Saturday, December 19, 2009

EdWeek commentary: Is merit pay the answer?

Educator/author Kim Marshall has some food for thought about teacher merit pay in this Education Week commentary.

The piece offers good reasons to slow down on the lurch toward performance-based pay for teachers. It creates an understanding of why the organic approach favored by the Department of Education's Race to the Top application is better than Gov. Bobby Jindal's intent to pass laws mandating performance based pay (in this context, organic simply means that the concept should be allowed to grow and, if necessary, change and adapt if it does not work as planned).

One important argument offered by Marshall is that standardized tests can be "instructionally insensitive" or, as he puts it, "better at measuring students’ family advantages and disadvantages than the school’s or the teacher’s value-added effect."

The Department of Education's resident testing expert, George Noell, admitted as much when he told a joint Senate and House Education Committee last week that our current high-stakes tests are not well suited to a value-added evaluation system, but that they can be tweaked to suit the purpose.

To help resolve that issue, LFT insisted on including a "learning environment index" in the state's Race to the Top plans. That index takes factors outside of a teacher's control into account then measuring student achievement.

What is Marshall's alternative to test-based measures of value-added accountability?

In many of America’s most effective schools, principals make frequent
unannounced visits to classrooms and give informal feedback on what students
are learning and how instruction can be improved. Teacher teams in these
schools collaboratively design curriculum units, give common assessments to
their students every four to six weeks, immediately huddle to discuss what
worked and what didn’t, share best practices, reteach what wasn’t mastered, and help struggling students.

By frequently checking for understanding and fixing learning problems
before they snowball, these schools draw on teachers’ and administrators’
collective wisdom and keep everyone’s focus on the most important questions: Are
students learning, and, if not, what’s our next move?
In schools which operate on that model, Marshall says, "...students in these schools are making dramatic gains, and achievement gaps are being closed. Small wonder that teachers in these schools are continuously improving their craft."

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