Friday, January 13, 2006

Merit-Based Plan has Need of Improvement

There are few who are more in favor of paying teachers more money than I consider myself to be. Teachers are, without a doubt, the most important profession in this country at the moment, as they prepare our future generations to take on the responsibilities of a complex society and to lead it in new directions Рand hopefully, new heights Рof science, law, technology, arts, and culture. It never fails to engender a sense of anger when I see other professions that are far less important reap the benefit of large sums of money (think professional sports, for the clich̩ argument).

What Houston is trying to do is admirable [see article below], and works towards a general theory of merit-based pay increases and bonuses for school personnel. Rewarding a good teacher for propelling his/her students to do better in their scholastic achievements is a new and potentially useful tool in the run to improve our general schools. That such a large school system is willing to do this, following Denver’s lead, is admirable

However, I have several concerns for this type of merit-based bonus system, and it comes in the form of teacher creativity and student interest. Exclusively tying teacher compensation to student test scores, especially at the younger levels (K-8), runs the risk of handicapping the teachers into becoming too dogmatic in their approach to teaching. Children, more than learning the basic facts needed to pass a grade, come to school needing inspiration, the installation of a desire to learn and read and explore. Give them this beginning, and for the rest of their life they will continue to seek out new sources of information and be driven to pursue topics that interest them and will further their education. That college student levels are falling (a report recently showed especially teenage boys not enrolling in the levels they used to) shows very acutely that people are not interested in taking their education to the next level. Their self-motivation to pursue an education is limited to what is required by law, despite the plethora of reports and articles saying that college degrees guarantee higher wages and a better living. This sort of establishment of wonder, of interest, will serve them far well into the future more than making sure they have the minute details of some subject drilled into their heads. These people are more likely to take an active interest in the news, in current events, and thus be better citizens for a democracy.

When you rely on reaching a minimum of factoids during a school session, you limit the ability for teachers to take their classes in different directions, robbing them of their choice in being a creative educational force for young people. Instead, you make them human flash-cards, responsible for bombarding them with the certain data points that are required to pass the test, earn the teacher the bonus, and get the student perfunctory to the next level in their education. Quite frankly, this can be boring, both for the administer of the education as well as the recipient. Now, there are some classes where teaching-to-the-test methodology is accepted, even preferred. High school Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classrooms are perfect examples where this is even expected of the teachers. But not in 3rd grade. 3rd graders should be allowed to pursue topics that engender an interest in them of knowing more, exploring more, both scientifically and artistically and mathematically and historically. In all topics, they should be stimulated to be creative, dynamic individuals. Too much dogmaticism, you create robots, superficially intelligent and educated, but with no independent thought ability and creative nature.

Unfortunately, I do not have the perfect solution. Testing students in every capacity is an unattainable goal, and there are a number of characteristics of healthy students that escape quantification. Standardized test scores should be a part of the teacher’s evaluation in consideration for a pay increase, but I do not believe it should be the only facet of a teacher’s performance that should be considered. Perhaps independent reviews could be conducted, to better understand the way the teacher interacts with the students. Student evaluations as well are a possibility, but run the risk of a more biased outlook on a particular teacher. Other results could be developed as well, and I hope they are, for this will help maintain well-rounded, independent teachers who produce well-rounded, interested students, and that is the foundation for a better society.

Teacher pay tied to test scores in Houston schools

HOUSTON (AP) — Houston became the largest school district in the country on Thursday to adopt a merit pay plan for teachers that focuses on students' tests scores

By a 9-0 vote, the Houston school board approved a plan that offers teachers up to $3,000 in extra pay if their students show improvement on state and national tests. The program could be expanded to provide up to $10,000 in merit pay for teachers. The vote came after several teachers told the board during its monthly meeting they believed the plan was flawed and unfair because some teachers will be eligible for larger bonuses than others

”This is not a perfect plan but it is a beginning," said school board president Diana Davila. Other school districts around the country have implemented various types of incentive pay programs for teachers in recent years. Denver adopted one in November, becoming at the time the largest school district to do so. Houston, with more than 200,000 students, is the nation's seventh-largest school district

The plan is divided into three sections, with as much as $1,000 in bonus pay in each. The first will award bonuses to all teachers in schools rated acceptable or higher, based on scores on the state's main standardized test. The second ties pay to student improvement on a standardized test that compares performance to nationwide norms. In the third section, reading and math teachers whose students fare well compared with others in the district would be eligible for bonuses

The teachers' union doesn't approve of the plan, saying it focuses too much on test scores and is too complicated. In general, teachers across the country have been paid based on their years of experience and education levels. Starting teachers in Houston make about $36,000 a year. The average salary in the district is about $45,000.

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