Education Opinion

Flacking Education

By Nancy Flanagan — June 02, 2011 3 min read
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Back when the Internet was a baby, Facebook and Twitter were nonexistent and tech-savvy folks gathered at electronic bulletin boards and Compuserv forums, I started writing a monthly column for our local newspaper. This began unintentionally--I sent a well-written letter to the editor, signed with my name and my new title: Michigan Teacher of the Year. Invited to write regularly (in other words, provide free content) for the paper, I leapt at the chance.

It didn’t last long. Although every column ended with a her-opinion-only disclaimer, and I was writing about innocuous things, The Superintendent emphatically did not like the idea of a teacher having a very public soapbox for expounding on ed-issues. I got a letter directing me to cease and desist, in so many words. Enthusiastic readers I met in the supermarket--parents, neighbors, former students--felt differently. So did my colleagues in the district, who were constantly sending laudatory you-go messages via the interoffice mail, often including a clipping of the column from the paper.

I learned a powerful lesson from that experience: She who has the megaphone gets heard.

It’s hard to believe that was only 15 years ago. Today, you can select your favorite flavors of online opinion writing, reading only what aligns with your pre-established beliefs. Today, blog commenters are paid to interrupt and poison dialogue or promote a viewpoint. Today, billionaires can hire fresh-faced teachers to show up at legislative hearings to pose as “genuine, real people”--and Davis Guggenheim acts as national spokesperson, explaining teacher unions to the uninformed.

Today, this guy can write as somebody’s daddy and diligent school board member, crafting disingenuous little morality plays, while actually “flacking” for much bigger fish.

Here’s another example of Eduflack’s thinking, this time on the 18th century British practice of sending convicted criminals to work on prison-farms in Australia:

The trouble was, by the time the trip from England to Australia was completed, nearly one third of the prisoners on the ship were dead, lost mid-voyage because of lack of care or concern from the boat captain and his crew. You see, those manning the British crafts were paid by the journey. Complete the trip to the Land Down Under and back, and collect your paycheck.

At the end of the 18th century some British leaders took great issue with the fatality rates on these prison ships. Ultimately, [they] came up with an intriguing idea. Instead of paying ship captains by the trip, they changed their contracts and paid them based on the number of prisoners that were ultimately delivered to Australia. By shifting pay determination from process (the trip) to outcomes (the number of living bodies delivered), a funny thing happened. Nearly 99 percent of those destined for Australia made it there alive, up from the previous 65 percent survival rate. Ship captains were paid well, and they were recognized for successfully completing the job at hand.

What if we took the same approach to teaching? What if, instead of being paid for standing in front of a classroom for an academic year, teachers were paid based on the number of students who score proficient or better on assessment measures? Would we see a change in outcomes?
When we talk teacher incentives, isn't the 18th century nautical analogy apropos? Ultimately, our teachers are the captains of their classrooms, in charge of charting the course and making sure all those on board make it to the final destination. Today, most of those teachers are rewarded for simply manning the ship, surviving the trip from September through June.

Can you pick this apart and find the casual, unchallenged assertions?

At present, teachers merely stand in front of a classroom for a year, with no further responsibility or accountability in place.

Our goal is kids who are “proficient or better"-- since we all understand what proficient means, don’t we?

Teachers are fully in charge of their classroom ships--they and they alone control what happens on the journey, with no other inputs.

Teachers are “rewarded” for showing up and surviving-- every year we lavish money on people who do, essentially, the bare minimum.

What we’re really looking for is data--we’ll pay for test scores, because nothing will else convince us that students have learned.

As for Eduflack’s question--would we see a change in outcomes by paying teachers for test scores?--I find it interesting that the meatiest and most convincing research report on merit pay in recent memory was released the same month as Eduflack shared his innocent question.

That study says no--performance pay doesn’t raise test data. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive study on how British ship captains kept prisoners alive, once incentivized to do so. Perhaps they fed them better, tended their wounds and treated them well, investing in their continued survival and potential as human beings. Just a guess. Eduflack’s analogy is silent on that point. Ends, not means.

Has the explosion of free online content elevated the discourse on teaching, learning and school reform? The Superintendent feared the unfettered editorial voice of one teacher (who delivered consistently good teaching results in his district). I wonder how many other authentic teacher voices have been silenced, and how many of the voices speaking on reform today are coming from people who actually do the work.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.