“We wouldn’t be doing ourselves any favors by ignoring the reality of NCLB and how entrenched it’s become in the way that State and Federal legislators divide the beans.”
agree that teacher effectiveness is the lever that will bring high achievement for all and close the gaps. However, the measures to be used in determining teacher effectiveness are up for debate. The federal government is employing The Race to the Top
as a de facto fiscal mandate to make states measure teachers’ effectiveness by students’ tests scores, even though there is no common test yet and it’s common knowledge that states’ standards and tests vary in viability and validity. The NEA opposes this plan
. Some states, like California, are figuring out how to finesse their ways around state laws that preclude the use of student testing data for teacher evaluation
so they can get a share of the federal money. Teachers entertain a wider and more meaningful variety of pay plans
, but don’t seem to have a seat at the US DOE/SEA/LEA table.
If you follow the federal money, its trail doubles back on itself to end where it begins: in the land of high-stakes testing. What does that mean for reform? For innovation? For teacher pay?
Standards, innovation, and reform are tangled up right now in a kind of futures market of classroom teachers’ hopes. The market is unsettled and unsettling. Common standards have nearly arrived, but what kind of common assessment will follow? We live in an era of innovation, but does “innovation” mean fulfilling someone else’s vision? Teachers thirst for real reform, but will reforms in accountability slake their thirst entirely?
The merit pay debate is about all these things. Apart from its pros (accountability) and cons (single-measure accountability), the idea of merit pay based on standardized tests scores poses many questions. Why do we pay teachers at all? To make sure students meet standards? Are high-stakes tests the best our country can do to measure student performance on those standards? Are those standards the terminus of learning? If so, why teach past them? Could a super-effective teacher have students test multiple times per year at multiple grade levels and earn three times the merit pay? What would those students do for the next two years? What if a student failed a test in May, but passed it after summer school in July? Would the summer school teacher get the merit pay the classroom teacher lost? What if the classroom teacher taught summer school? Would he or she get recovery merit pay? Would he or she get the same amount of merit pay as teachers who “get it done” during the school year?
What about teachers who take on challenging work or transfer to more challenging schools? What about teachers who spend their own money on professional development proven to improve student learning? Will pay-for-performance plans recognize the merit in taking career risks? If a teacher can earn merit pay for student performance on standardized tests, how does that drive innovation? If there’s no innovation, how will we ever reform past specializing in the production of test-takers? When we eliminate the achievement gap, how will we tell the “good” and “bad” teachers apart? If a “good” teacher helps “bad” teachers improve scores, will he or she have to share his or her merit pay, or will the “bad” teachers have to tribute theirs? How will we know whom to pay when everyone wins? Will we have enough money to pay everyone once everyone wins?
Do we wait to raise the bar of American education until everyone who’s left in the current system passes all the tests? Do we have any faith at all that teaching past the test will engage students and improve achievement?
Is it fair to double-up merit pay for teachers carrying professional credentials, such as National Board Certification? If test results are a measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, is it fair to pay an NBCT a stipend on top of merit pay while non-NBCTs in the same building with the same or better test scores receive less? Could merit pay for student test scores work against differentiated pay schemes? What will merit pay for test scores do to professional development? To teacher evaluation?
Why spend money on competition between teachers instead of standardizing high quality instruction through data-driven professional development in what works for all: making learning personally meaningful?
What will happen to divisions reforming the structure of school? Imagine a division that provides school choice between several specialty centers including a campus that runs a virtual school. Who gets the merit pay for students mastering content and passing tests online? On-site coaches? Outside experts? Online curriculum development companies? The students themselves? Depending on the student-teacher ratio at the virtual school, would its school division effectively lose federal dollars for its merit pay program because it has fewer effective teachers proctoring a virtual school campus than a neighboring division has working at a traditionally-staffed school? Imagine a team-taught or multi-age classroom with several teachers working with students at once – PLC members teaching together. How do you split merit pay for their students’ results test results between them? Will merit pay discourage collaboration? Will merit pay incentivize staffing schools by traditional formulas?
All questions aside, I’m willing to posit that one intent of The Race to the Top is to increase the effectiveness of all teachers, but a pay-for-performance plan tied to any single measure in a field with such varied inputs will fail. Moreover, if we don’t think past the tests as a society, we won’t teach past them or value teachers who teach past them, never mind the rhetoric. I’m also willing to posit that teacher evaluation will remain more comprehensive and nuanced than judging a teacher solely by student test scores, but in looking at the Race to the Top Initiative, I’m not sure merit pay as guided by the Obama Administration will be based on anything but those scores.
The principal failure of The Race to the Top Initiative is a failure of imagination. It begins with the end in mind, but the end isn’t innovation; it’s replication of a system that works for some. The initiative caters to the college-prep model while the achievement gap persists because the college-prep model loses students who don’t find it compelling. As impressive as its results seem, college-prep is not the only approach that prepares students to succeed in higher education and the global community. Instead of specifying how states should pay some teachers, The Race to the Top should have assured funds for divisions resourcing their schools and training teachers for the design and delivery of authentic learning. College-prep is not the only path to college, nor does its process of cultural replication encourage innovation. College-prep helps some students achieve the dream of college, but what about their other dreams? What about others’ dreams? Is college the end or a means to greater ends? What do we lose when we focus so squarely on a single outcome? Hope? Money? Drive? Individuality?
On the other hand, if we can reconnect our disengaged students with their love of learning, we don’t have anything to lose. Our results will speak for themselves under any pay for performance plan, but we need to act. We can effect the instructional change our government is short-circuiting with “innovative” funding that reinforces the status quo.
Merit pay based on test scores will not “professionalize” teaching. Merit pay won’t elevate the profession as a whole if it’s tied to test scores because standardized tests exist to sort people. Furthermore, as proposed, merit pay is based on bad data. It’s based on end of year tests, the disparate lag indicators of states competing for federal money. Moreover, while merit pay rewards teachers whose students already “succeed,” it does not move us toward the desired state of success for all because merit pay based on end-of-year testing is itself a lag indicator of teacher quality. How do you improve classroom teaching when your kids and PLC are gone? How much would you reinvent your teaching over the unpaid, solitary summer if you had to process losing pay and being labeled “ineffective?”
If we’re ever to reach our desired state, we teachers have to act on our shared, intrinsic desire to make sure that all students learn every day. Learning is not deep or engaging when it’s coerced by extrinsic motivators. How is teaching any different?
In the short term, the best thing to do in the classroom is to teach past what we’ve been asked to do – preparing some, losing others – and to join the increasingly year-round, ground-level work being done locally in PLCs and across the country over social networks to make authentic learning happen. If we help each other scale up what works in schools, then we’ll be ready to help one another take advantage of our states’ pay-for-performance plans in whatever forms they take. Student achievement will go up because our teaching goes up; our professional portfolios of best practice and accomplishments will expand as our professional learning networks expand. Our best business plan is to grow authentic learning in our classrooms by growing as teachers. We need to behave less like employees and more like the self-employed in a co-op of teaching and learning. We shouldn’t compete like salespeople working on commission. Moreover, the better we define best practices in creating authentic learning for all, the better prepared we’ll be to recognize and decry the inequities of unfair merit play plans. The more we know first-hand about what works, the better able we’ll be to argue persuasively and collectively against what doesn’t. We can earn political clout by improving student achievement for all through personally meaningful education. We can use that clout to start a conversation with politicians and the public about the look-fors of authentic learning, about the work we want to be doing instead of test prep, and about the support and recognition needed to carry out that work. Then we can tackle the graduation gap.
To help transform teaching from unreal to authentic try something new this year. Take at least one risk in making learning more authentic in your classroom. Plan backwards; plan for learning. Pick a concept or understanding you want students to internalize. Connect that understanding to state standards students are asked to master. Design a learning progression that allows for personal meaning-making, either through differentiated process and product, or through affirmation from outside the classroom via entrepreneurship or service learning. Assess students on the unit’s enduring understandings, as well as its content. Share your plans and results with your PLC, your department, your principal, and with colleagues online. Use their feedback and student input to improve the learning in real time. Expect success and failure. Record yourself. Invite others to observe. Debrief with your PLC, mentor, and principal. Try to articulate what worked and why it worked. Share out how you were able to motivate students to learn through authentic work and measures. Collect student testimonials about the unit and how it differs from others you’ve taught. Start building the case for change for yourself and your community.
Use your work to create and present a new vision of your profession and of yourself as a teacher. Through your craft, show others the look-fors of learning. Help administrators and policy-makers learn how to measure you by the steps you take to foster students’ authentic engagement with learning and the meaningful work that comes from it. Look at what has brought you to where you are; what are the pivot points in your development as a teacher, and how can you demonstrate for others how these events improved learning in your classroom?
One way to show others what works for learning might be to create a local or online PLC to draft and propose career ladders for classroom teachers that tie performance pay into professional development credentials that reflect excellence in teaching. A pedagogy ladder could set a series of salary benchmarks for achieving a master’s degree in teaching, education, or reading, as well as for National Board Certification (or not?), PhDs and EdDs. A technology integration ladder could tie increased pay into NETS*T certification and participation in programs like the Apple Distinguished Educators group or Google Teacher Academy. A challenge ladder could provide increased pay for master teachers on other ladders who pursue licensure in multiple content areas and agree to move around inside their schools and divisions according to their divisions’ needs. Ladders could be also be built to recognize teachers who regularly publish and present with different steps for local and national work, or to recognize teachers who bring in benchmarked amounts of grant money every year. What about a community specialist ladder for teachers who host regular parent education nights and go on create sustainable classroom and school partnerships with community members for authentic learning? A novice ladder could reward new teachers for meeting the look-fors and test scores expected from authentic learning experiences and serve as a prerequisite and launch pad for a teacher’s next, self-selected ladder. Imagine your teaching career as a game of Donkey Kong. In designing teachers’ evaluation and pay plans, as Norman Constantine commented on learning spaces here, “We need to design a learning environment (LE) that models the video game. You move through levels based on what you know [understand, and are able to do,] not how old you are.”
Some kind of merit pay is coming; we can fight it or we can co-opt it by helping one another to become better teachers- by ensuring success for all, students and teachers alike. There’s more than one way to take on the status quo. The professionalization of our profession in the public’s eye will come from our results, not from merit pay, which will help policy-makers and the media to pick on failing teachers in addition to failing schools. Our results will improve on any measure when we take individual action to teach for authentic learning and when we take collective action to push one another to be the teachers we want to be, not necessarily the ones we’re paid to be.