Straight talk about Texas teachers’ compensation

Editor’s note: You can view Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro’s testimony here at the time mark of 6:19:29.

Sometimes in the Texas Senate, it seems to be an article of faith that performance pay, especially when built on the foundation of opaque “black box” algorithms purporting to measure precisely an individual teacher’s “value added,” has huge payoffs in terms of teacher retention and student achievement. Also often fervently expressed is the belief that raising teacher pay across the board to attract and keep high-quality teachers is not an effective strategy.

In testimony before the Senate Education Committee today, Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro debunked both of these doctrines, citing a strong consensus of credible educational research and challenging the contention that state policy on teacher pay should mimic the Dallas ISD model tied to “black box” performance measures. In addition to lacking transparency, the Dallas approach to teacher pay also has not been subjected to an independent study of its claimed impact. It is emphatically not a model that should be adopted statewide, Malfaro said.

Key points of Texas AFT’s stance on teacher pay were spelled out in accompanying written testimony as follows:

Priority one—raising base pay

Average teacher pay in Texas lags more than $6,000 below the national average and about 20 percent below pay in Texas for other jobs demanding comparable education and expertise. Over the past 15 years, teacher pay in Texas has stagnated; adjusted for inflation, teachers’ average pay actually has declined 2.7 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, pensions have been eroded by inflation, and both active and retired teachers and support personnel are seeing their compensation further eroded by dramatically rising health-care costs. This situation is creating a financial disincentive for quality employees to enter or remain in education.

While it is fashionable to focus on altering the way teachers are compensated, in order to attract and retain high-quality educators what matters most is not how they are paid but how much. Differentiated pay is worth talking about, too, but the top priority should be to eliminate the pay gap that leaves teachers lagging behind pay in this state for jobs requiring similar levels of knowledge and skill.  It will take considerably higher base pay for teachers across the board if the state really aims to attract and keep the high-quality individuals our students require.

We believe the best way to make that higher base pay feasible is to increase per-pupil state funding substantially via the basic allotment. (Funding a pay raise via the basic allotment has the beneficial by-product of raising the state minimum salary schedule for teachers, which is quite low but still sets a relevant floor for teachers in some districts.) The state should earmark a portion of increased per-pupil funds to go for a pay raise using new state dollars, and the Legislature should be sure to specify that the raise is over and above the amounts already called for by local salary schedules. (Past state-directed pay raises since the 1990s have included this necessary “supplement, not supplant” language.)

Differentiated pay

Past experience with state-directed “merit pay”—including the teacher ladder abandoned in the 1990s and the Perry performance pay that lost its funding in the 2011 budget cuts—has left a bad taste in teachers’ mouths. The experience has been similar with federal funding that flowed freely for this purpose for a time and then dried up. Teachers are accordingly wary that any new “merit pay” scheme, even if the metrics are appropriate, will not last.

That said, we believe recognition of National Board-certified teachers as “accomplished” is fully justified by educational research on what teachers who have gone through this rigorous process know and can do. These are master teachers, and extra pay for this level of accomplishment is highly appropriate.

In principle, we also support using extra pay guarantees to recruit and retain high-quality teachers with needed subject-matter expertise to work at hard-to-staff campuses. Another promising basis for differentiated pay, pioneered in districts like Austin ISD, is compensation based on meeting student learning objectives voluntarily agreed upon by individual teachers and developed by them in concert with the instructional leaders at their campus.

The Dallas TEI model

The metrics to be used for determining effective teaching are a sticking point, however. Teachers are justifiably leery of “black box” value-added methodology, which research demonstrates is not transparent and not proven to be a suitable basis for high-stakes decisions regarding employment and pay.

Value-added methodologies are highly unstable; they are so error-prone that they yield highly variable ratings of individual teachers from year to year. Teachers’ value-added ratings also are significantly affected by differences in the students who are assigned to them. And value-added ratings cannot disentangle the many disparate influences on student progress. These defects are well-documented in studies by the American Statistical Association, the RAND Corporation, and the Board of Testing and Assessment of the National Academies, among many others.

As the ASA said, value-added models “typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects—positive or negative—may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.” The ASA added: “The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum and unmeasured influences.”

The Dallas ISD Teacher Effectiveness Index promoted by Commissioner Morath is not all that different from the Houston ISD evaluation methodology that a federal court has held to be unfair and that HISD has now discarded. Dallas ISD teachers are not persuaded that this TEI model accurately reflects teachers’ effectiveness with students. It is heavily based on attributing standardized test scores of teachers’ students to individual teachers.

A significant defect of the Dallas TEI model is that it also gives unfounded weight to student evaluations of teachers expressed through responses to nebulous survey questions that elicit highly subjective and unreliable comments. Many of the questions have been based not on teachers’ actual, observable, job-related behavior but on students’ perceptions, sometimes even unrelated to matters within a teacher’s control. A teacher’s rating or raise should not depend on students’ offhand survey responses to questions like these: “If you walked into class upset, how concerned would your teacher be? How much do you participate in class? When not in class, how often do you talk about ideas from class? Is the physical environment in your classroom pleasant? How often do students in the class behave well?”

Listen also to what a high school math teacher in Dallas ISD, Rosemary Curts, recently had to say in a column in the Dallas Morning News, entitled “I want to teach math; Dallas ISD is making me teach test-taking”:

….frequent high-stakes testing under Dallas ISD’s Teacher Excellence Initiative makes me feel as though I rarely have time to teach kids the fun of math because I’m so busy teaching them how to find the right answers to multiple-choice questions.

TEI…motivates teachers only to get good test scores. There is a huge difference between teaching children so that they learn and teaching them to score well.

In math classes, it means using calculators at the expense of understanding the material. Which equation matches the graph? Don’t worry about how to actually analyze an equation to create a graph, just graph all the answer choices in the calculator and see which one matches the picture on the page! Why is this a useful skill? I don’t know! How can you interpret that equation and graph and relate them? Who cares? The answer is obviously B—that’s all that matters!

….Student achievement on tests is not the same as student achievement in learning. My classes’ test scores might be lower than they could be, but I’d rather have a student score 70 percent while actually solving problems than score 100 percent because they know what buttons to press.

Claims made for outsized positive impacts of TEI on teacher retention and student achievement need to be carefully vetted, not taken at face value. For example, improved teacher-retention rates appear to correlate closely with the departure of an unpopular and imperious superintendent. Furthermore, though the number of “improvement required” campuses has fallen in DISD, there has been little time for TEI to demonstrate strong correlation with or causal connection with higher achievement. Other significant factors, including extra resources and attention focused on IR campuses, appear to be keys to leaving IR status behind.