Teaching Profession

Teaching and Learning

October 22, 2003 7 min read
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Big-City Districts Scrap Reward-Based Systems of Evaluating Teachers

It’s a hot idea to reward teachers for their classroom performance, but in practice the idea can turn very, very cold. School officials in Philadelphia and Baltimore recently threw out different systems for evaluating teachers’ work with students because, in both cases, they wound up being impractical or ineffective.

Philadelphia district administrators dropped a pilot performance-pay plan at the end of last month, saying that expanding it to the district’s nearly 12,000 teachers would be far too costly.

The system, which got started as an endorsement of a merit-pay pilot in the teachers’ 2000 contract, involved measuring classroom performance through “visitations” made by specially trained “assessors.” In the long run, the idea was to pay teachers in the 193,000-student district more if they did well in the evaluation system.

The program had a slow, expensive start. It did not begin until this past winter, and it cost more than $500,000, despite just 140 volunteer subjects. Those teachers were paid $1,000 each for their participation.

Tomas N. Hanna, a special assistant to the district’s chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas, said that while cost sank the program, its content was a problem, too. “Its present form may not be the way to do this,” Mr. Hanna said, noting that some teachers reacted negatively to the documentation involved.

In Baltimore, at almost the same time Philadelphia scuttled its program, officials axed a 6- year-old requirement that teachers make portfolios documenting the work of a handful of students. Principals were supposed to use the portfolios to gauge teachers’ success with students, counting for about a third of a teacher’s evaluation. But the portfolios were widely perceived as just extra paperwork.

Good administrators “know whether teachers are calling parents, keeping work samples,” and, in general, using effective practices, said Kathleen M. LeBlanc, a kindergarten teacher at George Washington Elementary School in Baltimore.

The veteran teacher said that after the principal at her school announced to the faculty at the end of the school day that the portfolio requirement had been abolished, teachers “came running out in the hall going, ‘Yay, yay, yay.’”

In both cities, school leaders continue to endorse the ideas behind the failed efforts at linking evaluation and teacher performance, and say they are trying again.

Leaders of the Philadelphia district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will take up performance pay in the teachers’ contract talks expected to begin soon. Baltimore’s new teacher-evaluation policy calls on principals and other official evaluators to look for evidence of student achievement in many forms throughout the year.

“We won’t be looking at six children; we’ll be looking at the entire class,” said Cassandra W. Jones, the chief academic officer of the 92,000- student Baltimore district.

Money Hunt

When the chairman of the Miami-Dade County school board challenged educators to find “extras” in what he deemed to be a tight $4 billion budget, more than 200 teachers went on a scavenger hunt to “look” for the money.

In a caravan, the educators drove to the bank that holds the district’s accounts, to the dental office where the board chairman works, and to various schools—hooting and hollering all the way. Police cleared the streets for the 2-mile-long train of cars, which included an enormous billboard, pulled by a truck, reading “End the Crisis at Our Public Schools: Put Students and Teachers First.”

The Oct. 4 media stunt was arranged by the 14,500-member United Teachers of Dade, which is locked in a bitter battle with administrators over the funding of teacher salaries and health benefits. The union, meanwhile, is putting together a “white paper” that points out what its leadership views as more than $200 million in savings that could be dedicated to the cause.

Under the current plan, “family health care costs $639 a month,” said Mark Richard, who is serving as the union’s administrator. “There is no HMO option.” Given those circumstances, some 4,800 employees have “gone bare,” choosing to go without health insurance rather than paying the steep rates, he said.

The school board’s proposal is fair, said Mayco Villafaña, a district spokesman. “The union is looking for options, and we’ve provided that,” he said. “We’ve put together a package we feel is quite ample.”

Another Alternative

Prospective educators researching alternative teacher-certification programs will now be able to surf the country’s most comprehensive database on the subject for free.

The new National Center for Alternative Certification will offer consumers information on such initiatives, track trends relating to them, and help their founders in development efforts, according to C. Emily Feistritzer, its president. Information will be disseminated mainly on the Internet as early as Thanksgiving, and a staff of seven will be available to field calls, she said.

Ms. Feistritzer pioneered the collection of such information as the president of the private, Washington-based National Center for Education Information in the early 1980s. That organization will be folded into the new one. Her annual report on the subject—considered the bible by those in the field—cost more than $100 per copy. That information will be posted on the Web site, she said.

The center is being underwritten with a three-year, $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

She added that the site would not advocate one type of alternative certification over another. All information, she said, “will be unbiased, nonpartisan, and as accurate as possible.”

Housed in Washington, the center has not yet chosen a Web address, Ms. Feistritzer said.

Beating the Disease

Sandra Feldman, the president of the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers, was scheduled to lead the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5- mile walk in New York City’s Central Park late last week, one year after being diagnosed with the disease.

Now cancer-free following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, the 64-year- old union leader is trying to draw attention to the problem, which she said afflicts more teachers than women in any other profession.

“Being able to hear from other women who have been through this has been one of the most helpful things I experienced,” Ms. Feldman said in an interview last week. “I want to get my voice out there and help others.”

She advised those who are diagnosed to seek out support from a mentor or friend who has been through or is undergoing treatment.

Ms. Feldman said she is now “very healthy"—not to mention fashionable in a new, silver cropped haircut, which she first unveiled last summer following treatment. “I am,” said the former fan of blond bobs, “keeping it.”

The New York state affiliate of the AFT is a flagship sponsor of the statewide walk for the second year in a row. Members in 11 cities will join in the effort; the march already took place in Binghamton and Buffalo.

Last year, the event drew 115,000 participants and raised $8.5 million for breast-cancer research. Organizers say they hope to do even better this year.

Civics Upgrade

The disputed 2000 presidential election, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and increased homeland-security measures have all helped rekindle interest in the schools’ role in educating informed citizens.

Now, an alliance of government leaders, education organizations, and public-interest groups is pushing for a more coordinated approach for improving teaching about citizenship and government. A conference led by congressional leaders in Baltimore last month called on delegates from each of the 50 states to launch campaigns to do just that.

California has already taken up the charge. The state is distributing a guide to each of its 9,000 public schools for incorporating more civics content throughout the history and social sciences curriculum.

The project, “Education for Democracy,” directed by the Center for Civic Education, a national organization based in Calabasas, Calif., provides an overview of essential content for each grade level. Suggested units and lessons that are aligned with state academic standards, as well as print and Internet resources, are also included.

The center is part of the Alliance for Representative Democracy, which sponsored the first Congressional Conference on Civic Education. The alliance also includes the Center for Congress at Indiana University and the National Conference of State Legislatures as members.

“Living in an increasingly dynamic world reinforces the need for effective and systematic educational programs that prepare students to become informed, effective, and responsible citizens of our state and nation,” the 285-page California guide says.

One activity in the guide asks 7th graders to explain the rise of democratic ideals by examining and comparing vital documents such as the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Sophomores, meanwhile, might analyze recent political platforms that reflect the principles outlined in those documents.

Copies of the guide are available from the Center for Civic Education by calling (818) 591-9321.

—Julie Blair, Bess Keller, & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo inclass@epe.org

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