In a February 4, 2010 Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, University of Virginia Professor Daniel Willingham and author of â€œWhy Donâ€™t Students Like School?â€™â€™ writes about the issue of â€œMerit Payâ€ for teachers as required by The President’s education reform initiative â€œRace to the Top.â€ While the majority of Orange County school districts opted out of committing to the California plan to accept Race to the Top funding, the issue of â€œmerit pay isnâ€™t going away.
In an effort to improve public schools, President Obama wants to hold individual teachers accountable for student test scores; indeed, states that prohibit the practice are ineligible for the â€œRace to the Topâ€™â€™ funds.
To a cognitive scientist, this is a strange line to draw in the sand. We do not have good tools to measure teachers, and when you hold people accountable with poor measures, things donâ€™t just fail to improve. They get worse.
The reason is simple: Accountability changes workersâ€™ focus from â€œdo a good jobâ€™â€™ to â€œdo a job that looks good according to the measure.â€™â€™
One approach to classroom accountability is to measure childrenâ€™s learning and let the teacher do whatever they think is best. You simply administer a test in the fall and one in the spring and find the difference. Thatâ€™s intuitive, but there are a number of conceptual and technical problems.
Obviously, teachers have little incentive to teach any topic that is not tested, or indeed, anything that will not be tested that year; why lay groundwork for improving next yearâ€™s scores? If you thought No Child Left Behind led to an overemphasis on testing, wait for the test-prep frenzy that follows linking salaries to test scores.
Another problem: not everything is in the teacherâ€™s hands. Rowdy kids are harder to teach than well-behaved kids. And itâ€™s easier to teach your class if your principal (and parents) are helpful and supportive. Several studies have shown that teacher evaluations based on test scores are unstable. About 25 percent of teachers pegged as terrific or terrible get the opposite designation the next year.
The logic underlying this approach is suspect. It assumes that teachers know what to do but just arenâ€™t doing it or that they will figure out what to do once the pressure is on. Itâ€™s the equivalent of the frustrated parent shouting â€œI donâ€™t care how you do it – just bring home better math grades!â€™â€™ No Child Left Behind should have taught us that improving student achievement doesnâ€™t happen simply by mandating it.
So what if you do tell teachers how to improve? A second approach limits accountability to how teachers do their job. You observe teachers in the classroom and see whether they are using what are known to be good teaching practices. The problem is that people then become slavishly devoted to the rules, because it is to the rules that they are accountable. Call it RMV Syndrome.
I once waited in a long line at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles only to be told that I needed an additional form. I saw the form about two feet from the clerk, but he insisted I wait in a different line for that form. Maddening for me, but perfectly sensible from his point of view. Why should he break the rules and risk punishment, just to save me a wait in line?
Social scientists have a technical term for this type of behavior. Itâ€™s called â€œcovering your butt.â€™â€™ This type of accountability only works if the list of required behaviors is so intelligently constructed that in covering their butts people end up doing a good job. It can also work when the supervisor is knowledgeable and flexible; the RMV clerk might have known that his supervisor would understand that giving me the form was technically breaking a rule, but contributing to the larger goal of effective service.
There are ways of making accountability work. The two key elements are evaluations that take place over long periods of time, to increase stability, and evaluations that are conducted by people who are knowledgeable and are known by teachers to be knowledgeable. Unfortunately, neither element is part of the Obama administrationâ€™s plans.
Advocates of teacher accountability often acknowledge these problems, yet insist itâ€™s better than nothing. Not true. A poor system could make teaching worse and a failed attempt will allow opponents to dismiss accountability as a failed policy. Accountability is a good idea, but we have to get the measures right.
It really isn’t a good idea for us to expand the failures of “No Child Left Behind” by tying teacher pay to their ability to teach students to pass a test, and nothing else. If our testing measures do not test sufficiently on student knowledge related to subjects other than reading, writing, and math, then we fail to teach students as individual people.
By teaching to a test we end up teaching as though we are programming a computer for limited and simple functions rather than teaching students the full spectrum of knowledge necessary to be productive and involved members of society.
Life is not a series of multiple-choice questions and our students are not monkeys trained to use a #2 pencil to fill in bubbles on a sheet of paper.