In the coming year education reform is likely to be taken up by the President and the next Congress. Some of the main reform ideas floating around include more charter schools and the concept of merit pay.
The simple problem with charter schools is that virtually no one in the education world really thinks they’ll make a difference. Research has shown that on the whole charter schools perform no better than public schools. They are exempted from most regulations so while the idea is that they are accountable to parents, parents have to hold them accountable. In traditional schools people have full time jobs ensuring accountability in schools. I feel that few parents have the time for that. Charter schools often have high turnover rates. It is much easier for a charter school to fire teachers who do not perform to a certain standard. This seems logical but the resulting turnover rates make it difficult for them to find people and can undermine student achievement. Also some schools (operated by for-profit corporations) refuse to take on students with special needs because it would not be profitable.
Charter schools have been very successful in some places. In failing districts, charter schools seem to improve student performance. However, they are not subject to the same scrutiny of public schools. You don’t always know what your getting. The biggest problem with the idea that we just expand charter school funding and build more of these schools is that we’re not really sure how well they work and how to best implement them.
Merit pay sounds great. Essentially, the better your students test scores are the more money you make. Wonderful, let’s give teachers a bonus for doing a great job. I can tell you from experience that merit pay works. Well, it works sometimes, in some jobs. Teaching isn’t one of them.
The problems are many. The basic assumption that merit pay requires is offensive to teachers. It implies that teachers aren’t already trying the best they can. I’ve worked with teachers for many years, and I’ve probably known of a few who were just collecting a paycheck. The vast majority of them are not. The reason merit pay is an idea talked about in Congress is that they think teaching is just another middle-class job. They don’t have a concept of why people become teachers. They are teachers because that’s what they have to do. The clergy often talk about a “spiritual calling” a feeling that they must devote their lives to God. Teacher’s get that same calling. People become teachers because the intrinsic reward of success is unlike anything else. I worked in an autism program for awhile. There is no way merit pay would work there, because the daily grind and stress of that job is so great. You have to want these kids to succeed. You have try your hardest everyday. Otherwise, you would quit before your first day was over.
The other problem is kids. Merit pay works in jobs where variables can be accounted for. I worked in screen printing for a time. In that job, if your production was at a certain level you were eligible for a raise, but if your production fell you would lose that raise. It worked great because printers would try to produce more. Any variables like the number of colors on the design, the type of garment, or whatever were worked into a formula that determined a certain person’s “efficiency.” You can’t account for the class a teacher may have from year to year. Take forty kids and put them into two randomly selected classes. Then do it again and again. Every different combination you come up with leads to an entirely different classroom dynamic. As smart as humanity has become, one thing we understand so little of how we interact with one another. We can’t explain why you like one person and can’t stand another. Every child in a classroom has to deal with every other child and the teacher. How all those people gel affects learning. While successful teachers will always help their students learn, how much learning goes on is subject to too much unknown.
Finally, you have to ask the big question. “How do you determine student success?” Currently we use a bunch of tests and your score says you have or have not learned enough. Clearly, it’s a system that doesn’t work. We know that. We have known that. So why haven’t we fixed it? I’m afraid we don’t have a better idea. We can’t get away from standardized tests because we don’t know what to do instead. The reality is that really measuring student success takes years. How good your kindergarten teacher was could have a huge affect on your life, but we don’t know it until you’ve lived your life. Tests are just a single point on a graph but we need to see the whole line. Testing does give us information, but it will never give us the whole story. We can’t reward the best teachers based on student test scores because test scores don’t show you who the best teachers are.
Teachers today would love to have me in their classes. I’m a test taker. I knew someone who was basically failing a college astronomy course so her final test, whatever she couldn’t answer I did. She got a 92. I’m good at multiple choice tests, because I’m a good guesser. I also have a brain full of facts that most people don’t need to know. I watch a lot of Jeopardy. But the fact that my test scores were always good didn’t matter when I didn’t do homework. I got all the knowledge in school, because that was easy for me. I didn’t get as much of the intangible things teachers give you. Motivation, inspiration, discipline. The best teachers teach those things. They teach children to learn. In today’s world you don’t need school for knowledge. Knowledge is out their. Hell, you can learn almost anything you want on a cell phone anymore. Everything is available on the Internet. You could teach yourself physics and order a pizza from your couch. If you want to know something you just have to go looking. In the two hours I’ve been writing this I’ve read a dozen articles on education reform and the Wikipedia entry on charter schools. Finding the information is easy. School has to make you want to find it. School has to teach you how to look at something and decide whether you agree or not, and why you agree or not. The best teachers teach children how to be adults. You can’t measure that with a test.