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Bruno: Interview With A Teacher Who Supports Differentiated Compensation

Menya PhotoFrom time to time, Educators 4 Excellence puts together teams of teachers to research and make recommendations on various aspects of education policy.

This month, the Los Angeles chapter released reports from two such teams, including one about how to revamp the way we compensate teachers, which you can find summarized here

The report - authored by thirteen current classroom teachers - suggests attracting  teachers with additional compensation for hard-to-staff placements and recommends selectively retaining teachers by offering incentives for teacher and school impacts on student growth.

It also argues that rather than paying teachers bonuses for graduate credits and degrees, we should offer teachers rewards for 'mastery-based' professional development of specific skills or for taking on well-defined leadership roles.

Since many of these proposals are controversial among educators, I wanted to hear more from actual teachers who support them.

Last week, I sat down with one of the report's authors: sixth grade English and Social Studies teacher Menya Cole (pictured).

Menya taught in Detroit through Teach for America and now teaches at a charter school in Los Angeles. It was another TfA alumnus who connected her to Educators 4 Excellence.

A transcript of a portion of our conversation, edited for clarity, is below the fold.

Paul Bruno: What was your teacher policy team trying to accomplish? What was the goal or problem as the team saw it when they started?

Menya Cole: We wanted to look at how we can recognize teachers for the great things that they're already doing. A lot of recognition for adults in the working world is financial, so how can we financially reward, recognize, or honor teachers for the awesome things that are already happening in their classroom?

PB: One of the first proposals in the report is signing bonuses to attract teachers into hard-to-staff positions, like STEM, bilingual, and SPED.  Bonuses are an idea that come up a lot in the report, but why bonuses instead of salary increases?

MC: We grappled with that question as a group. In our research, the salary increases were a little harder to manage in terms of working with the district managing their salaries. We have a step-and-lane system, and it's not as easy as just saying, "We'll move you up." Because there's a lot of weeds in terms of how to give higher salaries it seemed to be more straight-cut to say, "We'll give you a bonus."

PB: At multiple points, the report recommends compensating teachers at least in part on test scores, whether they're from state tests or local assessments, for all grades and subjects. Would that involve a big increase in the amount of testing that we do?

MC: I vividly recall the debate we had about that. Our proposal is that the districts and teachers create test banks for all subjects, and then benchmark tests get pulled from those banks. Tests might not have to be more often, because kids are already doing benchmark assessments. 

PB: How do you sell teachers, many of whom are skeptical about using test scores, on these sorts of proposals to compensate teachers for student performance on tests?

MC: It's a hard sell. When I was interviewing teachers about that question, many couldn't imagine how to make that equitable.

What I said to teachers was: we can't escape tests. They're here. And our job as teachers is to impact student growth and tests are a way to look at student growth, especially for non-educators or taxpayers who don't really know what happens in the classroom but see test results for their schools or their districts.

We need to look at it from a different angle. Yes, we're sometimes tired of giving tests, but they're not going to go anywhere any time soon, and if your job is to increase student growth why not increase it and get rewarded for doing so?

PB: It's actually hard for me to judge how much opposition to using test scores there is. There's certainly a very vocal group of teachers who really dislike using test scores. Is it your sense that they're representative? How do you think teachers view tests in general?

MC: The teachers I talked to about tests in preparing this report see the validity in them. You need some kind of measurement. You can' t measure through warm, fuzzy feelings to know if your kids are growing.

A lot of concerns come from test design and how high-stakes they are. That's where a lot of contention comes in, so if they're comfortable with how tests were designed, they're more comfortable with the idea of those tests being used to show growth.

 PB: In the section of the report on incentivizing teacher growth, something that rang very true to me was a description of professional development today as essentially meaningless. At the same time, this report leans pretty heavily on PD as a tool. 'Mastery-based' professional development plays a big role as one of the ways teachers would be compensated in these proposals. How possible is it to get to a system where PD is useful and is producing mastery of something?

MC: I'm definitely on the 'switch up PD' bandwagon. It's possible, but it's going to take a complete overhaul. It will take more targeted PDs being created that come with actionable items. A set of PDs, where you choose from a menu: "I want to learn how to do guided reading in my classroom, so I'm going to go to the guided reading PD for 4 weeks. I'm going to do these steps with my kids that align with the PDs."

Are we ready for that mindset shift? In terms of the powers that be, I'd have to say that I don't know. There are some people that hold very dear to their hearts the PD plans we currently endure on a regular basis.

PB: The report also suggests moving away from compensating teachers for master's degrees. Even at the report's launch event, I saw other E4E members express unhappiness with that idea, and at least one expressed that she was offended that she wouldn't be compensated for this work that she's put in for her master's degree. What do you say to those teachers who have invested a lot in these graduate credits or degrees who think they should be compensated for them?

MC: That's a sticky issue and I understand both sides. What I would say to those teachers is that we do honor that work that you've put in, and I do agree that maybe a slight bump in pay honors that.

But the goal with the master's is to be better. And does being better stop when you've got your degree and then you're just amazing for the rest of your career as a teacher? Or is it OK to say that you continue to get better through these targeted PDs? These are ongoing PDs, and whether you're a veteran or a new teacher, they're ongoing and will assist you throughout [your career].

A master's is great, but does your learning stop there?

PB: Also at the launch event, Superintendent Deasy was there and he endorsed the work of the policy teams. But he also said that a lot of what is being proposed here represents a "minority view". Do you think he's right about that?

MC: That struck me as well. In terms of teachers that I spoke with about differentiated compensation as a whole, it was not a minority point of view. But some of the specifics in the paper were minority views. So it's a matter of how you look at it.

PB: That actually brings me to my next question. Why do you think that more teachers or more officials don't already support these ideas?

MC: It's hard to understand what happens in the classroom if you've never been in the classroom. So it's easier to say, "If you've got this many years, you've got this much education, we'll just match you up [on the salary schedule]."

Because there are so many different moving parts in teaching, sometimes people don't want to touch it and risk messing things up or risk getting things wrong. I think that's one reason why it hasn't really been touched.

Because step-and-lane works! It's easy to follow, there are no questions, it's very black-and-white. Why mess up a system that is moving seamlessly, or seemingly seamlessly?

PB: Is it important to have teachers in particular engage with these policy issues? Does it matter that this is a report by teachers?

MC: Yes. I've read these [E4E teacher policy team reports] before in the past, and the fact that they're written by teachers is what led me to read them. If it had been written by a bunch of people who had never taught or are far-removed from the classroom, I would be less likely to want to read it.

I think that as teachers we're not involved in policy enough. We're kind of in the dark when it comes to policy, not because we aren't interested but because we have so much happening in our classrooms that we need to focus on. The thought of having to research and go through all these extra steps to know about policy can be a little bit daunting.

That's why I was eager to join the team, and that's why I think the papers are effective: because we are practicing teachers who are right there on the ground with kids. We are informed by our kids every day that we come in to these [policy] meetings.

- PB(@MrPABruno)


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Paul, I recall reading quite a brouhaha on the old Gotham Schools site about the fact that Educators 4 Excellence requires members to sign a loyalty oath to its established policy positions as a condition of joining. I realize that other affinity groups also require (or assume requirement) that people who join already agree with the policies they promote, but it still seems worth noting that any teacher who belongs to E4E has committed to support the pre-determined positions establish by E4E. So it's not valid to write about E4E as though it represents a range of viewpoints by teachers. Any E4E member will support the same positions Menya Cole does, as a condition of belonging to E4E.


To clarify-

1) E4E does not require a 'loyalty oath' - whatever that means - as I can attest as a member. They are explicit about their core principles when you sign up - the sort of transparency we should expect - but it would be hilariously misleading to characterize that as a 'loyalty oath' or that it means that all members agree about any particular principle.

2) I didn't actually say what range of viewpoints E4E represents.

3) Not all E4E members agree with Menya on everything. I've seen the disagreements between members, even on issues of differentiated compensation, firsthand!

So even if you weren't caricaturing E4E in several ways, I don't know what your point is supposed to be.

Paul - I tried to attend an E4E meeting to hear what they represent. They barred me from that meeting unless I signed that "oath" first. Caroline is correct.

One of the pressures to keep step and lane in place that is often overlooked is that it makes it really easy for districts to budget. For that same reason, any kind of bonus system will never fly because a district's business office doesn't want to write question marks beside potentially huge line items like "bonuses for targeted PD." They will either refuse to implement such a system, or they will make it a pre-determined pie (we'll spend 75K on PD bonuses next year) and the slices will vary depending on how many people show up, meaning that if all the other teachers in my building jump on , it costs me money.

The signing bonus is simple. Districts trying to hire an experienced coach do it all the time-- you simply start them at a higher step. As in, STEM teachers automatically start at step 4 instead of step 1. Easy peasy.

I find the "tests are inevitable so lie back and think of England" argument unconvincing. The problem is not that there are tests. The problem is that the tests are lousy and there are so many of them and they measure the smallest sliver of what we hire teachers to do. "Mrs Smith changed my life in third grade cause she made me really good at bubbling the right answer," said no person ever.

We like tests because they are clear cut and they yield a nice solid number. They gather nice clear data-- it's just not data that tells us anything useful.

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