Thursday, March 23, 2006

Flunk This Idea

From the Washington Post:

A new pay-for-performance program for Florida’s teachers will tie raises and bonuses directly to pupils’ standardized-test scores beginning next year, marking the first time a state has so closely linked the wages of individual school personnel to their students’ exam results.

The effort, now being adopted by local districts, is viewed as a landmark in the movement to restructure American schools by having them face the same kind of competitive pressures placed on private enterprise, and advocates say it could serve as a national model to replace traditional teacher pay plans that award raises based largely on academic degrees and years of experience.

Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has characterized the new policy, which bases a teacher’s pay on improvements in test scores, as a matter of common sense, asking, “What’s wrong about paying good teachers more for doing a better job?”

But teachers unions and some education experts say any effort to evaluate teachers exclusively on test-score improvements will not work, because schools are not factories and their output is not so easily measured. An exam, they say, cannot measure how much teachers have inspired students, or whether they have instilled in them a lifelong curiosity. Moreover, some critics say, the explicit profit motive could overshadow teacher-student relationships.

“Standardized tests don’t measure everything in a child’s life in school,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, which is appealing the new pay policy to a state administrative judge. “We should take a look at the total education and not just what they can put on a bubble sheet.”

As a former — some say “recovering” — teacher, I think this idea is dumb on several levels. For one thing, the teacher has no control over the overall environment of the school. If, for example, a teacher is in a high school with a large population of recently-arrived immigrants from Haiti where English is not their first language and the American education system is a mystery to them, holding them accountable to the standardized tests used in Panama City is both grossly unfair to the students ki pa palė anglè.* and useless in comparing that school to the rest of the district. Miami-Dade, for example, is the fourth-largest district in the country. Is it fair to hold the students in Overtown to the same standards as those in Coral Gables when historically they have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of funding, infrastructure, and the soft bigotry of the low expectation that kids in the ‘hood aren’t as smart as those in rich neighborhoods? Why should this burden be placed on the classroom teacher? If anything, it should be the responsibility of the school board and the administration. Cut their pay if the school doesn’t meet the artificial standards of the state and see how they like that.

Second, as we have recently seen with the credential-buying scandal here in Miami-Dade, not all teachers are as interested in educating their students as they are in padding their meager salary. Offering pay-for-performance could be a powerful temptation to do nothing but teach to the test, thereby cheating the student out of any learning that may not appear as part of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The end result would be a classroom full of well-oiled machines who can fill out an SAT scoresheet but wouldn’t have that immeasurable curiosity that is the most important part of learning. As Bob, another former teacher notes, when was the last time you took a standardized test in real life? How does it prepare you for the intricacies and uncertainties of living in the reality-based community? What good is memorized trivia when the process of evaluation, judgement, and discernment is ignored? And on a rather Lord of the Flies note, I wouldn’t put it past some students to deliberately tank the FCAT in order to screw over their teachers.

Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly has a good idea:

…since politicians are so fond of competitive pay, I suggest that we start paying politicians based on performance. I’m sure they won’t mind, accountability being such a watchword and all. I’m open to suggestions on just how we should do this.

*An Kreyòl. This was originally in French, but Haitian Creole more accurately reflects the language spoken at many schools in Miami-Dade County.