Monday, February 14, 2011

Is TAP a magic education bullet?

This article in Sunday's Advocate by reporter C.J. Futch ought to open a dialog about the value of TAP, a school improvement program created by disgraced financier Michael Milken's family foundation.

There's little doubt that scores have risen at the Ascension Parish schools spotlighted by the article. But are those improvements due solely to Milken's proprietary program, or are there elements of it that can be successfully implemented at any school?

As LFT President Steve Monaghan’ points out in the article, TAP is only as good as its administration. The program was a failure in Calcasieu Parish, for example, where it was ousted from schools because of complaints from educators.

What does TAP get right? Its system of imbedded professional development is spot on, and teachers work collaboratively to reinforce learning school wide. The program's use of master teachers and mentor teachers is also a positive. Teachers can assume more responsibility and earn higher salaries without leaving the classroom to become administrators.

It all comes at a cost, however. As the article points out, it costs an extra $350 to $400 per student to implement TAP. Thus far, the money has come from federal grants, but as those are phased out, it is expected that other funds - competitive grants or donations from local businesses - will take up the slack.

There is only so much corporate largesse, so the question is begged: is this a model that can truly be sustained and applied to all schools? Or will the first ones into the program siphon the available funds, leaving the rest at the bottom of a Ponzi-style pyramid?

While the embedded professional development has solid, research-based foundations, the aspect of the program earning the most attention is the system of bonuses paid to teachers whose students show improvement.

Research linking school improvement to financial incentives is scant to nonexistent, but the idea of bonuses appeals to free marketers and earns publicity for the program. Notice that he Advocate headline focuses on the bonuses, not on the professional development or collaboration.

Under the Milken plan, teachers don't start winning bonuses until the third year of TAP implementation. But scores at the Ascension schools started improving immediately, which seems to indicate that the bonuses alone can't account for the improvement.

In Ascension Parish, the article says, teachers have earned bonuses ranging from $350 to $5,000. How is the amount given to each teacher determined?

You can't find that out. The evaluation used to apportion bonuses is considered a TAP proprietary trade secret. Teachers in the program are not even allowed to discuss their bonuses with each other. If you want transparency, TAP is not for you.

Do we really want the evaluation of our schools and teachers to depend on a trade secret?

TAP supporters say their evaluation plan is so well designed that it is virtually impossible for a teacher to be unfairly evaluated, and that there is little need for due process protections that allow challenges to the awards.

In the real world, that seems hard to swallow.

In survey after survey, teachers say that bonus pay is not what is needed to improve student achievement. Better professional development, improved discipline, more parental involvement and less stress on standardized testing all rank higher when teachers are asked their preferences.

There is little doubt that some high-ranking state education officials hope that TAP will be the model chosen by Louisiana schools to boost student performance. That is a decision that needs thorough discussion and debate. All the information about TAP needs to be on the table before it is adopted wholesale in the state.

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