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October 19, 2010 4 min read
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The Lure of ‘Gold Star Teachers’

Today, I want to talk about taking a first step in rethinking the utilization and compensation of teachers through a “Gold Star Teachers” initiative.

For decades, the go-to school improvement recipe has been to reduce class sizes. Any challenge to this status quo encounters a buzz saw of opposition from parents and teachers who like small classes. That’s why national teacher-student ratios are down to 15-to-1 today. Yet the research backing across-the-board class reduction is thin, at best. International evidence shows no simple relationship between class size and student achievement.

Hence, the Gold Star program offers teachers who are at least reasonably effective the opportunity, should they so choose, to teach more kids per class and to be rewarded for taking on a larger workload. Such a state-level program would offer a chance to reshuffle the incentives and create a productivity-enhancing dynamic. Teachers whose students post larger-than-normal gains for at least two consecutive years would be eligible to opt into the program.

Given the choice between a Gold Star Teacher serving more children and the alternative, many parents will likely prefer the larger class. But it is essential that it be a parental choice and not an administrative fiat. —Rick Hess


Expecting Too Much From the Best Teachers

It’s an article of faith among reformers that recruiting teachers from the top of their classes will assure top-performing schools. There’s just one problem: That line of thinking often fails to consider the role that poverty plays in performance.

I don’t believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation, and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own. They can help narrow the gap between these students and those from advantaged backgrounds, but they can’t eliminate it.

That’s a vital distinction given short shrift in today’s debate. It’s one thing to improve academic performance in absolute terms, but it’s quite another to improve performance in relative terms.

Let’s not forget that children from affluent backgrounds continue to benefit from the enrichment that travel, summer camp, and after-school activities provide. As a result, they leverage their advantages in ways that their poorer classmates simply cannot. Education does not occur in a vacuum. It is a continuous process that goes on long after the school day is over.

We set ourselves up for a big disappointment if we persist in the comforting delusion that teachers alone are the answer. —Walt Gardner


Are Charter Schools The Silver Bullet?

Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting For ‘Superman’ ” has dominated the airwaves with its message that public education is a failed enterprise and that privately managed charters are the answer to our nation’s education problems.

Before we hop aboard the charter train, which is now driven by Race to the Top and other federal funding, we should pay attention to the warning signs. There are new ones every day.

Many charters and charter chains are not financially sustainable; they have discovered no secrets about economizing, and their financial backers can’t always be there to save them.

The steady accumulation of financial scandals in these deregulated schools is proof that, where public funds go, public audits must follow, as night follows day.

One of New York City’s most-publicized charter schools, the Ross Global Academy, is in a heap of trouble. The New York Daily News says it is now the lowest-rated elementary or middle school in the city.

Those promoting the privatization of American public education are blinded by free-market ideology. Charters are not a silver bullet. They are a lead bullet. Their target is American public education. —Diane Ravitch


Bringing the 4 R’s to Evaluation

Most of my noneducator friends work in the software industry, and I always listen carefully when they tell me about how they are evaluated.

Performance evaluations in the private sector have three direct consequences: retention, promotion, and compensation. I think it’s fair to say these are rarely outcomes of the teacher- or principal-evaluation processes. The reality is that teacher evaluations are often perfunctory, lack meaningfulness, and have little impact on the quality of teaching.

How do we address this as a profession? It may help to think of evaluations in terms of the four R’s:

Rigor: Low standards insult professionals who set high personal standards, so be honest and don’t inflate ratings.

Relevance: If teachers can set goals that matter to them and can collaborate, the relevance factor goes up.

Relationships: Evaluations require close knowledge of the professional and his or her work. This can’t be done from a distance.

Results: Finally, there is no reason to fear student-performance data, with the caveat that it be interpreted in the context of classroom realities.

We have a choice: We can make this a perfunctory process, or we can make it rigorous, relevant, and oriented toward using our professional relationships to maximize student learning. —Justin Baeder

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A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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