The cost of (not) retaining teachers

March 31, 2015

This NPR article is an interview with Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy League school, not the Big 10ish school).

Forever, there has been the (generally correct) rule of thumb that about 50% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years.  When we always had more wide-eyed graduates to take their place, no one really cared.  We are getting very close to a time when we are going to have to care, because there are no where near enough teachers coming up to replace the soon-to-be big retirement coming up.


Why do teachers leave?  There are lots of reasons, and those reasons depend on the school and district you examine.  Poor salary and benefits are the issue in some places.  A terrible culture (as in teachers not helping each other) is another and poor leadership (administrators not helping teachers) is a big one.  Some people get into the job and realize it isn’t easy, or they lack the skills to be effective.  Student discipline is another big issue.  Some schools are simply not good at it, and that easily drives teachers away because it not only interferes with their effectiveness, but also becomes a very quick psychological drain.  In some cases, a lack of support and mentorship is a quick way to lose any talent.

Even among the body of teachers still working, there are some who really don’t belong, but they are there because there really are no other teachers out there.  I’ve argued before that this is similar to what happens on sports teams when a team won’t get rid of a vastly under-performing player.  The team knows they are stuck with a bad player, but at the time, there is no one better available.  This is especially true in districts that have a hard time holding on to talent, and are fortunate to have a certified warm body (read:  inner city and rural areas, for the most part).  Ironically, former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote a piece in 2011 for the Wall Street Journal blasting teacher tenure because tenure wouldn’t work in the NFL.  It is pretty ignorant of not only education, but of his own profession.  He is correct:  sports teams shouldn’t be run like schools, just as school shouldn’t be run like sports teams.

Most alarmingly, Professor Ingersoll notes that the teachers that seem to be the most affected are math teachers.  At our school, the math department is very much a depressing place to be these days, and there is a lot of talk about leaving teaching or looking for a better school (these are folks making near six or six figures … so to talk like that means things are pretty bad).  They are bad.  In their words, they go into their classes, and now teach to a test that they don’t think helps kids, and they see their teaching as more and more ineffective.  I don’t care if you are making a lot of money, at some point, if you think you are hurting kids or are just not being successful because of outside rules imposed on you, at some point it gets very hard to put on the smile and show a lot of energy.  So I can see that happening in front of my eyes.  For as rough as things are in science, we have not seen the worst of it yet because NGSS is still a few years away (and given that far fewer states have implemented NGSS, it may never come to full fruition).


I draw this point:  There have been concerns (I don’t think well studied yet), that fewer and fewer scholastic athletes are going into football because of the risk of severe injury.  One day, maybe 15-20 years from now, the NFL may be looking at a massive shortage of talent.  There will be people to play, but the number of skilled athletes who chose soccer or baseball or basketball will make high talent athletes more valuable.  Will the NFL then start offering guaranteed contracts to attract that talent away from other sports?  Just as tenure once saved teaching, it may one day save the NFL.

Turning a white elephant out into the forest

March 31, 2015

One of my favorite baseball stories revolves around the two teams of Philadelphia.  When modern Major League Baseball began the city of Philadelphia was represented by two teams:  the American League Athletics and the National League Phillies.  The then owner of the Athletics was Ben Shibe, and he was friends with New York Giants manager John McGraw.  For who knows why, McGraw once publicly chided Shibe by saying that the Athletics were a white elephant.  When the pair met in the 1905 World Series, Shibe presented McGraw with a stuffed elephant toy.  They were friends, all was well.  McGraw was only curiously half correct about the A’s … the A’s represented the American League in five of the first 11 World Series, winning three of them, an outstanding record of success.  Yet, A’s manager (and later owner) Connie Mack was all about the Benjamins … he once publicly said that his model was to have a good first half of the season to attract fans and gate money, then trail off and miss the post-season.  This way the gate stayed relatively high, but he didn’t have to give in to salary demands, and was quick to trade off talent to avoid the team getting too good.  Mack made a fortune. Mack owned the stadium.  His local competition was so awful (the Philadelphia Phillies) that they still have the worst overall record since 1901 of any of the original 16 Major League teams (the Phillies didn’t win their first World Series until 1980).  Despite all of that, the A’s never seemed to fit in.  Shibe adopted the “white elephant” moniker and by the second decade of the 20th century, the white elephant appeared on uniforms and sweaters for the team.  Even today in Oakland, their cute mascot is named Stomper, and he is a white elephant.

Despite all of the success (did we mention the Phillies had to rent the A’s home stadium in Philadelphia, just to have a home park).  After the 1954 season, the A’s picked up and moved to Kansas City.  This came one year after the St. Louis Browns had left for Baltimore to become the Orioles, and just three years before the celebrated defections of the Giants and Dodgers to the west coast.  Kansas City was not a welcome home for them, and after the 1967 season they moved to Oakland.  Despite 6 AL championships and 4 World Series wins in 47 years (compared to 0 NL championships and 0 World Series wins for the Cubs in more than double that same time frame), there is just something not right.  They don’t have a huge fan base, they don’t get a lot of love, they play in the worst stadium in Major League Baseball, and after their general manager, Billy Beane, devised a wonderful strategy to win, he went and told everyone about his success so that other teams could use it even better than the A’s do, and beat them at their own game.

All the time, the A’s continue that long tradition of wearing a white elephant on their uniforms;  a constant reminder that something is just not right.

I was thinking about white elephants lately … something that seems nice on the surface, but really isn’t.  That is the quandary I find myself in lately.  I found out three weeks ago that I have been nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  It’s a thing.  The application process alone takes a lot of time.  On the other hand, because of that, only a small number of the nominees even reach the application phase (the number I was quoted from one winner was that in a given year there are maybe 50 or so nominees in Illinois, and perhaps 10 actually apply).  I have no way of knowing the veracity of that.  I sit here thinking that it is highly ironic that we have a president that is all about test scores, and yet to win this ultimate honor in teaching, they want me to submit a video of me teaching, and no test scores.  I wonder what would happen if I got this thing, and then had to admit that I am only an “Adequate” teacher according to my evaluation.  I think this alone demonstrates how screwed up teacher evaluation really is.

I was nominated for this once before, and I was not particularly moved to take action on it.  Now I am just tired.  My evaluation is over for the year, so between sipping vodka in class and showing stag films (this is what most people think teachers do when they aren’t being evaluated, yes?), so I have time … but I am just kind of reaching the “I’m fed up with it”.  I want to send a letter back asking them if they are really sure they don’t want test scores, because they seem to think those are important, but since tenure doesn’t protect me anymore, I have to be careful to think pleasant thoughts to avoid ending up in a corn field somewhere.

Standardized tests have been hijacked by censors (maybe)?

March 31, 2015

According to an article in the Washington Post, it appears that one of the big promises made about Common Core and the new standardized testing is not living up to its name.

Arne Duncan and many of the other big supporters of standardized testing have railed against the inability of tests like the ACT and SAT to deal with big issues and real academic subjects in important ways.  Surely, one of the few good points about the new standardized testing is that it does require defense of answers, which when you are dealing with deep academic issues is something that is very important.  That said, the Washington Post got a hold of the test guidelines developed by Pearson’s partner in crime, the Smart Balanced Assessment Consortium (the lesser known group to Pearson that was made obscene amounts of money to write Common Core standardized tests).  What are some subject specifically forbidden to include in the tests (and let’s see if you can guess a pattern):

  • social dancing
  • the more unseemly aspects of slavery
  • humans as a source of climate change
  • contraception
  • sport hunting
  • pregnancy
  • gun control
  • any current partisan political issues
  • evolution

There are some other things on this list, and a few things make sense (rape, incest, suicide … I hate to sound tacky, but if you have kids dealing with this, questions on those topics are sure to affect the precious data that needs to be collected for reasons).  That said, am I the only one that is thinking that several FRWASPEs from the South and more rural parts of our country were heavily consulted on this list?  Without offense to our good friends in the Pacific Northwest, I’m not sure there are any issues in ballroom dancing that are really significant in a high school academic setting. However, if your goal is to produce tests that address real hard hitting real issues being debated in society today, this to me brings the legitimacy of these tests (based on their presumed purpose) into question.  I mean, if you are a kid utterly convinced that human influenced cliamte change is a myth, then this is a great time to force them to write an essay with sourcing (which is what these tests require).  If hte kids get lower scores because there isn’t much legitimate sourcing out there, then shouldn’t the test communicate to the kid “I’m sorry, you can’t defend your viewpoint with good sourcing”?  Isn’t that what these more advanced tests are supposed to do?  Isn’t this more or less exactly what Arne Duncan was referring to when he ignorantly was fascinated that Common Core was being attacked by a bunch of “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden (fear) — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”  These tests seem to be intentionally not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

This is just more evidence that modern education, from “researchers” to politicians is being co-opted to make sure that no one is forced to change.  Education is supposed to be all about change.  What we are doing today is not really education … I just don’t know what it is.

Another sign that a massive teacher shortage is coming fast

March 20, 2015

If you listen to reports of people who survive tsunamis, they invariably report that just before the massive wave hits, the shoreline suddenly moves out to sea.  Quite a few people who are aware of this are able to give people a few moments of warning to move further inland to avoid the worst of a tsunami if they notice the waterline retreating  several yards in a very short amount of time.  Tsunamis are disasters that have a sign preceding the worst of it, that alerts people to what is about to happen.

The Associated Press reported last night a confirmation that teachers and administrators have known for the past three years, but has not gotten a lot of news (and even less attention in state houses because many states have cut off communication with school leaders and teachers).  The news:  substitute teachers are getting very, very hard to find.  The article singles our Washington state, where 84 of 94 reporting school districts cited that they were having trouble finding substite

The question is why, and like all problems there are many reasons:  many schools have slightly reduced pay for substitute teachers.  Changes in discipline policy in some areas (mostly urban schools) has made substitute teaching very difficult, and no longer worth the money.  Population shifts are another reason.


As an aside, a question that many in the public might have is “Where do substitutes come from?”  The number one source of substitutes is retired teachers and fresh out-of-college students who are waiting to get their first teaching job.  After that, there are people in the community who have gotten a certification in as a substitute (different states have different laws), and do this to supplement their income (generally people who are self-employed).  Also down the list are teachers who have been released as part of reduction in force.


This all comes at a time when the need for subs is greatly increasing.  More and more teachers are taking medical and sick leave as they age, and as the stress from the job increases.  As a part of the new laws and accountability, there is more mandatory training for teachers.  I have always tried to do my training during the summers when I am not teaching, because I hate losing time from class if ti can be avoided.  Unfortunately, training opportunities over the summer have become fewer and far between.  My school mandated that all teachers take assessment literacy (ass lit, for those who want to know what the teachers call it).  I e-mailed my assistant superintendent three times requesting a summer course on this.  She never replied, and this year I was told that I had to take it over the school year, causing me to miss four days of school while I learned the need to not give zeroes to students who refuse to do work, or why students should be permitted to retake tests whenever they feel they didn’t do a good job on a test).  For the first 15 years of my teaching career, I averaged under 2 sick days-per-year.  In the past 6, that number has jumped to about 4 per-year (and that doesn’t count time lost for school related training, meetings, etc), and I am considered one of the healthier teachers in terms of sick days used.


The sudden dip in substitutes is indicative of a few key factors:

1.   Retired teachers are refusing to return to schools after they retire.  More and more (at least around here, and here is still relatively good compared to the rest of the country).  Retired teachers who used to be a large part of our substitute corps are no longer coming back (10 years ago, I might see a dozen or so retirees coming back to sub in a given year … I’ve only seen one this year, and we are in far more need of subs now than in the past).


2.  There are almost no up-and-coming teachers coming out to sub, because the number of up-and-coming teachers has been drying up fast.  This year, my department has had no young teachers (people between college and their first job) substituting.  We have had the need for two long-term subs, and only one of those positions has been filled (by a teacher who was dismissed by another district to reduce their numbers).  The other position is being filled day-to-day.


3.  Even teachers who have lost their jobs are completely walking away from education.


This is one of those signs that was predicted some time ago, and it is not good news for anyone (unless you happen to home school).  This is having a big effect in private and charter schools (something that private schools and charters aren’t advertising … but since I am involved in Linked in, I get all of the help wanted postings in education … and the number of teaching jobs in charters is enormous … in private schools, it is starting to tick up).  In the mad dash for accountability which actually isn’t making anyone more accountable, there is this belief that there exists some lost colony of people out there who are talented teachers who have been turned away from their jobs because of unions retaining based on seniority rather than talent.  It is becoming more and more clear (and here we have another piece of evidence) that there are no large numbers of teachers-in-waiting (let alone good teachers-in-waiting) who can’t wait for the overthrow of seniority rules so that we can get rid of all the bad teachers and replace them with these people waiting for teaching jobs out there in the aether.

Until state legislatures and governors realize that recent political decisions have created an environment that is leading to a massive shortage in teachers on the horizon, that tsunami is going to keep moving toward shore.  Human made problems can be solved by people …I truly believe that.  But there is more and more evidence that is pointing toward this problem not being solved before at least some parts of the country suffering through some problems before that solution arrives.  There are ways to hold teachers accountable without bringing down education in general.

Thou shalt not disparage the test …

March 19, 2015

Way back in Season 6 of The Simpsons (19 February of 1995, to be exact), there was a classic episode entitled “Bart vs. Australia”.


Short synopsis:

Bart gets curious about the Coriolis effect, and decides to call a random number in Australia to see which direction their drains drain.  He calls collect to a young boy, and the phone bill runs up to nine hundred Australian dollarydoos.  This creates an international incident, and Bart is compelled to travel to Australia to apologize.  He stands before the Parliament and Prime Minister of Australia and apologizes, only to learn that the State Department had lied to him … in addition to his apology, he is required to submit to Australian corporal punishment, which is to get a swift kick in the butt by a man wearing a very large boot.  Homer, rightfully upset, questions what kind of country would kick someone with a giant boot.  The American attache silences him, informing him that “disparaging the boot is a bootable offense!”


I can never do this justice .. so if you want … here is a link (forward to 12:55 to get to the part at the Parliament of Austr(al)ia).


It is classic Simpsons comedy with a healthy mix of surrealism.  Who would use a giant boot as punishment in the modern world?  Who would say that it is a high crime to disparage anything (aside from like North Korea and their leader or places like ISIS controlled territory and Muhammed).

According to this entry over at the Washington Post, which in turn cites a link to the New Mexico school Administrative code (Title 6, Chapter 10, Part 7.7) school administrators and teachers in New Mexico are now forbidden from “disparaging or diminishing the significance, importance or use of standardized tests

Now you might think “yeah, its not a good idea for teachers to say bad things about standardized tests in front of kids”.  Please note:  this is not restricted to being around kids.  This is a complete shackling of any dissent, anywhere, at any time.

It is not directly clear from the document, but the article implies that punishment could result in a teacher or administrator forfeiting their license.


I’m getting quickly to the point where maybe everything needs to completely fall apart before their is any hope of seeing sanity restored.

Big Brother PARCC is watching …

March 14, 2015

According to this report in the Washington Post, Pearson, the corporation profiting heavily from the rise in standardized testing, is now actively monitoring social media to make sure their tests questions do not go public.  If a breach is found, they have been “obligated” to notify authorities.

Understand:  Taxpayer money has been used to develop these tests.  Schools are forced to pay (with tax payer money) to purchase these tests … yet a public forum for critique is impossible because there is no way to actually see the content and have a discussion about the appropriateness of the tests (which is the crux of the intelligent arguments against the testing being done).  I fully understand that today is not the time for that as states continue to test, but why not two months form now?  AP test questions are routinely vetted afterwards, as are ACT questions.  But then again, not too many people have been picking up torches and pitchforks recently against the work of ETS.


So … good thing I held to my formally signed oath and didn’t actually post questions in my previous post.  That said, if Anonymous is looking for some new places to help the world …

More signs of trouble for standardized testing

March 10, 2015

An article at Education Week includes an interview with one of the math consultants for Smarter Balanced.  Smarter Balanced is the lesser known of the two groups that are backed by the US government to write tests for the Common Core (you may know the other one, PARCC, a little better).  His 30 point critique of the testing gets to the heart of the matter, I think.


Here is one practice question that he gives up for discussion:


          A circle has a center at (6,7), and goes through the point (1,4).  A second circle is tangent to the first circle at (1,4), and has the same area.

          What are the possible coordinates for the center of the second circle?  Show work or explain how you found your answer.


For you old timers, that last part is pretty important.  In the past, “showing your work” on a standardized test was unheard of (especially beneath the graduate level).  This is one of the points about the new standardized testing that I actually approve of (assuming that it can be properly scored … the jury is still out on that … and this is the crux of the critique here).


According to our math consultant, the first thing that anyone would do in trying to “show work” is to draw the circles.  This is not an option for the online test.  Students are given scratch paper (4 pieces, carefully counted), but the scratch paper cannot be collected for further consideration.  Thus, in an attempt to find out not simply what students know, but how they think (which is good) the test designers have designed a test which very specifically makes it impossible to represent a great deal of geometry on these tests.


Another critique is the equation editor.  Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced allow students access on line to an equation editor to help them construct equations to show in their work.  This is not a calculator (there is an “=” key, but it does not allow you to find solutions).  It lacks trig functions and exponents which can be handy when needed (they are).  For odd reasons, the interface is designed the opposite of a calculator interface, and includes some forward and back buttons that are unlabeled as to their purpose (Do you want to take an online test where you have to wonder what “THIS” button does)?


The article, briefly summarizing the 30 page critique, notes that there are also errors with precision that are not consistent with what students are taught according to Common Core.


I just want to be one more voice in the chorus:  when you see test results, before blaming “stupid kids” or “lazy teachers”, keep in mind that no one knows what they are doing, and that starts, apparently, with the people who are writing or editing the tests.  Until these tests are filed under “nice idea, but not going to work”, they are going to continue being a drag on U.S. education instead of its saving grace.