Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A New Year, A New Attack on Teachers?

Not five days into the new year, and teachers must once again respond to a media onslaught over merit pay prompted by Liberal leader hopeful Kevin Falcon. Falcon wants to introduce merit pay for teachers - an idea that has been shown to fail where implemented.

But also at its core this idea has three faulty assumptions:

The first is that the primary problem with public schools is bad teachers. The second is that pay incentives will improve teacher performance. The third is that teacher performance can be measured. All are wrong and any school reform based on these assumptions is sure to fail.

Of all the factors that influence a student's school success, teacher "quality" is low on the list in terms of relative influence. Yes there are better teachers and worse teachers and yes there are some who should not be teaching. But a child poverty rate of close to 20% is far more influential on student success than which teacher they are placed with.The best teacher in the world may not be able to turn around a student who is poor, homeless, parentless, ill - to give just a few examples. It is instructive that graduation rates in BC are the lowest amongst students with special needs, aboriginal students and students in care - by a substantial amount (less than 50% compared to about 80% for the total population).

Within the school environment, many factors influence the student's success, of which the teacher is only one: class size, learning supports, facilities, libraries, curriculum, resources (textbooks, etc.), technology.

If any of the school "reformers" really had an interest in improving student performance, they would a) be looking at all the "inputs" into a student's educational experience and choosing the one's that matter most, and b) they would see from past experiments that merit pay simply has never worked.

The idea and it's failures are over a hundred years old. Alfie Kohn reports: "Wade Nelson, a professor at Winona State University, dug up a government commission's evaluation of England's mid-19th-century "payment by results" plan. His summary of that evaluation: Schools became "impoverished learning environments in which nearly total emphasis on performance on the examination left little opportunity for learning." The plan was abandoned" (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/meritpay.htm)

Recent experiments have met with similar failures and the idea is typically abandoned when student test results don't change. (http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6064840)

The "blame the teacher" mentality is further destructive in that it creates an atmosphere where the best teachers leave the profession. Diane Ravitch reports on how the two highest ranking school systems in the recent international PISA tests have one thing in common - they support teachers and provide assistance to struggling teachers, classes and schools. (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2011/01/dear_deborah_i_have_been.html

And exactly what do we consider to be "quality" teaching when merit systems are introduced? In the US, the push has been for standardized test scores as the primary measure. Obama's "Reach for the Top" federal grants were given only to those states that are using test scores as part of the merit pay equation. Yet the "measurements" are seriously flawed. Which teacher is responsible - this year's or last year's? What do you test in Kindergarden? What if the tests differ year to year? How do you accurately account for differences in class size, composition and other factors beyond the teacher's control? Should a teacher with a class with a high number receiving outside tutoring get a "merit" bonus because their students do better on tests? Should a teacher who is assigned the most challenging class in the school lose out on their "merit" pay bonus because the students do worse? (For a real life example, see: http://www.ajc.com/news/teachers-to-be-graded-792562.html)

Merit pay creates division and competition between teachers. It hinders collaboration and collegiality. If based on test scores, it rewards the wrong type of learning - rote and fact based, rather than problem solving and critical thinking. We don't use merit pay for doctors, politicians or judges - why should we for teachers?

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