Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Can Georgia reform education by diminishing status, salaries of teachers?

Former Pelham City Schools Superintendent Jim Arnold writes about the new Education Reform Commission created by the governor to address, among other things, the Georgia school funding formula.

A longer version of this post appears on Arnold's blog .

By Jim Arnold

I will admit I was more than a little skeptical when I learned about the group appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to investigate the possibility of updating the decades old formula used to fund education in Georgia.

It wasn’t necessarily the membership that made me suspicious, but the motives behind such an effort. Gov. Deal has shown himself on more than one occasion to be a supporter of the privatization of public education and one who believes charter schools will provide a magical answer to the effects of poverty on learning and public schools and public school teachers must be the both the problem and the enemy because every student in public education does not succeed at high educational levels.

Career politicians like the governor seem to have developed a sincere belief that quick fixes and silver bullets will solve educational issues and, if only teachers could once again do more with less, they could overcome the problems created by poverty, society, single parent homes, hunger, unemployment, the economy and rural isolation.

The real reason behind the “study” became evident last week when Erin Hames , who oversees education policy for Deal, said if the group doesn’t recommend doing away with paying teachers for training and experience, then “I’m not sure that we’re going to change anything about the way business is done.” She also said research is “pretty clear” teachers with advanced degrees do no better in the classroom.

I was surprised to hear that. Not surprised to hear about the desire to find what amounts to a gigantic teacher pay cut but to discover that research, however deceptive, played a part in any educational decisions made politically in Georgia. On the face of things, it would seem that experience and advanced academic study in almost any profession you might name would be desirable for employees and those who employ them.

Quick -- make a decision -- you have a choice of third-grader teachers for your child.  You can have the new one fresh out of college or you can have the one who has been teaching for 12 years and who your neighbor’s kid loved. Would you choose the new one still finding her way through the maze of new teacher mania and discovering what works through trial and error, or the one with a clear idea of what she expects, how she handles behavioral issues, how she assesses students and their progress and her network of professional contacts to help her solve any problems or issues that might arise?  Seems like an easy one to answer, doesn’t it?

For that matter, how many politicians cite their own political experience in seeking re-election?  I haven’t seen much research on whether it makes them more effective politicians but incumbency does seem to have its own set of political privileges.

Surely teaching experience and advanced education count for something?

The research in question does, indeed, suggest teacher training, including in-service training, undergraduate training and advanced degrees, play little or no part in improving student achievement as measured by standardized achievement tests. Value-added statistical models also show teacher training and experience have little or no effect on student achievement scores on standardized tests, so on the face of things it might be reasonable to assume experience and educational attainment make little difference in student learning.

Looking further, however, shows us extensive additional research indicates even the most effective teachers account for only 1- 15 percent of student improvement on standardized tests in any given school year. There are additional issues with the assumption student learning is accurately measured by standardized testing and that eight hours of teaching can overcome the influences of life, society, parents, poverty or television for the other 16 hours.

Over a week’s time, for example, students spend about 40 hours at school and about 80 hours at home or other places not counting weekends. Over the course of a 9 month school year (assuming there are no furlough days in effect) that would mean 1440 hours in school and around 2880 hours at home, again not counting weekends. That is a rather large chunk of student time teachers don’t have to teach, which hasn’t been part of the responsibility discussion.

Advanced degrees for teachers also seem to have little effect on student scores on standardized tests. I would suggest this is just another indicator that what those tests measure is not student learning but test-taking strategies. Teachers and administrators would never make the mistake of believing authentic student learning is measured by standardized testing. Neither should you.

What does, however, invariably affect student standardized test scores is the economic status of the parents. Students from more affluent families score higher at every grade level and with every imaginable test than students from poor families. Conversely, research has also shown the only accurate predictors of student success in college are the grades provided by high school teachers.

Think that over for a moment. Not the SAT, the ACT, the EOCT, the CRCT, the Georgia Milestones…not even Pearson... but teacher grades that students earn in high school. So it would seem, in spite of the “blame teachers for everything wrong” movement, the vast majority of teachers do conscientiously administer grades and employ defendable grading methods.

Just as there are some politicians who don’t follow ethics rules, some policemen who don’t follow department procedures and some lawyers who get disbarred, some teachers and some administrators are the exception to the effective grading continuum. For the grades to be valid predictors, as research suggests, the vast majority of teachers must follow sound methodology and grading practices in their classrooms.

Teachers and administrators know if you are basing your evaluation of teachers, teaching and learning and public education on standardized test scores you are measuring the wrong thing with the wrong instrument.

Georgia’s reformy leaders continue to ignore this research because it doesn’t fit in with their goals to allow public money to be used for private education and for private gain. It’s pretty inconvenient for their cause so it's usually just ignored.  They use research only when it can support the implementation of policies that increase the amount of public tax monies available to testing companies, charter schools and the private investors that support them.

Georgia doesn’t spend much on individual teachers. The base salary for a beginning teacher is $33,473 annually and a little under $2,800 per month. Teachers may earn incremental increases every few years for experience and may also earn increases for advanced degrees, as long as those degrees are in their field of teaching assignment.

Without the raises for experience and advanced degrees, it would be safe to assume a teacher with X years of experience might still be earning the same amount as a beginning teacher. It would also seem the removal of those incremental increases would make teaching even less attractive than it already is.

Gov. Deal recently announced 10 percent raises for much of his staff.  These raises come in addition to the performance review incentives, bonuses and other added income for key members of his staff.  The governor failed to mention any research citations that supported the necessity of his decision to increase staff salaries, but did say “they could all make higher salaries in the private sector.”

So, if I am following the governor’s logic here, it’s necessary for him to keep his staff from going to other positions by raising their salaries but it’s OK to cut teacher salaries and expect them to keep working without any hope for an incremental raise that doesn’t even approach the 10 percent given his staff. Curious logic, but here again, it’s not an election year.

Rather than measuring success with standardized test scores, unproven value-added methods and “no excuses” models that ignore the causes and effects of poverty on student learning, Gov. Deal could focus on the things that help teachers make a difference in teaching and learning; cooperation, commitment and a positive school culture.  There are places like that in Georgia, if only he would look.



Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.