I speak my truth…


[NOTE: I’ve edited part of the speech that was not delivered which said that Board Members had quoted questionable figures. They did not do this at the board meeting, and in fact Board Member Arroyo was very aggressive in questioning the presenters from TFA about studies they cited, and in citing alternative studies. The Urban Institute study did appear in the staff report submitted for the meeting]

Last night’s board meeting on bringing TFA to our district was just informational, but based on the questions and comments from Board Members, I don’t think we will be discussing this particular item in the immediate future. I will be reprising my tweets from the meeting, with color commentary, in the next 24 hours, but until then, here is the text from my speech:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Alice Mercer, and I’m here tonight to share some perspective on lessons that can and should be learned from a so-called Superintendent’s Priority School. I have been the Computer and Technology teacher for three years at Oak Ridge Elementary,which is slated for some form of reconstitution (either whole staff, or partial staff changes). Complicating matters further, seven out of the 20 teachers have been given pink slips, including myself. I’m here to speak against the proposal to bring in TFA interns to the district to use in these priority schools.

In discussions with the district about solutions at Oak Ridge, there has been talk from administrators about getting more energy and enthusiasm.   Strangely enough, that phrase comes up in discussions about the advantages of TFA interns. I’m going to point out a salient truth about what has happened at Oak Ridge. There was not a lack of energy, youth, or enthusiasm. Many of you who visited the campus over the years know that.  TFA  will be useless because we’ve had youth and energy over the years. What’s needed is more experience and consistency.

At this point, I ran out of time (they cut comments from 2 to 1 minute), and simply tagged on the point that the folks from TFA during their presentation referred to a Harvard study saying 65% remained in teaching, but that was at year three, and it drops to 32% by year five. Below is the rest of the speech.

The Superintendent referred to the Einstein quote about insanity is continuing to do what has worked. By this definition, using TFA in this particular circumstance would be insanity.

A factor in what has happened over the years at Oak Ridge, is staff transiency.  TFA will exacerbate, not solve this problem. Other speakers will address some methods that would be effective to deal with this, but I want to make CLEAR that all the reputable studies on TFA indicate that they turnover at a faster rate than other teachers (85%). I am hearing figures about turnover quoted from the Superintendent  and Board Members that are not from reputable studies. They are from a study that no reputable education journal would accept because of it’s flawed validity. To put this in plain English, the findings are as valid and reliable as the response I would get by asking my husband, “Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?” I am not pleading for my position, but instead that we all learn the lesson from Oak Ridge. I can live with not returning to Oak Ridge, but it would really kill me if the lesson of Oak Ridge is ignored, which is the need for sober minded realism, not just youthful energy. The students, community, and teachers deserve better than that.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question,

‘Is it safe?’

Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’

And Vanity comes along and asks the question,

‘Is it popular?’

But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’

And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular,

But he must do it because Conscience tells him  it is right.”

It was the worst of times…



Well, being unionized, it’ll be a lot more civilized than that, but a week that started with my school being subject to “reconstitution” ended with me getting one of these.  Keep a couple things in mind…

  1. Last week ended with a lot success and kudos from my peers and others at CUE. I was sharing what was going on in the lab with students, and getting great feedback.
  2. The seniority dates for pink slip notices  under discussion were in the 7 year range, and seemed far away.
  3. Our school thought our principal was likely to get replaced, but as a staff, we were getting more focused, and organized in our instruction.

Now, my school is gonna be tossed to the four winds, and although I’ll probably be recalled since I’m right at the cutoff date, it’s highly unlikely I will be in the lab, or at my current site. I don’t know what to say. Random moments of absurdity from this week…

  • The district, perhaps trying to be kind, responded to an inquiry about our site by teachers at another school, but saying that we had “won a state grant”. Well, only if we kick 50% of the staff out. Really, it doesn’t help with the humiliation factor!
  • My district is recruiting TFA interns to fill positions that really aren’t open, and the district is claiming that they will not be filling any of the positions now made vacant by lay offs.

And this brings us to the rest of my post. You see, the only problem with this is they’ve sent pink slips out to high school teachers in math and science (the very “hard to fill” positions they claim they need under-qualified TFA interns for). They have also sent pink slips to a number of special education teachers at elementary, who would likely be better candidates for training to work in high school special ed classes than someone with absolutely no experience teaching anyone let alone high school kids with special needs.

I will not go into a long discussion about this, but many graduates of our two local public university teacher training programs  would love to get jobs in my district. For a variety of reasons, the biggest having to do with the districts insistence on not opening classroom teaching positions when more students show up at the start of school than are planned for until a month after school starts, this hasn’t happened. Instead, these teachers leave the state to find a teaching job before my district even gets around to posting these openings.

Call me paranoid, but I’m seeing this as a really clumsy execution of a policy to undermine unionized teachers.  I can’t help but think that they are trying to reach back as far as they can in the seniority pool, to clear out space for these interns, even though it would violate state labor law. They want to replace contracted teachers with inexperienced interns. I hope I’m wrong, and this is just poorly executed due to the new superintendent’s lack of experience, especially in working with a unionized teaching staff.

But, it’s not just about me, and my fellow teachers. We need to understand why this is important for the kids. This is what they should be doing:

  1. Improve the pipeline from CSUS, and UC Davis math and science teaching programs. Make a decision after week one to open new classes, and have those in the pipeline ready to go. They will have the advantage of already working in these schools, and be trained to work with language learner populations. In my opinion, using TFAers with minimal training working with this population would be a violation of those students’ civil rights.
  2. Offer unfilled high school special education positions to teachers in surplus pool, if they willing to work on getting the proper credentialing.  They will at least have experience with special education populations, and a solid understanding of best practices. Once again, using TFAers for this when other more qualified candidates were available, would be a violation of those students’ rights.
  3. If you have teachers who are on emergency credentials in those positions now, they have one more year of experience than the TFA interns which makes them superior. Make sure they are in a decent alt cert program.(1) Most of the studies comparing TFAs effectiveness are comparing them to alt cert teachers and they usually come up about equal in the short run. Since TFA has such a high attrition rate (85% in four years), that’s not saying much. Also, if teachers on emergency credentials are not up to snuff, they are the one class of teacher than be removed with very little fanfare (2 weeks notice). You would then want to look back up at #1 for a higher quality replacement.


(1) Many of the teachers that are out of certification in science are only out because they are credentialed for another area. In other words, they’ve taken all their teaching theory classes, how to teach language learner classes, and science class in one subject (say Earth Science), they just are teaching in another science subject (say Biology).  I’m more troubled by someone not having any training in teaching than a Geologist teaching Biology while he works on finishing up a couple classes in Biology while he’s teaching.
[Return to text]

We interrupt this program improvement…


I am overdue for posts on my trip to CUE, the ongoing soap opera of EETT ARRA funding in my state, and posting about my upcoming presentation at CABE with Larry Ferlazzo, but today we received bad news at my school, so instead I’m indulging in a pity party. My school is being designated as a “failing school” in the bottom 5% of school performance. We’re still trying to figure out how the state chose us among some other schools in our district (some of whom have been in PI much longer, like 7 years to our 4), but it is what it is. The Superintendent stopped by with some other district administrators (since it’s a pretty new and arcane process, they were there to answer questions). They will not be turning us into a charter, or closing us. They will either do a fresh slate, letting all of us go, OR get a new administrator, and replace up to 50% of teaching staff.

Frankly, blogging, twittering, or otherwise communicating on the Internet about my personal experiences as this unfolds is not going to help the situation, so I’m not anticipating this being an ongoing topic. You’ll likely see me moan and groan on twitter occasionally about job hunting, if that comes up. I’m going to ask readers to put things in context:

  1. I still have job rights, and even if all of us are terminated from our positions, we still have jobs (except for our lower seniority teachers who were going to get pink-slipped/fired anyway due to budget cuts).
  2. I have changed job sites pretty frequently. I’ve never worked at the same site longer than three years. I’ve been pretty “mobile” in my job history. I like changing jobs.
  3. That being said, I hate job hunting, and will likely moan a lot on twitter if it comes to that. A little sympathy is all that is necessary. Just because I’m complaining, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world for me.
  4. The bottom line is that I’m more worried about whether this is the right thing for the students, than for the grown ups. I think the vast majority of adults at the school know things need to be improved, but right now it is much too new, and too personal for many of us to judge whether this is a good idea.

I just really need time to digest this whole thing myself. Thank you for your support!

Testing: Stereotype Threat and the Perversion of Incentives, Part II


Photo Credit: Monopoly Justice on flickr photosharing

That’s students, it was an article on excessive bonuses that caught my eye with regard to teachers. Economist Dan Ariely, in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions takes a look at how excessive bonuses can actually pervert effects.  Here’s a quote from a NY Times guest op-ed piece:

What would you expect the results to be? When we posed this question to a group of business students, they said they expected performance to improve with the amount of the reward. But this was not what we found. The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

So, this definitely has implications for teacher incentive pay. If you make it small it’ll help, if you make it medium, it’s the same, and if you make it big, it’ll make it worse. In other talks he’s discussed how stressed out the folks in the India version of his experiments got when they were working towards the highest bonus (equivalent to 6 months pay in India).

He points out that this anger, resentment, worry, and stress, was echoed in financial institutions that relied heavily on bonus incentives during the last quarter of the year. I think it’s the same feeling I’ve had at during previous testing seasons.

So it turns out that social pressure has the same effect that money has. It motivates people, especially when the tasks at hand require only effort and no skill. But it can provide stress, too, and at some point that stress overwhelms the motivating influence.

When I recently presented these results to a group of banking executives, they assured me that their own work and that of their employees would not follow this pattern. (I pointed out that with the right research budget, and their participation, we could examine this assertion. They weren’t that interested.) But I suspect that they were too quick to discount our results. For most bankers, a multimillion-dollar compensation package could easily be counterproductive. Maybe that will be some comfort to the boards at UBS and Goldman Sachs.

I believe that offers like the D.C.P.S. for $100,000 salaries are the equivalent to the million dollar compensation packages that have become the norm in financial institutions, and will likely have the same effect, which is not the one we are all looking for.

Another idea he touches on is how monetary incentives can undermine social relationships. That comes from an experiment on paying late fees at an Israeli daycare center. When fines were implemented, parents started to “pay for the privilege” of a late pickup. Even after the policy reverted back to “no-fee” which it had been at the start, parents were late more often than they had been before the rules changed. Incentives perverted the social contract.

I think we need to think about this in terms of our students and high stakes testing, and how it might be intersecting with “stereotype threat”. The implications for what might happen when we implement any more incentive based pay systems, especially for teachers, are pretty clear, you won’t get what you pay for.


Op-Ed Contributor – What’s the Value of a Big Bonus? – NYTimes.com

Dan Ariely Takes on ‘Irrational’ Economic Impulses : NPR

Freakonomics Blog at NYTimes

Testing: Stereotype Threat and the Perversion of Incentives, Part I


Photo Credit: Rorschach Test 1 on flickr photosharing

Just as intriguing, though, is the researchers’ explanation for why the effects hit some groups of students harder than others: They chalk it up to “stereotype threat.”

…when the research team examined students’ previous scores on other state tests, they turned up some evidence that minority students and women had underperformed on particular sections of the state exit exam. Women fared worse than their earlier performance might have predicted, for example, on the math portion. Asian students did worse-than-expected on English-language arts.

Think about the implication for our student’s test scores. If they think the test is critical for their future, then in aggregate, they are likely to perform at a level lower than past performance would indicate. That means if they have internalized the test as being “high stakes” the more likely it is to be inaccurate in actually measuring knowledge. The implications are troubling. I think that students didn’t feel the “threat” until CASHEE because while the stakes are high for educators, testing doesn’t have a real direct link for kids. It is used in some cases to assign double blocks of Language Arts and/or Mathematics in middle school, but CASHEE Is where the rubber hits the road for students.


« Older EntriesNewer Entries »


Links of Interest


Creative Commons License
All of Ms. Mercer's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Skip to toolbar