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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Being a Great Teacher is Risky

Many observers wonder if the reformers know what they are doing.

Politicians and politicians' appointees regularly propose improving teacher quality by linking teacher compensation to student performance on standardized tests. Teachers may greatly influence, but they do not control, student performance. The test may actually measure lots of other variables, most of which go unidentified.

I remember a seventh grade boy taking both math and science from me. In the spring, when he took the Stanford 9, he dropped from 4.7 grade equivalency to 4.3 grade equivalency. The next year he was assigned to both of my classes again as an eighth grader. His Stanford 9 results that year put him at 7.2 grade equivalency for a one year improvement of 2.5 grade levels. Wow! Was I lousy teacher the first year and a great one the second? What about all his other teachers? Maybe it was simply the fact that his alcoholic uncle finally moved out of the house.

But for the sake of argument, let's suppose I get to take the credit for my student's splendid improvement. After all, I am the one who stayed after school with him every day. If I am a great teacher, what should the school do with me? If I were the parent of a struggling student, I would want my kid to get me. If I have more than a few struggling students, and my status as great, as well as my compensation, hangs on ever-increasing test scores, it would not be in my interest to teach struggling students. In fact, there are schools which routinely assign the most difficult students to the most novice teachers. Older teachers believe they have paid their dues and deserve less challenging students even as their competence presumably improves with experience.

Furthermore, research has consistently shown that students do not sustain higher levels of achievement motivated solely by extrinsic rewards. They need intrinsic rewards. Why would teachers, being human after all, be any different? The best teachers do not teach for the money. They teach for the joy of watching understanding spread over the faces of students, the light in the eyes, and the satisfaction of training the next generation well. Money is how society demonstrates it esteems and appreciates the work that great teachers do. Society likes its movie stars and sports heroes way more than its teachers.

So what should be on the table? Diane Ravitch says the Nicholas Kristof says (how's that for an attribution?) we should scrap certification, education degrees and SAT scores.

Since teachers uniformly diss their education degrees as worthless, since certification certifies state indoctrination more than quality, and since statistics from the colleges of education show that their students have lower SAT scores than the general college population, maybe we should rethink teacher quality. Meaningful reform means that nothing is off the table. It is a huge job, but as George Lakoff reminded us, values need to trump programs, and more importantly, values need to trump ideology. We need to talk and listen to everyone.

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