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The Pink Slip Club

I was pink-slipped six times in the first decade I taught—then once more, during the year I was Michigan Teacher of the Year. By then, I had learned to see a pink slip as ineffectual, contractually mandated paperwork only barely connected to the realities of staffing a school with quality teachers. I was called back in five of six pink-slippings, and spent one year substitute teaching while waiting to return to the classroom.

There were huge cuts sweeping the state then. As usual, all the arts and noncore subjects were cut first. From that experience, I learned that it’s not smart to promote yourself as “the exceptional teacher who shouldn’t get cut”—because that’s what the Detroit News reporter asked: With all those bad teachers out there, why would they cut the Teacher of the Year? Initially flattering, but based on a dangerous misconception that the best plan would be to select the “good” teachers and let the others go, who needs ’em?

These days, the dominant narrative is that test scores should be the benchmark for letting teachers go, achievement data being all we really have—despite huge methodological flaws—to evaluate teaching.

Let’s cut to the chase. If school reformers really wanted the best possible teachers in every classroom, they’d select and prepare them carefully, support them diligently on the job, and fight to retain them, given the high cost of replacing teachers. Mass pink-slipping is a necessary tactic that alerts teachers to the fact that the school is in deep budget distress. But it’s also a way to get rid of veteran teachers, especially those whose profiles and voices have risen.

—Nancy Flanagan


Overconfidence in Measurement

If there’s one thing that defines today’s accountability movement in education, it’s the sanctity of measurement. Reformers relentlessly demand hard data that students are learning. Without objective evidence, they claim that schools will never improve.

They point to business as a model. But despite what is widely assumed, numbers are rarely the sole consideration in evaluating employees in the private sector. When they are, they result in collateral damage in the form of depersonalization throughout the ranks and a false sense of assurance in the executive suite.

New York state serves as a case study. On March 1, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, introduced a compromise plan that would allow merit to be considered instead of only seniority. His proposal was in response to criticism about using LIFO (last in, first out) as the basis for layoffs.

In the absence of length of service, which is totally objective, what would substitute in determining layoffs? If only measurable outcomes were considered, then teachers would overlook noncognitive results, which are every bit as important in education, and would be given no credit for serendipity, which can yield valuable results.

Moreover, there is the issue of whether it’s better to motivate groups, rather than individuals, in order to get the best overall results. In a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found that group incentive pay and hourly pay play a greater role in motivating workers in manufacturing settings than individual incentive pay. This conclusion has particular relevance to today’s debate in education over identifying effective teachers.

Numerical goals have their place in schools. But they don’t deserve to be elevated to the throne in making decisions. That’s the mistake reformers make time and again.

—Walt Gardner


Speaking up for the NWP

It saddens me to realize that I have written about why we should save federally funded programs like the National Writing Project (and Reading Is Fundamental) for the third time in two years. In spite of successful grassroots efforts to lobby for continued funding for these powerful literacy initiatives, these programs receive temporary stays of execution, only to appear on lists of funding cuts the next go-around.

As an American taxpayer, I know we need to make difficult cuts. It seems logical that we should dedicate our limited resources to programs shown to improve teacher performance and increase student achievement—programs like the National Writing Project, a successful professional-development initiative for the past three decades. We lose a vital source of leadership if we silence the NWP.

The most important lesson I learned as a Writing Project teacher consultant was that one voice matters. I have written letters to my state representatives in support of both NWP and RIF. I implore you to do the same.

—Donalyn Miller

Vol. 30, Issue 26, Page 13

Published in Print: March 30, 2011, as Blogs of the Week
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