Archives for the month of: July, 2012

This blog has received a late entry into an already closed contest.

Once I realized that the National Lampoon had already threatened to kill the dog on its cover in 1973, I recognized that loss aversion had reached its apogee forty years ago.

Nonetheless, this entry was posted by a blogger-tweeter who goes by the name of “Last Stand for Children First.”

In this post, the blogger is young teacher Monica Caldwell. She was hired by one of those Gates-funded teacher groups:

Monica Caldwell commented on The Loss Aversion Contest: You Can Win!Roland Fryer, Snooki, and Building the Perfect Teacher
By Monica CaldwellPeople are always surprised to find out that I wasn’t an education major in college. As a hotel/motel management major I learned a lot about how to deal with employees. This knowledge was further augmented when I began managing a tanning salon at the tender age of 20. Teaching was the hardest job I ever had and the five weeks of training leading up to it was even tougher than the nearly 2 whole years I spent in the classroom.

Recently, a couple of studies have come out that really got me thinking. The first study was by the awesome Roland Fryer. He says that the key to making merit pay work is loss aversion. Now math is hard, but the way I understand it instead of giving teachers money if they show improvement on tests, you give them the money up front and then if their students’ test scores don’t improve they either cough up the dough, or your Uncle Rocco pays them a little visit. If they’re like me, they’d probably spend it all on shoes.

Another really cool report I read was called The Irreplaceables. Now, this isn’t to be confused with The Expendables which is a movie about a lot of old guys blowing stuff up, but an article by The New Teacher Project says that urban schools are not making their best teachers feel valued and instead retaining the bad ones. I can relate to this. The fire in my classroom wasn’t what got me terminated as much as all the other teachers who were jealous of my rapport with my class going to the principal.

What we need is a way to make teachers feel rewarded, retain the best teachers, and use loss aversion to scare teachers into working really hard. Now, if you believe like I do, the best teachers come from programs like Teach for America, this is really easy. When teachers go through the Teach for America program, put like a dozen of them up in a mansion that they could never afford on a teacher’s salary. Then as the school year goes on, have teachers vote each other out of the mansion, but if your kids improve on standardized tests, you have immunity.

The best part is we film this as a reality television show. Now one problem is Teach for America’s training is only 5 weeks and a reality tv show season is much longer, but that’s fixed by following the recruits through the beginning of their teaching careers. The teachers will try really hard because the mansion will have like a hot tub and cute guys and a kitchen that’s totally stocked with everything you could want. The good teachers will be retained and a few teachers may even get famous like Snooki. Hey Bravo! Call me, we’ll do lunch.

A reader says that if Roland Fryer tries loss aversion in her classroom, she would follow the advice of this song:

Just when I thought we had a winner for the loss aversion contest–the proposal that the teacher threaten to kill the children’s favorite pet–another reader sent this magazine cover from 1973.

How ever will we motivate teachers now, if neither incentives nor threats work?

We might try reading Daniel Pink or Edward Deci or Dan Ariely. They say that professionals work best when they are allowed to exercise autonomy, when they are driven by a sense of professionalism and idealism.

But don’t expect our policymakers in Washington and the state capitols to listen to wisdom.

So we are having this “loss aversion” contest. The idea is that teachers will work hard to avoid loss than they will to win a bonus.

Roland Fryer and colleagues say that this works. Offer teachers a bonus at the beginning of the year and take it away if the scores don’t go up.

I thought we have a winner when a reader suggested taking away the teacher’s first born.

But that idea pales next to this one. This looks like a winner.

Don’t threaten the teacher. Threaten the kiddies!

What do you think?

This is for elementary students and would work particularly well when high stakes tests are pushed down to the K-3 grade band.

The mistake in the original plan is that it focuses on having teachers have to avoid loss. That’s simply one layer removed from the REAL target: the kiddoes being tested. After all, the threat of the teacher’s loss of $4000 means little or nothing to them.

So near the beginning of the school year, the teacher buys several lovable classroom pets. Perhaps a class bunny, kitty, and puppy would have maximum appeal, but the skillful teacher will be sure to find out in advance what animals are most beloved to the children s/he’ll be working with.

And then, after ample time has passed to ensure that every child is head-over-heels in love with at least one of the animals, signs go up over each pet’s enclosure that read, “If your test scores don’t go up, I’ll shoot this [puppy/kitty/bunny, respectively]. Love, Ms. Williams”

I’m confident that those students who don’t succumb to nervous breakdowns in short order will kick some serious high-stakes test bootay.

A reader enters the loss aversion content with these ideas:

1. If your students get low scores, the New York Post puts your picture on the first page and says you are the worst teacher in New York City. Uhhh, too late, that already happened.

2. If your students get low scores, they take away your tenure. Darn, too late. That’s already happened.

Well, don’t give up. There must be some punishment that hasn’t already happened.

A reader has a suggestion for Doug Lemov:

Could you imagine this: “Nurse Like a Champion” or “Doctor Like a Champion” and a program that asks us to pay $6000 so that they can train us to be master doctors and nurses in 5 weeks??  I wonder if that would fly. The New Doctor Project…sounds catchy…and absolutely no medical experience in order to get in!  What say you?

This reader warns about the danger of the  loss aversion contest:

I would enter, but I’m worried someone would think it was a good idea and make it a law. At least in Louisiana……where I teach!

Supposing we agreed that teachers would produce higher test scores if we cut off their fingers or took their first-born?

How long would it be before a law was passed in Louisiana?

Keep it quiet.

In the contest to see who can come up with the best form of loss aversion to motivate high test scores, we have a first entrant that looks incredibly strong.

Supposing you say to teachers, get those scores up or we take away your first born.

Don’t you think those scores are going up?

Supposing you said it to doctors?

They would all become dermatologists, and no one would be a surgeon.

What if you say it to economists?

You can bet all their predictions will be very safe.

Can you top this?

True, it didn’t work for pharaoh–the Hebrews packed up and moved out.

But hey, maybe it will work for teachers. Where can they go?

Economist Roland Fryer has been trying for years to find the magic incentive that would produce higher scores.

He tried merit pay, and that didn’t work.

He tried paying students to get higher scores, but that didn’t work.

Now, he has at last found the key:

He and his colleagues have perfected a technique called “loss aversion.”

They give teachers a bonus (say, $4,000) at the beginning of the year. If the scores go up, the teachers keep the money.

If the scores don’t go up, they lose the money!

That’s called “loss aversion.”

Barnett Berry thinks this is a stupid idea, but hey, it works. That’s good enough for Dylan Matthews writing on Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post , who calls this study a success for merit pay. It is also good enough for the Broad Foundation, which funds Fryer’s quest for the golden test score.

What will people do to avoid a loss?

What if you tell teachers that you will cut off their fingers if the scores don’t go up?

What if you tell doctors that their pay will be cut whenever any of their patients die?

What if you say to economists that they lose their computers if their predictions don’t pay out?

What would you say to journalists to get them to produce better stories?

Here is the contest:

What is your best idea to raise the scores through “loss aversion”?

What is the very best threat you can think of to compel/frighten/intimidate/and/terrify teachers to make the students’ scores go up?

I will publish the responses of those who come up with the best ideas to improve American test-score productivity through “loss aversion.”

Is that enough of an incentive for you?

Diana Senechal is a brilliant writer. She wrote a fascinating book titled “Republic of Noise.”

She teaches in the summer at the Dallas Institute of Culture and the Humanities. Who knew that Dallas has a vibrant learning center where teachers read the great books? I did, because I visited a couple of years ago and was blown away by the teachers and their enthusiasm for Shakespeare.

This is Diana’s report about this summer’s institute. Every city should have an institute like this one:

Literature as Teacher Education

Diana Senechal


In a lovely tree-shaded wooden building, in July, teachers convene for three weeks not to analyze data, discuss “learning strategies,” or align objectives with standards, but to immerse themselves in literature. This place is the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture—specifically, its Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. As a faculty member at the Institute and a NYC public school teacher, I love the place unabashedly and will try to explain why.


The Summer Institute, part of the Teachers Academy, was conceived in 1983 by Dr. Louise Cowan as a class for high school English teachers in “literature as a mode of knowledge.” It now attracts K–12 teachers across the disciplines, from public and private schools. In the even-numbered years, the Institute focuses on epic (participants read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Popol Vuh, Mwindo, Monkey, Gilgamesh, and more); in the odd-numbered years, on tragedy and comedy. The point is to explore the literature on its own terms and to enrich teachers’ knowledge and understanding. People sometimes ask: how does this affect student achievement? How does this translate into classroom practice? The Institute is there not to tell teachers how to teach, but to feed their imagination and intellect. This ultimately translates into classroom practice, but not in jargonizable ways.


The Institute follows a simple and fruitful routine. Each day begins with breakfast. The teachers sit down to eat in the dining room, in the seminar room with the French windows, or outside  on the porch or one of the benches. At 8:45, everyone congregates in the lecture hall, an intimate and elegant room with sloping ceiling. After some brief announcements, a faculty member gives opening remarks. Another faculty member then gives the morning lecture about the literary work under discussion. (Giving a lecture there is an exhilarating experience; the audience members’ eyes light up the way.) Seminar discussions follow and last two hours.


Then comes a hearty lunch followed by the afternoon activities, which may include panel discussions, teaching lectures, plenary discussions, guest lectures, and films. (This summer’s films included Iphigenia, Kagemusha, and The Revolt of Job.) At 4:00, the Institute adjourns; the teachers and faculty go home to regather themselves, think and read in quiet, and prepare for the next day. One ends up dreaming the literature—entering a state of mind like Dante’s in Canto XVIII of Purgatorio (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):


  Then, when those shades were so far off from us

that seeing them became impossible,

a new thought rose inside of me and, from

   that thought, still others—many and diverse—

were born; I was so drawn from random thought

to thought that, wandering in mind, I shut

   my eyes, transforming thought on thought to dream.


What distinguishes the Summer Institute from an intensive literature course? First of all, it’s specifically for teachers—so, while there’s minimal discussion of pedagogy, everything studied has an indirect, analogical relationship to the classroom. Second, the unifying principle is genre—not the external structure of a work, but its internal impulse and form. This allows participants to compare and liken the works in intriguing ways. Third, the faculty are there to learn from each other as well as to teach, and the teachers respond to this. Fourth, everyone is tasked in some sense with the impossible, and there lies the cheer. What, give a lecture on the Inferno? What, discuss the Iliad in three days? Preposterous! Yet we go ahead and meet the challenge—and enjoy a few surprises.


The Summer Institute is so far removed from typical teacher training, and yet so soulful in its approach to education, that some participants experience shock and pain. How did we remove ourselves from what matters in education? How did we get caught up in rush and frenzy? The Dallas Institute manages to create time where there is little. The time expands even as the three weeks come to a close.


What brings about this expanse? Part of it is the excellence of the literature and the practice of returning to it. The three weeks are a beginning, an opening. There’s minimal talk of pedagogy or skills—but the Summer Institute’s format suggests many possibilities, and thus open up teaching. A teacher couldn’t replicate the Institute, but the point is not to replicate. In the words of Dr. Claudia Allums, director of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center for Education, the point is to “work from abundance.” The abundance makes its way into everything, even into time running out.


This was my first summer as a full faculty member (I was a junior faculty member last summer). I laughed and cried during the closing ceremony, when the teachers presented us with surprise awards. Mine was the Venus Award for inspiring a love of poetry. I saw teachers joyous about what they had received at the Institute, and knew myself joyous and grateful too. I left confident that the good work of education is possible. The Dallas Institute clears away distractions and delves into good things. May it do so for many years to come.