Saturday, March 14, 2009

Merit Pay and Lack of Merit Firing

Well it's official- Arne Duncan and President Obama have set out ideas to "reform" American education which won't work and are, for the most part, pointless. Raising the cap on charter schools is fine and will help somewhat by increasing innovation. Extending the school day and year is ridiculous (note my previous post and extend the same argument to a longer school day: well-off kids go to soccer and piano lessons and poor kids don't. This is a POVERTY issue, not an education issue). But the idea that really gets me is merit pay for teachers. Don't get me wrong- I think good teachers deserve to be paid far more than they are right now. But attaching merit pay to test results is the worst idea I have heard in a long time. These comments from New York Times readers sum it up pretty well. Here is my idea instead: have every public school child and parent rate teachers on several criterion on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the best. Average the results then fire every teacher with a score of 1 through 4. Give merit pay to every teacher with a score of 8 to 10, and have them mentor the teachers with a score of 5 through 7. If after a year of mentoring the 5 through 7's don't improve, fire them too. You see every kid and every parent in America knows already who the "good" and "bad" teachers are. They talk about it on the playground and in the carpool line. They dread it over the summer and rejoice in the fall if they get the right one. The good teachers love what they do and connect with kids and are effective, in spite of the fact that single grade large classes with too much emphasis on testing is flat out the wrong way to teach.  I have had five children join my school in the past month, and four out of five of them had "bad" teachers. These kids were miserable, and when you are miserable you cannot learn. If the Obama administration isn't really going to reform public school, then at least they could do the kids of America this one favor- get the people who don't love kids, and love what they are doing, out of the classroom. The people to make this decision are not the administrators, not the statisticians, not the policy wonks, but the kids and the parents. At my school we call these people the "customers", and even in education, the customer should still be king.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quality over Quantity

As I sit here on a snowy Sunday contemplating whether to shorten the school year one more day by canceling school tomorrow, my thoughts go to this article about our new Education Secretary's idea to extend the school year through the  summer. A dad from school sent me the link, and rightly pointed out that more does NOT equal better. What makes Secretary Duncan think that simply having kids spend more days in a broken system will help? Unfortunately, the "more is better" mantra seems to have taken over our country. So how does this apply to education, and specifically to summer? Well for children of families with economic means, summer is the time for true enrichment. My own children have traveled across country, gone to summer camp, been to foreign countries, sold lemonade on the corner, climbed trees, built forts, explored streams, and a thousand other things that are just as valuable, if not more valuable, to their lives than school. The types of things my children do outside of school cannot easily be replicated in a school setting. But what about children without economic means? For the most part, these are the children we should be concerned about, as they score consistently lower on academic assessments than their peers who are not in poverty.  This is where Arne Duncan could really make a difference. Rather than taking the joys of summer away from our kids, why not extend them to less privileged kids? I'm guessing that vouchers for summer camp would be a whole lot cheaper than keeping schools open. Not only that, the skills kids learn at camp would be more valuable than a few extra hours of academic instruction. Whether I cancel school tomorrow or not, my students will have a worthwhile day. They will go sledding or build fires or make cookies or read books or all of the above.  At my school, kids are guaranteed two weeks off at the end of December and a full week at Spring Break, and I will never extend the school year into summer. This is not because I want more days off, but because even though I am a teacher, and even though I love school, and think my school is a valuable place to be, I honor the time my students spend outside of school. It renews and rejuvenates them. It readies them for the "real world" outside. It is a sacred part of an American childhood.