Friends, Family, and folks who drop into this site, I will go on the record in response to Bill Gates' recommendations by contradicting his major points. He suggests in this online, video conference that universal academic standards and teacher incentives, "merit pay" are the path to school success in the United States. Universal academic standards cannot reflect the unprecedented diversity that our teachers are faced with every day and attaching pay to teachers who, at best, successfully meander their way through their curriculum and, at worse, force their children to perform well on "bubble-in tests" by rote learning, rigorous training and proscribed curriculum is not the way to improve our schools. In contrast, the opposite of the two is actually the way to improve our schools.
Universal Academic Standards
Our American school system does an amazing job with the population filling its classrooms. Teachers create curriculum with children from hundreds of cultures, dozens of languages, various family practices, religions, and across the spectrum of socioeconomic levels. The really good ones also manage to prepare their students and show improvement on virtually meaningless standardized tests. The best ones incorporate their students' interests and abilities, with all the aformentioned demographic factors AND still manage to prepare their students for those tests. But there is one thing that is unavoidable in the field of teaching, the Human Factor - that is, our students and teachers are human, consequently, all bets are off.
Stress, intellectual potential, even affect can influence learning, including testing. We cannot base our students' success on standardized assessments or even comprehensive exams because our children are human and have bad days. Sometimes that bad day happens on exam day or, the physiological (stress)factor. I won't repeat what I have said in a previous essay about standardized assessments but I will summarize by saying, we get nowhere by establishing a "universal academic standard." If it is set too low, too many learners meet it and critics consider it moot; set it too high and only a select few meet it and the standard becomes insurmountable for the previously given reasons and thus, not a standard.
The question of standards is an easy one to answer because it combines the best intentions of both philosophical camps: set high standards and expectations at a level that is attainable through hard work and diligence however, eliminate any reward or punishment for groups that do or do not meet the standard. The concept is simple psychology really, children often want to meet the expectations of people who care for them and love them. Similarly, most teachers (the conditional statement is something I am working on - I shouldn't assume all teachers are this way) want their students to succeed and want to be perceived as good teachers. I don't believe it is necessary to bribe them or punish them for not making a certain grade - rather, acknowledge and maybe even give a reward based on improvement, not attaining some goal set by people with no relationship to each individual school. That is the contradiction I will write about in the next section, "merit pay."
I will support my opinion of merit pay with two perspectives: 1) teachers don't need to be given a reward for doing their best, again, MOST already do and rewarding those teachers whose students do well on the test implies that the other teachers aren't doing their best and, 2) the result of rewarding teachers who meet certain standards means implicitly punishing those who don't and that is unfair considering the teachers who succeed should acknowledge their students and the teachers who don't may not meet the standards but for reasons out of their control (I can't MAKE a person learn something and if I do try, I risk sacrificing the relationship and positive rapport I have with students who might need someone who cares for them more than they need to pass a test).
Rewarding teachers for reaching standards not based on goals set by the students and their teachers makes the whole learning process sterile and robotic, education and learning is just not like that. Therefore, if we want to add a reward to the process make it attached to progress by the student and not a 780 on the CAT. There are far too many additional factors involved with the education of people to rest success on a set of tests and for teacher pay to be dependent on that success is further illogical and unimaginable.
Teacher morale, especially in areas where the safety risks and teaching challenges are higher, are at a record low with teachers staying in the central city, "urban" schools for less than three years before they move on. Statistics suggest that even those urban school teachers are not the "best and brightest" because teachers who score very high on teacher standards assessments are sought after and given more incentive to go to suburban, more well-to-do schools. We add this idea of merit pay based on student success, not progress, to the formula and the morale of teachers in these "at-risk" areas sinks even lower.
I talk with my student teachers often about "troublesome" students in their classrooms who have difficulty meeting expectations that other students seem to do with little effort at all. I tell them that these are the children for whom "baby steps" toward the goal need to be rewarded. In other words, progress, especially ANY movement toward the goal, should be noted and rewarded. I don't believe any behaviorist approach should be taken but if it is to be used, this is the way. These teachers faced with so many challenges need to be acknowledged for ANY progress made in their classrooms, not just passing scores on national standards assessments.
This is the part that I am reluctant to write because, I fancy myself in the likeness of Jonathan Kozol or Alfie Kohn, I don't need to present alternatives just because I observe when something isn't right but in the spirit of an essay and as a talking point for future discussions I will provide some alternatives to a national academic standard and merit pay.
To national standards: set large national standards based on developmental plateaus so that teachers can look at the national expectation, state standard and district goals to create a scope and sequence for their individual classrooms and their students' abilities, interests and backgrounds. But most of all, leave teachers alone. It is true there are less than effective teachers out there but there are less than perfect everythings out there. Not to mention, some students need a less academic and more affective teacher and some students need the opposite of that while still others need a balance of the two. Washington, D.C. should have very little part in determining who is the perfect teacher.
To merit pay: merit pay is no incentive. Use the money, heck even Bill Gates could ante up a few hundred million and not even feel his wallet become lighter and provide resources for teachers to "become" better. By that I mean, who knows how good some teachers could become if they weren't concerned that they didn't have the construction paper, computers, pencils, desks, room, and a myriad of other material resources to challenge - not to mention a salary that ACTUALLY compensates them for the hundreds of extra hours they put in during and after the formal school year. Rewarding teachers whose students do well on standardized national tests points the awarding finger at the wrong person - the students are the ones doing it and we cannot reward the teacher if students score well and blame them if they do poorly because if teachers had their way - all their students would pass!
Education is too human a process to reward teachers whose students do well. All teachers should be rewarded for entering those doors everyday and saying, "I will do my best to teach you, care for you, love you and provide a safe place for you."
My passion in life is raising awareness of the factors contributing to the toxic environment in which children live.