What educationalists in New Zealand can learn from newspapers in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times has produced a detailed set of estimates about how much value each teacher in Los Angeles adds to their classroom. That is hugely valuable information. New Zealand’s education establishment should be doing something similar.

The Times used official information about students and about neighbourhoods to generate information about how much value a teacher adds. The basic idea is to figure out how well the kids should be doing in English and maths given their own previous achievement, background, and surroundings. Then they see whether the kids in a particular teacher’s classrooms tend to outperform this expectation, perform as expected, or underperform. That average difference is what we are interested in. If the kids perform about as expected in most classes, but do really well in one teacher’s classes, then that probably tells us something about the individual teacher. If the kids are outperforming expectations across all classes in a school, then that likely tells us something about the school’s atmosphere and/or leadership.

Richard Buddin, an economist at the RAND Corporation and Professor at UCLA, adapted the specific statistical techniques for this purpose. I am no RAND economist, but I do some statistical work in my own research, and to my semi-trained eye it looks to be nicely done.

It is not overwhelmingly hard to adapt this approach for New Zealand. We don't even need National Standards to do it. We have all kinds of other achievement testing in primary and secondary school already, from the PAT tests through to NCEA. We can use those as our benchmarks, as we have done for decades. And we have screeds of data on where our schoolchildren come from, how they did last year, and so on.

Why should we follow the Times’ lead? Because it helps us to reward great teachers and provide remedial support for teachers in difficulty. And because it allows us to diagnose, early, easily, and with reasonable precision, what is going wrong when a school is performing badly. Is it one or two bad teachers? A bad english department? Poor school-wide leadership? Or is the issue in the community itself, a problem at home rather than in the classroom? The data can answer that crucial question better than a big round of finger-pointing in front of an inspector from ERO.

We can do all kinds of helpful things with this information. If one school has a dysfunctional maths department and there is a great maths teacher at another school, the government can fund the Board of Trustees to pay generous incentives to convince the great teacher to take on the troubled department as HoD. Same thing for giving great teachers powerful incentives to teach at generally underperforming schools. Same thing for new principles.

If a teacher is performing poorly, we can provide additional training and mentoring to that teacher, making sure it is great teachers who we ask to be the mentors.

If a school is performing badly, but no worse than average given the students’ demographics, the government can target the area for out of school programs designed to complement and extend in-school learning.

Many good things flow from having better information.

It is true that there are already multiple ways to assess teachers in New Zealand. There is teacher registration. There are periodic assessments against professional standards. In some situations, there are Teacher’s Council investigations. There is ERO. Those are all good things to have, and this data-driven assessment should be used to extend those assessment regimes, not to replace them. The data based assessment does add real value, however, both as a nationwide diagnostic tool for educators and administrators and as an individual assessment tool for rewarding great teachers and helping others improve.

Who should find out the results? Well, the teachers for a start. They need to know how they are doing. And their local Board of Trustees. And the government folk should know, too. They are collectively charged with improving the educational outcomes for New Zealand’s tragically long “education tail.” Once they know how their teaching resources are distributed, they can better shuffle them around to make the system more effective.

Parents should probably get some information about how their kid’s school does compared to other schools with similar student demographics. That is a valuable accountability mechanism for Principals, who get paid good money to be accountable to their local communities. But unfiltered league tables of area schools do more harm than good, presenting an apples to oranges comparison as if it were apples to apples.

Parents should also not get access to individual teacher rankings. Here I disagree with the Times. Why? Because it is little more than a recipe for school administrators to be drowned in a tide of the pushiest, over-caffeinated parents demanding that Little Johnny should move over to that excellent Mrs Paki’s home room. Now! We don’t get to see the latest performance review of the cop that pulled us over, or the nurse in the hospital ward, or the customs agent at the border. And rightly so. Teachers are no different.

(Note to over-caffeinated parents: It is not always your kid’s turn to have the best teacher at school. Do you know what the best teachers spend a lot of time trying to teach? Sharing.)

This kind of scheme will not make lucky teachers rich. Those teachers blessed with upwardly mobile classes of bright young things at places like Parnell District School or Wellington Girls College probably won’t make massive performance bonuses, because we expect those kids to learn well regardless of the teacher. The teachers that stand to gain from this kind of tool are those turning C or D students into B students in challenging school environments. Those are the people we need to encourage and reward, because their achievements in the classroom brighten the future for the whole country. Let’s find out who they are, judging them by their results, and give them the rewards they deserve.

Comments (7)

by Frenchy on October 22, 2011

You realise teachers usually mark their own classes' National Standards/PAT/NCEA internals - therefore they'd effectively be marking themselves. Great teachers already try to be great teachers because they love it. Bad teachers will only be encouraged to teach to the tests, rather than the curriculum, or be generous markers. 
So, in my opinion, those type of performance-based incentives would not be a good development.
However, I agree with you that there need to be incentives for good teachers to go to lower decile schools.

The best way to make great teachers is to increase their pay to recognise the hours they work, so that smart, hardworking people will be encouraged to go into teaching. It is not a 9-3 job, it is a 8-5, then bring work home job.
(Disclosure, I am not a teacher, but my Mum & sister are)

by Rob Salmond on October 23, 2011
Rob Salmond

@Frenchy - You are right that implementing performance measures for teachers is more challenging with self-marked NCEA assessments. The NCEA does, however, rely also on cross-marking and moderation for quality control, and strengthening that system would counteract the incentives to cheat that you noted. It is also worth noting that this problem does not arise as much with PAT tests in primary school.

I do not agree that the best approach here is to substantially increase teacher salaries across the board. That provides an incentive to be a teacher without providing an additional incentive to go the extra mile and be a great teacher.

I also do not agree that teachers are currently paid as if it were a 9-3 job. Secondary teachers with a BA and a teaching diploma start at $47k and can earn up to $71k at current scales, even without any of the additional salary Units under the control of Boards of Trustees. The top of their base salary scale is more pay than 90% of New Zealand adults recieve, according to IRD data. I think **great teachers** should receive substantially more compensation than this, but I do not think **all teachers** should get a big raise.

by Stephanie on October 26, 2011

I'm scratching my head wondering why we would want to emulate the United States schooling system which consistently under-performs in relation to New Zealand and a whole host of OECD nations.

If you want educational quality, look to Finland where even primary teachers require masters degrees in education (with a strong practice component) and Singapore where there's a strong working relationship between schools/minstry/teachers college to refine and improve teaching practice.

I think first we need to really think about what is we want our kids to get out of schooling system. Is it just kids that can regurgitate content to pass exams as we did in the 20th century? Or do we accept that things have changed and if we want our kids be engaged in education we need to start rethinking what is we want kids doing in school. Then start talking about what we want from our teaching workforce and how we can create the conditions for teachers to achieve that.

Finally not all low decile schools are horrible places that nobody wants to work at. One of the most innovative schools in Auckland, Point England, is a decile 1 school.

by Rob Salmond on October 27, 2011
Rob Salmond

@ Stephanie

I am not suggesting we adopt the American school system, just that we look at one recent innovation produced not by the system itself but by interested observors interested in making the system work better.

I think your suggestion regarding Finland great, but sadly we do not have enough teachers as it is, let alone teachers with Master's Degrees. The big question we face is what can we do **now**, with the human resource constraints that we have. We have to act now because our education tail is already dangerously long.

I also agree that things have changed and that learning is about more than regurgitation. But learning is still about learning to read, write, and do maths, among other things. As a **partial** way of assessing how we are doing, why can we not assess those parts quantitavely as a supplement to all the other work we do to ensure quality?

It is great to hear about the work going on at Point England school. If those innovations are paying off for the kids, then the teachers at the school should be rewarded. If you adopt my suggestion, those rewards would be larger and more forthcoming than under the current regime.

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by danniel on March 07, 2012

This is quite ingenious and productive at the same time. We should constantly work to find ways to improve our education system, only this way we will have access to the highest outcomes. I intend to apply for a masters public health online and I sure hope they have a high quality training to offer, this way I will get better at my job and the society will have it's benefits from that. Sounds simple, ha?

by danniel on March 20, 2013

   This strategy is very good, by applying it we can find out how much value adds a specific teacher during classes and how receptive students are on various subjects. But to get better results, I think that, besides teachers, parents should get more involved in their children's education. I wonder if this strategy can be applied within an online college, because it seems to be the choice of most students these days.

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