Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Real Value of Homework

I've been seeing a lot of online commentary about homework in the run-up to the start of the school year. Some bloggers proudly boast that they don't assign it. Others assign it, but don't score it. At a training I attended this week, a teacher gave voice to the now common refrain that homework isn't fair because some kids have families at home who will help them and some don't. It's come to the point where those of us who do assign regular homework feel the need to defend its practice. So I will.

I assign homework for two reasons: Practice and Life Skills. Math homework is assigned weekly. That is, I give students all the homework pages on Friday that corresponds to the lessons I've taught that week. Some weeks, students take home five worksheets, one for each day of the week. The homework is due back the following Friday. I do this so that students can independently practice the skills and concepts we've worked on all week. Might some students get help from mom and dad? Of course. Might this give them an advantage over students who don't get help? Yes. And they will continue to reap the rewards of having involved parents the rest of their lives. This is how the world works. It shouldn't be an excuse to lower expectations for low-expectancy students.

The other reason a student might have homework is if they have failed to meet a class deadline and need more time to complete a project. The message this sends is that finishing is important and deadlines matter. Just because the work couldn't be completed at school doesn't mean it doesn't have to be completed. This is a life lesson and an important one. It is the real value of homework.

Homework teaches skills that transcend subject areas. Homework teaches life skills that almost every successful adult uses daily in their work and personal lives. Homework teaches students that they--not their parents, not their day care providers, not their teachers--are responsible for getting their own work done. Homework teaches that deadlines are important. That there are consequences for missing them. Homework teaches time management. It requires students to prioritize, to make choices, to plan ahead, to establish routines, and to form habits that allow them to finish what they have to do so that they have time to do what they want to do. Assigning students homework is about more than practicing multiplication or finishing an essay. It's about teaching them that others will expect things of them. It's about teaching them personal responsibility. It's about giving them a taste of how the real world will work. And assigning it, taking its completion seriously, and holding students accountable for it, is a relatively simple way for teachers to send the most important message they can ever send: I care about you and I want you to succeed in life.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Merit Pay for Teachers--A Terrible Idea

Some legislators in Michigan want to pay teachers based on their performance (code for "student test scores") and have gone so far as to pass a bill out of the House Education Committee. The bill calls for performance pay to be the primary factor in determining teacher salaries. This is quite possibly the dumbest idea the current legislature has conceived (and that's saying something). While merit pay sounds fine on paper it will lead to a staggering number of unintended consequences, most of which are bad for kids, school districts, administrators, teachers, and communities. I thought of twenty-two.

1. Cheating--What we've seen in Atlanta will be repeated in school districts here in Michigan. Look, I'd like to believe teachers are all noble people who would never cheat, no matter how much pressure they're put under. The truth is most of them will respond to incentives just like everybody else. Some will cheat. Some will be told to cheat. Some will be fired if they don't cheat.

2. Lack of Money--So what happens in a school district where students score off the charts on tests and the district suddenly has to pay teachers more than they budgeted for? My guess is that the state is not going to be willing to simply cut a bigger check.

3. Budgeting--School districts don't like unknown costs and since employee compensation is by far the largest chunk of any district's budget, I have no idea how districts would budget for upcoming school years. My guess is that they'd significantly lower the base pay for all teachers to provide ample wiggle room for the merit pay. (Which is probably what the Republicans in the legislature want to happen.)

4. Rigging of Teacher Evaluations--Let's assume this performance pay will be paid out based on a teacher's evaluation (which is based on test scores, largely). Now let's assume each district has a finite amount of money and cannot get any more. Let's further assume scores are unusually high. How will districts afford these unexpected higher costs? One way would be to evaluate teachers at a lower level so that you don't have to pay them extra money. Which would be exceedingly easy to do in Michigan, since the state has so far allowed districts to design their own evaluation systems.

5. Even More Incentive to Get Rid of Expensive Teachers--The major problem with the way public education is set up is that there is a greater incentive to control costs than there is to improve outcomes. Districts with funding problems get taken over. Districts that excel at educating kids get nothing extra. If the state establishes a system whereby "effective" teachers make more money and if a district has too many "effective" teachers, their costs will rise. There will exist a financial incentive, especially in tight times, to shed the most expensive employees, which in this case will be the most "effective" teachers. Doesn't make a whole lot of educational sense.

6. A Lack of Fairness in Pay--You might not like the current system. You might plausibly argue that an excellent teacher should be paid more than a mediocre one. But at least everyone understands the game before they get into it. How will this system pay a gym teacher? A music teacher? A special education teacher? There are a lot of different jobs in a school and not all of them are measured by students taking a test. Pay for performance doesn't fit in far too many instances.

7. More Teacher Mobility--This is one consequence that teachers might actually benefit from. Right now, since tenure protections have been eroded and layoffs are supposed to happen according to teachers' evaluations, the only thing keeping teachers in their district is the pay structure. It doesn't make financial sense for a ten-year veteran teacher to switch districts and be paid for five years, if they're lucky. If districts decide to pay for performance instead of years of experience, there is nothing to keep teachers coming back every year. This might be good for teachers--it effectively makes them free agents every summer--but it's horrible for districts and communities. I could write a blog post about this item by itself, but for now think about how much money districts will have to spend training new teachers every year. How much time will be wasted bringing large numbers of new members into the fold at the beginning of the school year and teaching them all the school procedures? Instability in a school is not a good thing.

8. Competition Among Teachers--Ideally, we hope that teachers share their best practices with their colleagues to make every child's education better. This proposed pay system sets up a competition among teachers for scare resources. You can expect infighting for Title One service time and other assistance, arguing over schedules, as teachers perceive their schedule gives them a disadvantage over another teacher's, and possibly the hoarding of scarce materials. Again, schools have limited amounts of money. When more is given to one teacher, less has to be given to another teacher.

9. Less Recess, Especially for Kids Who Need It--So you're a teacher who knows his pay will be affected by how his students do on a test. You also know you have about ten students who, with extra practice, can realistically be expected to show enough growth over last year's test that it makes it worth your while to give them that extra practice. Now, where might you find the time to provide that extra practice? You could keep them after school and sacrifice time with your family, or you could take away their recess. After all, you weren't going outside anyway.

10. Fewer Arts Classes--As a teacher you might now consider the following choice: Do I allow my students to go to music class, where they will learn very little that will help them do well on the standardized test, or do I keep them in class to teach them things on which they will be tested? And if district scores are low across the board, can we not envision a Superintendent, under pressure herself, deciding to get rid of classes that do not directly prepare students to do better on these tests?

11. Teacher Resentment Over Kids Who Need the Most Support--Obviously, under this pay system, teachers will want students who can and want to learn. Every year, in every grade level, there are a handful of students who, for a number of reasons, can't and don't. Instead of looking at these poor kids who need more love and support, teachers may look upon them with resentment, which is exactly what they don't need. Not only will those students be costing their teachers dollars, they may well impact the learning of other students, which could lead to an even lower teacher salary and even more resentment.

12. Less Patience for Misbehavior--Get ready principals. Because if you're going to pay teachers based on performance than teachers are going to argue for an atmosphere conducive to learning. Very few will be willing to work through a student's behavior issues if they have the alternative of kicking the kid out and teaching the kids who have a chance of scoring well (or at least improving enough) on the state test.

13. Ignoring the Lowest of the Low--And really, why bother teaching the lowest students at all? Some teachers will do the calculus: If Student X has little to no chance of scoring well or improving much on the test, wouldn't it make more sense for that teacher to focus his time and energy on the students who do stand a chance of succeeding?

14. Ignoring the Highest of the High--Susie is going to do well on the test regardless of her teacher. She's got great parents, she already reads above grade level, she's good at math. Susie is money in the bank for her teacher, literally. Instead of challenging Susie, you can expect many teachers to leave Susie alone while she works with the students in the middle.

15. Teaching to the Test--Already happens. Will happen more.

16. Less Hands-On Learning--Standardized tests have no hands-on components. It would be a waste of time to do experiments when a teacher could be preparing students to do well on the state test.

17. Say Goodbye to Field Trips, Assemblies, Class Parties, and Lessons from the Guidance Counselor--Few teachers will want to spend their most precious resource--time--on these activities when that time will do nothing to improve the chances that they make a larger salary. People respond to incentives. Teachers are no different.

18. Going Rogue--So a teacher's school district has mandated that she teach a new reading program, but that teacher has seen really good results with a previous program. Now the teacher has a choice: Disobey orders from administration because she thinks she'll get better results with the old program (and make more $), or be a good soldier even though it may mean less money for her. Multiply that over and over and you get each teacher making his or her own decision in every subject, which is essentially what we had before state standards and a "guaranteed and viable curriculum."

19. Good Luck Finding a Placement for Student Teachers--You're a teacher who is going to be paid based on how well your students will do on a test. What are the chances you're going to let some twenty-two year old rookie stand in front of your kids and stumble through a math unit?

20. Making Class Lists--I wouldn't want to be a principal in charge of making class lists under this pay system. Nearly every teacher will complain about their list. Too many special ed students, too many autistic students, THAT kid, too many students, how come Mrs. Davis got all the good kids? She always gets all the good kids. Etc., etc., etc.

21. Honoring Parent Requests--As a parent, I want to be able to have some say in who my child gets as her teacher, but the truth is some teachers get a lot more requests than others and it's not always because the teacher is all that great. She may have just been around a long time. First year teachers hardly every get requests. And let's be honest, parents who request teachers are, by definition, more involved and are more likely to have children who are better students as a result. So honoring parent requests will lead to class list inequality, which isn't exactly fair when you're tying teacher pay to the performance of their students.

22. The Best Students Get the Best Teachers--This may be the worst unintended consequence of all. You've graduated at the top of your elite high school's class. You could be anything. You decide to make a difference in the lives of young people and become a teacher. Upon graduating, you have a choice. You can teach in the inner city where your job will be challenging, your students will come to class with all kinds of problems you never had growing up, their parents will be overworked, stressed out, lacking in parental skill, and just won't have the time, energy, ability, or inclination to help their children much at home. These students will struggle to perform on the state test and you will be punished with a low salary. Or you could go teach in the university town with the brand new building, gorgeous athletic fields, air-conditioned rooms, and parents with college degrees that make their children read every night and offer to come in to your classroom to do a lesson in their area of expertise. These students will score well on the test, with or without you, and you will be paid handsomely. Which would you choose? And is that good for education?