Please Pass the Crazy Salad!

Yeats said,  “fine women eat / Crazy salad with their meat / Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” He was mistaken: “In the field of education / Crazy salad is the ration.” Teachers, their handlers, and their reporters can’t get enough of it, and they manage a creditable job of undoing the Horn of Plenty too, if it ever worked in education.

It doesn’t seem to be working now, to judge by a New York Times headline that “Middle-Class Pay Elusive for Teachers, Report Says.” I like that “elusive.” What the headline means is that many American teachers spend years near poverty, particularly in expensive cities, waiting for the salary scale to move them slowly into the lower reaches of the middle class. In return for this reward they hold a job so difficult to manage well that they can only smile knowingly when they read that Garret Keizer, an excellent teacher who returned to the profession after a fourteen-year hiatus[1], started having nightmares as Day One approached.

In response, some people, fresh from a crazy salad binge, are proposing that as an alternative, teachers be allowed to reach the top of the pay scale after six or nine years of being rated “highly effective”.  Teachers who want to sup at this mess  had better get out their long spoons. Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford reports that of teachers whose “Value”-“Added” ratings placed them at the top, only 20% maintained those ratings the following year. That kind of volatility makes an excellent rating nothing but a craps shoot. The odds of making the shot nine years in a row are not much better than the odds of rolling nine sevens in a row at the craps table.

Darling-Hammond notes VAMs are volatile enough that 40 – 55% of teachers rated at one level one year were rated at a “significantly different” level the following year. If VAMs actually measured anything, which they don’t, it would mean that teachers suffered from an intellectual-professional bipolar disorder: excellent one year and mediocre the next, which they aren’t. (Maybe VAM should stand for “Volatile Arbitrary ‘Measurement.'”)

Something doesn’t add up, and not just the salary. Why are people advocating compressed salary scales attached to volatile rating systems? I think something sly may be going on—like the tout at the carnival midway trying to get people to pitch balls at bottles that are impossible to knock down. All the teachers have to do is accept this new way of determining pay. Go ahead: try your luck!

[1] His book about this experience, Getting Schooled, is well worth reading, and I will be saying more about it in future postings.

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