Editorial: How do you count success?
Rewarding teachers for their students’ performance seems, at first blush, like an eminently logical course of action.
After all, if one teacher’s students excel, while another teacher’s students struggle with the same material, it just makes sense to give that first teacher more money—both as a reward, and as a wake-up call to the other teacher.
Unfortunately, while this approach may work well on the factory floor, where productivity can be easily quantified, transferring it to the classroom is problematic at best.
Last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that teachers in 13 school divisions across the commonwealth will participate in performance-pay pilot programs during the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years—adding Virginia to a growing list of states taking this approach.
In Virginia’s pilot program, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student academic growth. Teachers in the 25 participating schools are eligible for performance-pay bonuses of up to $5,000 for earning exemplary ratings.
For teachers who haven’t seen raises in years, a bonus of $5,000 is quite a tempting incentive. On the one hand, it’s an incentive for them to enter the classroom reenergized and more focused, determined to put in the time and effort to become better teachers. But, with that much money riding on a passing test score, the other hand may just be busy with an eraser and pencil, correcting students’ wrong answers.
Cheating scandals have rocked school divisions from Atlanta to Houston to Washington, D.C. Earlier this month, Georgia released the results of a state investigation into suspicious test scores in Atlanta’s public schools. According to that report, 178 educators in 44 of the district’s 100 schools had facilitated cheating. That’s more than just a few "bad apples"—that is a systemic reaction to the excessive weight placed on end-of-course standardized tests.
According to federal No Child Left Behind legislation, every child in America is supposed to achieve "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014—with "proficiency" measured by a passing grade on a series of standardized tests, such as Virginia’s Standards of Learning.
Schools that fail to reach this unreachable goal face penalties such as replacing school staff or even a takeover by the state or a contracted private education firm. Now, added to that "stick," Virginia is planning to add a motivating cash "carrot" for its teachers.
Instead of putting that money to merit pay, perhaps the state could invest in professional development—an area that has been slashed from many local budgets during these difficult times. Or maybe an infusion of cash could be used to reduce class size, providing more one-on-one instruction.
On the positive side, this pilot program may help to attract quality teachers to hard-to-staff rural and urban schools. But applying it statewide would only serve to assert the primacy of the standardized test, encouraging teachers to "teach to the test," instead of inspiring students to become independent thinkers.