Them's Fightin' Words
As the debate about school reforms heats up, it's getting tougher to have reasoned, thoughtful conversations about specific reform strategies. You're either a wild-eyed zealot pushing for scorched-earth change or a dour obstructionist doing all you can to defend the status quo. There is little room for doubt in this super-heated environment.
I see this dynamic at work in the growing crop of opinion pieces urging states to give no quarter on teacher evaluation and merit pay reforms. The standard for many pundits seems to be 50 percent. If you don't base at least half of a teacher's evaluation on test scores, you must be a weak-kneed servant of special interests. An editorial in yesterday's Washington Post offers just the latest example of this argument.
But aren't there some questions we should ask before we base most of our pay and evaluation decisions on test scores? Do we know how this will affect teacher morale? Do we know how it will influence teacher recruitment? Do we know how many teachers would stick around under the new regime? Are we sure that those who leave would be the bad teachers? Do we know how it would affect efforts to promote greater collaboration among staff? Do we know how much all those new tests will COST? Are the value-added measures reliable and stable? Do they always account for factors beyond the classroom that can influence students' scores? Will states conduct impact studies before they proceed?
It's important to ask such questions before going whole hog on any big reform. That should be the role of the fourth estate, but not everyone in the media is in a very inquisitive mood.
It's worth noting that pundits and opinion writers who cry out for merit pay are themselves quite insulated from the consequences of their ideas. (Has anyone done a study of major newspapers' editorials to find out how many really hit the mark? Were the authors paid accordingly?*)
To be fair, this is a tough time for the news media, which have to consider a different bottom line. When your circulation is dropping, it might seem less important to be careful than to sell papers or gain viewers. That could explain the shrill tone of a recent news magazine whose cover story proclaimed: "The problem with education is teachers." That kind of headline gets attention, but it seems pretty far out, even for a popular news magazine. Big, bold opinions move more copies than careful analysis does.
That's more than just a cheap shot at the media. It should be a reminder that incentives can do harm if they pull in the wrong direction. Are we so confident in our standardized tests that we're willing to make them the main factor in a teacher's evaluation? If we were worried about "teaching to the test" before the days of merit pay, then shouldn't the most aggressive merit pay schemes worry us all the more?
Skeptics have a right to worry about what might happen if we go whole hog on merit pay. Big reforms can falter if we put them in place in a half-hearted way. Standards-based reform sputtered in part, because state tests weren't very good, standards themselves were uneven, and many teachers lacked the support they needed to use the standards well in the classroom. Given that we have this kind of track record, you can't blame people for being a tad squeamish.
Yes, new Common Core state standards are promising, and the feds are putting up money for better tests, but there's oh! so much that can go wrong when state and local budgets are as desperately squeezed as they are now. When money runs dry and concern for schools begins to lapse, bold reforms can become monstrous caricatures of their former selves.
So expressions of doubt aren't always fightin' words. They can be an invitation for real conversation.
* Yes, bloggers like me are just as unaccountable as newspaper editorial writers. It's important to admit that.
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The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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