Saturday, January 15, 2011

FSAs, Merit Pay, Awards - Why rankings have no place in public schools

Three items have made the news lately that all share one feature - they all rely on rankings. FSAs are used to rank schools by comparing student marks. Merit pay is a type of teacher ranking that provides monetary awards to teachers ranked more highly than others. Awards ceremonies typically rank students with awards based on students marks or other criteria.

In a public school system, all three of these rankings exhibit the same fundamental problem - they provide stimulus or incentive to some within the system, but they can denigrate, demoralize and dis-empower others.

For every student, teacher or Administrator who feels positive about the school ranking that shows up in the Fraser Institute report, there is another feeling negative. Having sat in a staff room of a school near the bottom of the ranking, I can say without hesitation that a low ranking does not motivate anyone to perform better the next year. Rather it worsens morale and depresses individuals. It devalues the work and efforts of students, parents, teachers and everyone else in that school community.

Similarly, a merit pay system that awards a portion of school teachers typically alienates and frustrates those not receiving the award. Given the highly variable nature of a teachers job - different students, different resources, different levels of needs, different parental support systems, different Administrators... - no system can be a fair measure and so no system will be perceived as a fair measure. It is no surprise that in Denver, where a merit pay system was instituted, only one third of teachers report positive morale. Perhaps this is the same one third who is receiving the merit bonuses.

Finally, student awards can be a wonderful experience for the students who receive them. But for the others, it is yet another reminder that they are not as good, not as smart, not as successful. A very interesting blog post from a BC Principal discusses why their school eliminated awards for these types of reasons (see: )

A public school system should be based on the premise that it's primary function is to provide each and every child the best educational opportunity available. It should not provide a better one for some students (because they have the "merit" teacher, for example). It should aim to ensure every single child reaches a minimum level of skill and knowledge to function in our democratic society. It should aim to have a minimum standard of excellence for all the educators and professionals who provide services for children.

The Charter for Public Education, a document based on citizen input from across BC, describes the function of a public school system: "Learners, parents, early childhood educators, teachers, support staff, administrators school boards, post-secondary educators, the Government of British Columbia and communities to work in partnership to meet the needs of all learners." (see:

Competition and rankings do not support this vision. Instead, they pit student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school. Merit pay does not encourage sharing of teaching resources or mentoring amongst colleagues. Awards do not encourage students to assist their peers. School rankings do not encourage schools and districts to work cooperatively. Instead, they want to out-do each other. This is fundamentally contrary to a vision to meet every learners needs.

Much has been said on the need to "incentivize" the school system. The US "Reach for the Top" program is based fundamentally on this premise. But incentives promote individuals or small groups to act in their own interest, not in the interest of the greater good or the system as a whole. It is this reason that they don't work and in fact can be counter productive.

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