Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Education associations....and reform

I note in the media (newspapers, television and on the web) that much is being said about the Washington, D.C., public school superintendent.  She wants to offer merit pay to teachers that will forego tenure and some reports say that those teachers will earn over $100,000 per year.  Perhaps.  You'll note that I'm not holding my breath.  School reformers always seem to want to do two things--provide merit pay to some teachers and to get rid of the teachers union.

Let's talk about merit pay first.  In the most simplistic form, merit pay is a financial award to those teachers who's students progress the most in selected learning, i.e., getting higher test scores.  How else are you going to measure teacher against teacher?  Well, you might measure teaching behavior.  In this case you have a principal sit in the room and watch the teacher and rate their teaching skills.  I taught in a school where the principal was required to rate the teachers from the top to the bottom except we didn't have a bad teacher in the school.  How can you do that task.  

Okay, so you get teachers from another school district to come and watch you teach.  For how long--an hour, half a day?  All day?  The flu hits your school and a third of your students are absent and the evaluating teachers come to visit.  How do you rank a school teacher under those conditions.  Or suddenly it is head lice in your class.  And you're going to evaluate my class today?

The problem is that we have some teachers who have eighteen children and others who might have thirty six children in their class.  Some classrooms have special needs children while other classrooms have minorities or new foreign students.  The classrooms are not equal.  So how do you measure the teacher.  

Some years ago a study was done in a suburban school district of Seattle.  They deliberately picked a fairly well to do district that had no poor schools and very little minorities.  Upper middle class.  The researchers then decided to pick teachers from another school district to come in and evaluate the teachers in their teaching behaviors.  They also looked at test scores.  No principals were involved nor was the superintendent's office.  The merit pay was something like four thousand dollars added to those that were picked to be the best.

Here are a few things that happened.  First off several of the teaching staff that were already considered top flight teachers in the district sent in their letters of termination.  Because they were good, they were hired by other districts who are always looking for good teachers.  Another factor noted by the research staff (not part of the school district) was that there were less interaction among the teachers in the school, in essence, "why should I share my ideas with my colleagues if they will get the pay off?"  It was noted that there were less teachers in the teacher's lunch room.  Students also noted in the schools that a change in atmosphere--school wasn't as much fun anymore which affected student learning.  Some teachers reported that they were less incline to try new ideas in the classroom in case evaluators were to drop in.  Lessons tended to stick to tried and true.  No innovations.  

Some teachers were awarded merit pay however the negative results in the schools were enough for the district to stop the research.  Parents complained that they did not like what was happening in their schools.  If I remember correctly the research was to go for five years but was discontinued after three years.

Sociology leadership research seems to show that there are different leaders in each school, some teachers are good at one subject while another might be good at a different subject.  By and large teachers tend to support each other and to suggest different approaches to different subjects.  They share ideas.  The teachers I know want children and young adults to learn.  I've never met a teacher that didn't want their students to learn.

The Washington, D.C. school superintendent says she is going to fire inefficient teachers and reward those whose students score well.  Perhaps some of those so-called inefficient teachers have tough classes and they are let go.  So now those students that are hard to manage are now in those classrooms of the merit teachers.  Will they continue to do well with larger classes and harder students to manage.  I doubt it myself.

There was a time when the United States had one of the best educational systems in the world. Parents moved here so their child could go to our public schools.  Not anymore.  We have slid backwards.  We need more teachers and we need better school buildings.  We have good teachers but they have been placed in unattainable situations by having to teach to a test and not teach what a child needs.  There is a saying among educators that if Rip Van Winkle were to wake up after a hundred years sleep the one thing he would recognize is the school house for in all probability it hadn't changed one bit.  Merit pay?  Not on my watch.

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