Friday, January 13, 2006

False Positive?

Houston's school district is following in the footsteps of others and introducing merit-based pay. What merits higher pay, in their opinion? Higher scores on standardized tests, of course. Teachers can receive up to $3000, while administrators can get a boffo $25,000.

Interesting choice of plans, given Houston's problems with cheating on those vary same standardized tests. Teachers' incentive to "help" their students achieve higher scores on these standardized tests, as well as principals' incentives to do likewise, rises incrementally with the pressures and cash values placed on those scores. Hell, on a teacher's salary (particularly a Houston salary, pretty low), the risk-benefit analysis could make anyone lean toward a bit of subtle coaching on test answers.

Not that I'm defending teachers who cheat. Because I'm not. I'd prefer to see teachers' unions fight standardized testing as an inadequate method ALONE for measuring student progress. And connecting those test results to merit pay, given all that a teacher can't control about a student's progress and performance (let's see: breakfast, sleep, preschool prep or lack thereof, exposure to high educational values . . .), seems misguided, at the very least.

Got any stats that prove me wrong, that show good teaching alone equals higher test results? Love to see them.

My kids have been in these schools. Not the Houston schools. Nor schools with merit-based pay. But schools that, like all schools now under Leave No Child Behind, are pressed to achieve certain test results. My experience is that teaching becomes significantly less creative. Teachers are forced to "teach to the test", preparing their pupils for particular types of problems. Writing is the worst of these areas, with creative writing practically non-existent in some of these schools. The five paragraph essay, in all its various permutations, is king. All else is useless.

How do we determine who are the good teachers and reward them? Geez. Ask any parent. We know who the good teachers are. And not in a rigid sense. We know that Mrs. A is great with kids who need a firm hand. Miss B is lovely and warm and creative, and her room is probably too stimulating for kids who need calm to survive school. Mr. C is strict and likes really bright kids and pushes a bit more than some kids like. And Mrs. D? She's the one no one wants. Maybe she's riding out her last five years until retirement. Maybe he choose teaching for the wrong reasons and doesn't want to leave now because she's a single mom with kids to feed. Or maybe she just doesn't get kids.

Yes, that would be called subjectively evaluation of teachers. Evaluation by both administration and parents, to avoid totally political outcomes. How about we combine that with test scores? Or how about we simply pay teachers high enough salaries to attract quality candidates in the first place?

I'll leave my last thought to Daniel Koretz, an Ed Prof at Harvard to teaches educational measurement (quote from here). "Cheating is not the most fundamental problem. It's the canary in the coal mine." The coal mine, he says, is the "dumbing down" of education to get the desired results.

Doesn't seem like getting dumber is what we're looking for in education. Is it?

Until tomorrow,


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