Friday, December 25, 2009

Leaving Some Children Behind?

As seems wont to happen at family gatherings, today I got into a political discussion with some family members. We discussed performance-based pay, and the discussion moved into performance-based pay for teachers.

Personally, I'm a fan of performance-based pay for teachers IF it truly reflects the performance of the individual teacher. If students took a test at the beginning of the term and at the end, and the teacher's performance was based on students' mastery of material, gained during the time they were taught by that teacher, then okay. According to an article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material." However it is that Hanushek is figuring it out, if we used that measure and it's accurate, that sounds good to me.

The negative reaction I got was mystifying.

First, I was challenged on whether it is possible to actually judge performance. It is true, we don't currently have instruments that judge student performance in all disciplines, only in the ones that are currently part of the "core". However, tests could be developed that would measure what we say we're teaching. Standardized tests that test the curriculum aren't always bad - teachers should be teaching the curriculum, and if they shouldn't then the curriculum should be changed. (I'm not discussing school-based bonuses where all teachers are paid based on student performance on core standardized tests, I'm arguing individual performance.)

The example given? PE. Apparently it's impossible to test how far or fast a student can run at the beginning of the term and test it again at the end of the term to see if there's a difference. Or if it's possible then it isn't fair because, apparently, motivating students to perform or otherwise getting them to do the curriculum is more than a teacher should be responsible for.

I suggested that good teachers are able to get their students to learn the material. Period. That's what makes someone a good teacher.

I was told that I'm unrealistic, because I work in a private school. I don't understand what it's like to have a classroom of 40 kids (largely true) who have varying ability and interest (untrue). It's not possible to support the low kids and help them rise while at the same time boosting the ones who are already above grade level. (You know, like by differentiating instruction and assignments.) A teacher should not be held equally responsible for a kid who is low and truly unable to grasp the material and for one who is low but highly capable.

I am venting here, because Christmas is so not the time to get into a huge fight with a close family member who is being... um... argumentative, but to say I was dismayed is an understatement.

I kept thinking about a master teacher I know. The thing that makes this teacher great is that he believes that every student can master the material. For some kids it's easy, for others it's a challenge, but he knows that every kid can do it. He doesn't teach easy stuff either, and I've never seen him dumb down material - he has high expectations. But he is willing to go the extra mile, help students who need it, and believe in them. He lives growth mindset.

I don't think teachers should be held responsible for students' prior knowledge nor should they be held responsible for what happens to a kid outside of school, and both those things do impact the student who shows up in class. But a teacher should be held responsible for how much knowledge they impart to students in their class. All students, not just the polite ones, not just the likeable ones, not just the ones who are at grade level. It does a disservice to the rest to ignore them and refuse to be responsible for teaching them too. Why would a teacher be okay with leaving some children behind?