Michigan lawmakers are completely missing the point when it comes to boosting student achievement. This week they are engaged in discussions about their plan to tie teacher compensation directly to student performance on standardized tests. The House Committee on Education, chaired by GOP novice Lisa Posthumus-Lyons, is currently considering HB 4625, a bill introduced by Republicans late last month intended to further erode hard-fought union protections — primarily tenure — under the guise of improving education in Michigan.
While it may be tempting to agree that teacher compensation should be directly linked to student achievement, that premise is deeply flawed on multiple levels, and implementation of such a plan would have highly destructive results on the quality of the already beleaguered institution of public education in Michigan.
The proposed legislation states that schools must “implement and maintain a method of compensation that includes job performance and accomplishments as the primary factor in determining compensation…” (sounds reasonable so far) …However, it goes on to require that the evaluation mechanism must be “primarily based on data on student growth as measured by assessments and other objective criteria” – also known as standardized tests.
This scheme would force each individual educator to put all their energy into “teaching to the test”, much in the same way No Child Left Behind did to schools as a whole. Not only would it destroy teamwork through the unnecessary burden of teacher-against-teacher competition, but it would enforce a methodology that is proven to be harmful. Teachers would become coaches, and core curriculum subjects would become competitive sports.
In a Carnegie Foundation report on the hazards of reliance on standardized tests as a means of evaluating student achievement we find the following observations:
The public pressure on students, teachers, principals, and school superintendents to raise scores on high-stakes tests is tremendous, and the temptation to tailor and restrict instruction to only that which will be tested is almost irresistible.
In addition to offending our moral sense, teaching the actual items on a test (what James Popham calls “item teaching”) is counter-productive for the very practical reason that it makes valid inferences about student achievement almost impossible.
Americans certainly do love their tests, so how do successful countries get by without them?
Diane Ravitch, an educational policy analyst and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, became interested in the educational system of Finland, a country known for producing top students with a nearly complete lack of student testing. In 2010, she inquired of a Finnish education expert:
“If students don’t take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?” He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for “accountability.” He said, “We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible.”
I asked him if teachers are paid more for experience. He said, “Of course.” And what about graduate degrees? He said, “Every teacher in Finland has a master’s degree.” He added: “We don’t believe in competition among students, teachers, or schools. We believe in collaboration, trust, responsibility, and autonomy.”
Michigan GOP lawmakers however, are hell-bent for an educational system about as stimulating and useful as a NASCAR race — going round-and-round in meaningless circles — sporting corporate logos in its rush to privatize and corporatize our nation’s long and successful tradition of public education.
Another critical argument against HB 4625 is that it doesn’t even address the real impediment in American education — a problem that Michigan has become the new posterchild for — poverty.
The Economic Policy Institute analyzed the much quoted data from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showing U.S. students lagging behind many other countries, and while not all of those nations necessarily test every child, the truth is that the reason we are behind is mostly economic. The report says:
Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.
Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.
If U.S. adolescents had a social class distribution that was similar to the distribution in countries to which the United States is frequently compared, average reading scores in the United States would be higher than average reading scores in the similar post-industrial countries we examined (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and average math scores in the United States would be about the same as average math scores in similar post-industrial countries.
Bill Clinton famously said “It’s the economy stupid”, and now we can say in Michigan that the economy is making us stupid.
Unfortunately, the only idea the Snyder administration can dimly imagine to solve the growing problem is their doomed to fail Educational Achievement Authority — a corporate modeled favorite of pseudo-reform types that don’t know the first thing about education.
It’s time Michigan leaders focus on fixing poverty — and no, corporations can’t fix that either — minimum wage jobs aren’t helping anyone but Snyder and his cronies.
Amy Kerr Hardin