Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Say "Wabbit:" The Inherent Limits of Merit Pay and Standardized Testing

Coming to a school near you.
THANKS TO EVERYONE who responded to yesterday's post, "Aesop's Gym." I'll provide the answer, if you're interested, tomorrow. In other words, it's not too late to try to solve the essential riddle in education.

For now, let's take up the question of merit pay, based on test scores, an idea beloved by many of the biggest names in education reform, a panacea offered by fast-talking politicians across the land. 

It's a key feature of Senate Bill 5, as lawmakers set out to "improve" Ohio schools.

Sunday, I actually met two teachers who favor merit pay, although I don't think they're fans of SB5, by any means.

Then, Monday,  I talked to a friend, a speech therapist in the local schools. She's a twelve-year veteran, still filled with first-year-out-of-college idealism, and worried about where we're headed in American education.

If you went back thirty years ago, when my friend was in grade school, many of the students she now sees in therapy would not have been allowed in public schools. But the field for speech therapy is changing. It's not just the kindergartner who says "wabbit," any more. My friend serves Downs Syndrome kids and severe behavior kids and one autistic child who, until this year, has been totally non-verbal. 

At age nine, "Martha," as I'll call her, had never spoken a word in her life; and at home mom had no idea what to do. 

Naturally, a little girl with no effective way to communicate is going to be frustrated. So, until recently, she simply snatched at any food she saw in reach. And she's "a biter," too.

AT FIRST, NEITHER THE SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER my friend works with, nor my friend, nor the classroom aide could figure out what Martha wanted. So Martha reacted the only way she knew. "Look out," the special ed. teacher said in warning to the therapist one afternoon, "she's going to bite." With that, my friend drew back in her seat, and Martha jerked forward in hers, and sank teeth in her blazer. 

She missed flesh but did leave a hole in one sleeve.

The special education teacher has bite marks up and down her arms these days. But like my friend, she and the aide keep plugging away, and I don't think their dedication has anything to do with merit pay, even if you could measure what they're doing. 

They've been doing a lot of behavior modification exercises, for example, and using a combination of signs, and cards, and verbalization techniques, and they've been breaking through. Recently, Martha wanted apple slices to eat. First, she took the card that says, "I want," and placed it on the table before her. Then she took a card with a picture of an apple and placed it next to the first card. She didn't snatch at slices. And she didn't snap at the therapist's arm, either. Instead, she said in a faltering way, "I want apple."

Over a cup of coffee this weekend, my friend mentioned that she was "excited to go in Monday and try again" to help Martha. It's a sentiment hundreds of thousands of teachers express in different ways, each and every day. And I don't think this kind of motivation comes down to money.

I don't believe for one minute that you can ever "measure" education, with all its variables, and what scares me most about plans that say we can, and then draw direct links from test scores to merit pay, is that you'll bog down teachers in paperwork and spend hundreds of millions on statistical analysis and won't be helping kids like Martha in the slightest.

The more we focus on testing, testing, testing and measuring, measuring, measuring, and the more lawmakers and bureaucrats stick their noses into the process, the more real teachers will become like accountants trying to figure out the U. S. tax code.

IT'S THE I. R. S. MODEL FOR OUR SCHOOLS.  And it's coming to a classroom near you.

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