Monthly Archives: March 2009

What the President Said: Merit Pay and Charter Schools.

Libby Quaid, AP Education Writer, opened up an article with the words “President Barack Obama called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance…” Isn’t there anybody in charge of anything who can see the insanity that this simple sentence represents? Exactly how many other professions have a compensation plan that is based on the performance of their clients? And if they did, how would that work? Lawyers are now to be paid only for their innocent clients. Doctor pay will decrease every time a patient returns with another malady. Dentists will have their pay based on the number of cavities the people in their “dental districts” get? The fewer the cavities the higher the pay?

President Barack Obama called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance. Tying teachers’ pay to student performance.  I keep repeating this because I am trying to figure out what it means and why anyone would think this is a good idea. Exactly how much control does a teacher have over a student’s performance? Certainly the teacher has some, based on what is taught, but what about the intangibles? Does the teacher have control over how much television students watch? How much time they spend texting their friends or updating MySpace or Facebook? Can the teacher control a student’s gang activity or how they relate to their parents? Or if they have parents? And what is the definition of merit?

How Do You Measure Merit?

Henry Aubin, a Canadian newspaper writer, wrote an article called, “Teachers’ Merit Pay is a Bad Idea.” In it he says “Merit” is hard to define. If principals decide who’s worthy, there’s a risk of arbitrariness and favoritism. Staff morale will suffer if subservience defines merit.”

So exactly how will merit be defined? Standardized test scores? Then teachers will “teach the test” and students will be denied the opportunity for intellectual exploration. Aubin writes, “The teaching that often ignites students’ intellectual curiosity, however, often deals with material that testing does not cover.” And he is right. There is no art on The Test. There is no marketing or graphic design or auto shop on The Test. There is nothing about work ethic or problem solving or working well in groups on The Test. Why not? Are these things, these intangibles, not important? If you ask employers in your community how to improve the incoming work force, they, with a single voice, will say, “Send me someone who can show up to work, do basic math without a calculator and can solve simple problems. I’ll do the rest.” But since Career and Technical Training isn’t on The Test, it just doesn’t matter. And that is a mistake.

Why Go To School?

I ask students every year, “Why are you here? Why do you go to school?” The answer is, without variation, “To learn.” But to learn what? I am usually told, “You know. Math and stuff.” Math and stuff. So I put a simple problem on the board and out come the calculators. What can calculators teach us? For that matter, what can Beowulf teach us? Where is the relevance for today’s teenager? I am certain that there is relevance, but why isn’t it obvious? Something other than “It’s on The Test.” Wouldn’t high school students be better served learning to read technical manuals? And that brings us to why I think we are in school. We send our young people to school so they can learn to work, get jobs and not be burdens to society. School is basically a 12 year vocational education. And we have forgotten that.

Why do all students have to study Advanced Math and Science when only a select few will need it? Does it take calculus to balance a checkbook? The truth is that the majority of students can do quite well with a comprehensive understanding of Algebra. The kind of understanding that students received before calculators. The kind of understanding that is rooted in basic math and practical applications. The same can be said for science. Advanced science is perfect for anyone who needs advanced science. But at what stage do we ask our students, “What do you want to be for the rest of your life?” At what stage do we take those answers and tailor their educational pathways to make that happen?

What we have become is a nation that strives for success in education without any clear cut definition of success. It was not so long ago that American schools were the envy of the world. We created engineers and scientists who put men on the moon without much more than slide rules and the multiplication table. But they did so because they had a good understanding of concepts and theory and could apply them to practical situations.  Schools in the 40’s were not planning to teach kids how to be astronauts. They had no idea such things were possible. But they taught basics and showed their students how to apply them to any situation. Including situations that hadn’t even been dreamed of yet. How did we get from there to here?

Where in the current curriculum is there room for critical thinking and problem solving? For initiative and leadership? Who decided to teach our kids that there is no room for failure when anyone who has ever accomplished anything great had no fear of failure? How can we teach our kids to be analytical when it isn’t part of The Test? We are failing to send our kids into an increasingly difficult and technological world with the skill set they need to survive. We ask them to memorize and regurgitate and that isn’t learning.

A Modest Proposal.

I humbly submit this plan to fix our schools. It is very simple. Perhaps too simple but here it goes.

  1. Anyone who makes decisions about curriculum, education, merit pay or whatever should spend a minimum of three weeks as a substitute teacher. And not in the highest performing schools. In the lowest performing schools of any given urban environment. Then we can talk about tying teachers’ pay to performance. It will create a common ground and will give all of us a better chance to fix what is broken.
  2. Stop trying to come up with new ways to reach students on their level. It won’t work. They are way ahead of you in terms of what interests them. Go to the basics, stir up some curiosity and initiative, put students back in charge of their progress and sit back and watch the magic happen. Don’t believe me? Then talk to a teacher who uses Layered Curriculum.
  3. Read Rigor Redefined by Tony Wagner. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in education.
  4. Stop worrying about peoples’ feelings. There is no shame in going to work. It is important for America to have auto mechanics and bricklayers and carpenters. Where would we be without plumbers and electricians and even that nice young lady who works behind the counter at the gas station? We need these people. What we don’t need is more lawyers and MBA’s and Liberal Arts degrees. An IBEW apprenticeship is worth a dozen Liberal Arts Degrees.
  5. Repeal No Child Left Behind.

There. It’s not much of a plan but it’s a start.

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