“An Unavoidable Element of Subjectivity”

by Robert Pondiscio
September 10th, 2009

Schools need much more than merit pay to recruit and retain good teachers, argues Kevin Carey at the Quick and the Ed.  “They need strong leadership, good facilities, safe working conditions, and the right kind of organizational culture,” he writes. “You can’t paper over the lack of those things by simply tacking on a salary bonus, even a big one, to the existing steps-and-lanes pay scale.”

Carey’s reasoned (and reasonable) take on merit pay feels like a welcome departure from the teacher-quality-and-test-scores über alles refrain more commonly sung by accountability hawks.  Especially in his recognition that “we need to build schools great people want to teach in, and that means fully recognizing their value in all ways, including pay.”

The great schools of the future will be professional meritocracies in a way today’s public schools are not, but not by adding test scores to the mechanistic logic of an industrial-age salary scale. Rather, they’ll spend a great deal of energy on getting the conditions and culture right, and then negotiate substantially higher and substantially more variable salaries with individual teachers. It will be an expensive, time-consuming, imperfect process with an unavoidable element of subjectivity. It will also be much, much better than what most schools use today.

Agreed.  I’d also wager there isn’t one teacher in a thousand who wouldn’t welcome merit pay in a school that spent “a great deal of energy on getting the conditions and culture right.” 

The phrase “unavoidable element of subjectivity” also strikes me as a recognition of the infinite complexity teachers face in working with our most disadvantaged students (any attempt to move past mindless “teachers fear accountability” sloganeering is a welcome development).  Guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs, the always insightful Diana Senechal captures the dilemma of nuance-averse accountability well.  “With dumbed-down tests, vapid literacy programs, an overwhelming focus on test prep at the exclusion of essential subjects, and unreliable rating systems, we end up taking a yardstick to a void–and declaring miracles whenever we please,” she wrote.  The flip side of that — the thing that teachers reasonably fear — is that it is too easy to declare failure whenver we please, and hold teachers solely responsible when they are too often reduced to foot soldiers with no control over what or even how they teach. 

This cannot be said often enough: teachers are not by nature accountability-averse.  They are, however, sensibly averse to having an extraordinarily difficult and complex task measured by crude and simplistic tools.

Update:  John Thompson, a vocal teacher advocate who also viewed Carey’s post favorably, takes up a similar theme at This Week in Education.  “I’ve never understood why ‘reformers,’ who are angered by the terrible results of policies set by principals and central offices, respond by attacking teachers who do not set those policies. But the answer, which the New Teacher Center makes clear, is not to attack principals but to use ‘contextual data’ to enhance teacher and principal quality and create a learning culture which attracts and retains educators.”

Ask Your Child About Content, Not Grades

by Robert Pondiscio
September 10th, 2009

Don’t ask your kids about grades, test scores or homework, advises Kerry Dickinson of the East Bay Homework Blog.  Instead, focus on the content of the subject he or she is studying.

Instead of “What did you get on the test?” say, “What are you learning in science?” If you are connected to some school communication tool (like Schoolloop) you can look at homework assignments and grades privately. Benefits: you are teaching them to take ownership of their own schedules. You are letting them manage their own time. You are taking the focus off scores and putting it on learning.

Dickinson’s ”10 Tips to Start the School Year Off Right” offers a list of ideas from common sense to counterintuitive: Don’t overschedule your children; don’t sign your child up for academic tutoring unless he or she is in jeopardy of failing a class; and don’t attend every sports game or extracurricular activity (“your child will be participating for the love of the game or of the activity, not to earn your approval”).

(H/T: Kathleen Manzo via Twitter)