which students learn is complex and multi-dimensional.

In this respect, a teacher is similar to a doctor or a police officer. Let's say that we want to provide an extra financial reward for our best police officers in order to encourage a stronger police force in general. Fair enough, don't you think? The problem, howeer, is that we need to figure out a way to identify the "best" police officers from the merely competent ones and the merely competent ones from the incompetent slackers and time servers. After all, without some form of objective standard to judge effectiveness, we can't justify giving some police officers more money than others for doing the same job.

The easiest way to justify merit pay is to attach it to some numerical data that can be easily collected. For a police officer, it may seem logical to judge effectiveness by the number of arrests that are made by an officer. The more arrests you make, the more criminals you are removing from the streets and the more effective you are. The problem is that all arrests aren't created equal. Arresting an escaped murderer is quite a bit different from arresting someone for running a stop sign at an intersection. A police officer could inflate their arrest statistics by booking citizens for every little transgression of the law. In fact, it would make more sense in this case to concentrate on small-time offenses because such arrests could be made quickly and with minimum risk.

Perhaps, then, it would be better to judge police effectiveness by crime statistics for a geographic area. After all, if the police are effective at doing their job it makes sense that the overall crime rate in an area would decrease over time. This line of reasoning, however, is also flawed. The number of criminal acts observed in a community can rise and fall for all sorts of reasons. For example, the crime rate may drop because of large numbers of people start moving out of the area. Crime rates can rise because of economic conditions which cause people to lose their jobs, resulting in a greater temptation to make money through illegal acts. Crime rates can also be skewed by how police officers choose to make arrests. If crime statistics need to be lowered, police officers can simply stop making arrests for petty crimes that would normally be prosecuted.

None of this is a slam against the police. The same sorts of things can happen in lots of professions. If we tried to establish merit pay for doctors by rewarding those with the lowest number of patient deaths, we would create strong pressures for doctors to move away from treating the very sick. Right now in medicine we tend to reward those who perform complex procedures and surgeries, but the consequence is that less doctors choose to enter primary care where the financial rewards are lower. The unintended consequence is that more people cannot receive primary care, causing an increase in preventable illnesses and a decrease in the overall health of the population.

So now we get to teachers. Judging "merit" in teaching is extremely difficult to do in an objective, numerical fashion. Right now standardized test scores are the only possible way to get consistent, quantitative data about student learning. There are some major problems, however, with tying teacher pay to test scores:

First, the tests that we give to our students on a state level are terrible. They tend to be poorly written and few states have the monetary resources necessary to consistenty and regularly make changes to improve the accuracy of the scores. This means that the scores we get from these tests, even in the absence of cheating are not necessarily accurate.

Second, the way these tests are administered encourages cheating by schools. Schools whose very survival is based on test scores are given the tests well before they are administered to the students and told to give the tests without helping kids to cheat. The entire process is based on the honor system, and desperate schools can easily succumb to the temptation to "help" their students score better. In some cases this is the result of isolated cheating by individual teachers while in other cases it is a more coordinated effort at a school-wide level. Either way, the higher the stakes placed on the scores the more suspect the scores become.

The third problem comes up when you try to define success. Do you simply reward teachers whose students earn the highest scores? All this does is punish teachers who are working with our neediest students. It creates yet another strong motivation for teachers to avoid low-income areas with students who have the most to gain from the educational system. It rewards teachers who are working in wealthier school districts with students who already have many advantages coming in the door. Perhaps, then, you should reward improvement of test scores from year to year. The problem here is that one group of students cannot be easily compared to the group that comes in a year later. The variation in personalities, prior skills, home environments, and natural intelligence is far too great to simply look at improvement from one year to the next and draw useful conclusions. I have had years where nearly all of my students scored very well on standardized tests while the next year saw a huge drop in scores on the same test. This isn't because I stopped teaching, or because I put less effort and passion into my work. Often, the biggest variations in test scores from year to year occur because of natural statistical variations that I have no control over as a teacher.

So perhaps we should simply base "merit" on something other than test scores. Got any ideas?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Jaime Escalante Effect

Jaime Escalante died on March 30, ending a career that has captured the public's imagination than almost any other teacher in history. Like most people, almost everything I know about the man comes from the movie "Stand and Deliver" which I enjoyed quite a bit. It showed a hard-working immigrant walk into a poor, hispanic school full of underachievers and, within a few years, establish an astoundingly successful AP calculus program.

Yet, since I have become a teacher I have had mixed feelings about Mr. Escalante's legacy. It feels almost like heresy to question the exalted status of a man whom, from all reports, made the impossible seem possible in his classroom. While I have no doubt that his individual accomplishments as a teacher are astounding, I have to question what he has done for the profession of teaching as a whole.

Teachers like Jaime Escalante are widely lauded both inside and outside of the education community, and they certainly have eye-popping statistics to show for their efforts. They are "superteachers" in every sense of the word, dedicating their every waking moment to the classroom and to pushing their students to high levels of success through sheer force of will. Escalante, by most reports I've read, was a powerful personality in his classroom. His walls were papered with motivational statements, and he often ruled with a sort of cranky, iron-fisted charisma. He butted heads with administration as well as fellow teachers who resented his celebrity status and felt that he was given special treatment. Of course, this special treatment often boiled down to having air-conditioning in his classroom, but such is the state of luxury in the public school system.

I have taught alongside superteachers like Escalante, and have felt my own share of petty resentment. Part of this is jealousy, of course. As a new teacher, struggling with the inevitable stresses and failures of learning this complicated profession, it was frustrating to see somebody working miracles next door. It was particularly frustrating when I would try to figure out what it was they were doing that I wasn't. Often, with superteachers, it is very difficult to pin down the secret of their success.

Of course there are some general statements you can always make about these folks. They are dedicated and care about their students. They have control of their classrooms and experience few discipline problems. When you observe their classes, however, you just can't quite put your finger on what is making their students perform so much better than the teacher next door. Often, it simply boils down to this nearly mystical knack for teaching that is annoyingly difficult for other teachers to emulate.

My problem with all of this is that superteachers rarely manage to spread their methods to their colleagues with any success. In my experience, they do all sorts of great things in their own rooms with their own students, but their influence on fellow teachers is surprisingly tiny. It is like an athlete who is naturally gifted playing on a team full of average players. The gifted athlete may produce eye-popping stats, but the other players cannot simply imitate that athlete's techniques and get the same results It isn't uncommon for highly gifted athletes to use techniques that, for other players, would result in complete failure.

The Jaime Escalantes of the teaching world also reinforce a stubborn attitude among both teachers and non-teacher alike. This is the belief that teaching is more of an "art" than a "skill." When I was a teacher-in-training during my college days, this seemed to be the dominant philosophy in the courses I was taking. We spent a shockingly small amount of time learning nuts-and-bolts skills for being teachers. Instead, we were taught about the history of public education and presented with a smattering of educational psychology. The heavy lifting of learning how to be a teacher was left until student teaching, and even then it was assumed that we wouldn't truly learn how to do our jobs properly until after our first year on the job.

The public looks at superteachers like Jaime Escalante and wonders why we can't all be like him. The answer is that every teacher can't be a superstar. Instead of expecting superteachers to save our schools, we need to look at all of the mere mortals who occupy 90% of our teaching positions. We need to develop a stronger professional community whose goal is to take a long look at every aspect of teaching and promote the ideas that work while weeding out the ones that don't. We need to promote a set of skills that can make a difference for every teacher in every classroom rather than focusing on the efforts of a few exceptional examples of teaching miracles. We need to talk to each other more about our craft and look critically at our practices. Maybe then, we'll all have a chance to stand and deliver to our students.