Monday, March 14, 2011

Teacher Incentives? Not Cash!

Gotham Schools reports that New York City’s $75 million teacher merit pay experiment quietly bit the dust as the Bloomberg administration sheepishly backed away from the program last year after independent researchers deemed the experiment a failure.

The 2007 merit-pay deal, blessed by both Mayor Bloomberg and former UFT President Randi Weingarten, went public without much debate or kick-back from the union membership. The experiment affected only 200 low-performing schools and limited bonuses to a maximum of $3,000 per teacher if a school met its goals. Weingarten lauded the agreement since it allowed union members to decide how bonuses were distributed in their schools and the program also gave them an opportunity to make more money.

As noted by researcher Roland B. Fryer writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research, there was “no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation,” nor did he find “any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior.”

“If anything,” Fryer said, “student achievement declined,” on state math and English tests and had little if any effect on student attendance, behavior or graduation rates.

In other words, Mr. Obama, if you are interested in school improvement, rethink your Teacher Incentive Fund initiative because unlike most professions in the private sector, financial incentives are not why individuals choose careers as teachers or public safety workers. No one became a cop to get rich or a teacher to earn Wall Street style bonuses.

Friday, March 11, 2011

‘Seising’ up earthquake education

(A version of this article appeared in the New York Teacher on February 18, 2010)

Seismic events have been part of earth’s existence since it became a planet and, with an average of 50 earthquakes a day around the world and the recent devastation in Japan, maybe it is time for teachers to make a concerted effort to spark student interest in our planet’s most powerful forces.

Packed with resources that can help bring that subject to life, the Internet provides maps, statistics, charts, videos and lesson plans that can help teachers make earthquake education a reality.

The two greatest earthquakes recorded and measured were a 9.5 magnitude in 1960 in Chile and a 9.2 in 1964 in Alaska. The recent catastrophic 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan, the fifth highest since scientific earthquake measurement began.

Facts like these are contained on the Web site of the United States Geologic Survey, the federal agency with responsibility for recording and reporting earthquake activity nationwide.

The site contains many historical records and statistics of earthquakes in the United States. There are several galleries of photos depicting the aftermath of recent earthquake events and a historical collection of images going back to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Click on the Learn tab across the top banner and look at a catalog of earthquake topics, FAQs, earthquake glossary, educational resources for teachers and fun ideas and activities for students like science fair projects and online games. Another feature is “Today in Earthquake History,” where you can find out if a major earthquake occurred on a specific date.

If you go to your favorite search engine and type in “earthquake lesson plans,” you will get thousands of returns appropriate for your grade level. Here are a few sites that I found using Google.

At you can find a list of earthquake lesson plans, classroom activities, projects and demonstrations that can be adapted for all students. Simply enter “earthquake” in the search box. The Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology has a lesson here called “Musical Plates” that is a real-time data-collection project where students view the occurrence of earthquakes around the world to draw conclusions about continental drift.

On Teacher Planet ( from Drexel University, there is an earthquake resource page which includes lesson plans and worksheets with activities. You can find clip art, study units and a slew of other resources. There are puzzles that ask you to fit continents together and match terms about plate tectonics.

Founded in 1984 with support from the National Science Foundation, (IRIS) is a consortium of more than 100 U.S. universities dedicated to the acquisition, management and distribution of seismological data. If you want to see the printable seismographic records of the 2011 earthquake in Japan, you will find everything you want right here.

A PowerPoint presentation shows images from before and after the quake hit and explains the process leading up to the tsunami and all the destruction that occurred. If you click on Lessons and Resources on the left side menu, you will be presented with a table of lessons and activities that are suitable for 5th- to 12th-grade students.

When you are on the home page, you should click on Educators to find resources for all levels of students. These include animation, educational software and posters. Full-size posters to hang in your classroom are available.

Natural events of the magnitude of those that occurred in Japan and Haiti last year force us to pause and look at our planet a little more closely. The answers to questions of why and how these geologic events can affect our lives become the basis for understanding our place on the third rock from the sun.