Professionals keep score... of the right things!
If you have been reading my latest posts, you might jump to the conclusion that I am against accountability, including merit pay for teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I embraced accountability because it forced us to do what we should have been doing all along--hold all students to higher standards. As a principal, I worked in a high-stakes accountability state (Virginia), and that accountability system gave our school the leverage it needed to promote increased rigor and high expectations for all students.
What does a high-stakes accountability environment look like? In a high stakes accountability environment, everyone including students and schools are held accountable.
In too many states, there is accountability for teachers and schools, but no accountability for students. In those states, the destiny of the school and fate of the teachers rests on the good will of the students. If the students feel like taking the state test, they do. If they don't feel like it, they "flag the test." How can so many states hold everyone but the students, who actually take the tests, accountable? It makes absolutely no sense.
I worked in Virginia throughout the first decade of the SOL, Standards of Learning, assessments. Initially, the tests were set up to discredit and embarrass public schools. However, when just about every school failed the tests, the parents revolted and the state threw out the old guard and worked with schools to develop a fair system, which included the following for high school:
Schools were held accountability.
- Eleven end-of-course exams
- Schools had to achieve a 70% proficiency rate or lose state accreditation.
- Schools were held to graduation targets.
- Schools who failed to achieve prescribed targets were required to go through a school improvement process.
Students were held accountable.
- The end-of-course exams acted as barriers to graduation.
- Students were required to pass the courses and six of the eleven end-of-course exams in order to earn a diploma.
- At the urging of the Virginia Association of Secondary Principals, the State strengthened existing attendance laws and stepped up enforcement.
- No students were "Christmas-treeing" tests in Virginia. Students took the test seriously because they counted for them and, even if they had the six required verified credits, they cared because their teachers cared so much.
Note: There was no statistically significant change in graduation rates in the barrier year, 2004, because the State initiated a "Project Graduation" initiative that began in 2000.
Teachers were not held individually accountable.
There was no need to hold teachers personally accountable, because they held themselves to such high standards. Our teachers expected more of themselves than anyone else would ever expect of them. They felt a sense of shared responsibility and a commitment to their students, their colleagues, and to the school as a whole. They understood that test scores reflected on "our school" and on "our students." In fact, teachers were so committed to student success that we had to be very careful how we reported test results, lest we single out or inadvertently identify any one individual teacher. Our teachers took each test score personally. Instead of having to light a fire under our teachers, we had to hold hands and sooth hurt feelings, because they cared so much.
That is the kind of accountability environment we want. We want students to take the tests seriously. We want the teachers to care about the success of their students. We want a collegial environment that encourages collective effort and cooperation. We want the students to say that the "teachers would never give up on us."
Why Do We Need Merit Pay?
Coming from that experience explains why I don't understand the merit pay argument. Anyone who knows teachers knows that money is not a motivator. They don't need to be cajoled with promises of bonuses to dedicate themselves. In fact, like most achievement-motivated professionals, teachers are insulted and demotivated by the use of tangible rewards. Teachers want what Frederick Herzberg called "motivators"--recognition, challenging work, responsibility.
Pay teachers as professionals! Pay them in proportion to their contribution to society. Stop nickel-and-diming them with promises of meager bonuses!
What Teachers Really Want
Supportive Leadership - More than anything else, including higher pay (45%), 40,000 teachers surveyed reported that they want supportive leadership (68%). Supportive leadership ensures that all of the following are available to teachers in the school.
Sense of Purpose - In the long run, what most motivates teachers is a sense of purpose--the desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. After all, that is why we became educators. However, when teachers drive old beaten up cars and they can't even afford to live in the communities in which they teach, it is hard to talk to them about a higher purpose.
Mastery - Teachers want to feel that they are skilled professionals. They want to feel that they are continually growing and improving. They want quality professional development that actually helps them improve their practice.
Self-Direction - Teachers want input into the key decisions that impact their profession on a daily basis. They want opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues.
Team - Teachers want to feel that they are a part of a collective effort. Teaching does not have to be lonely endeavor. Schools work best when teachers are committed to each other and the success of their students.
Professionals - Teachers want to be treated as professionals. They want to be treated like people not workers.
The Bottom Line
Professionals keep score, but their score is actually a true reflection of actual performance. Some of the current practices, such as not holding students accountable for test scores, and some of the proposals like merit pay and value-added teacher evaluations fail to pass the reality test and set up schools to fail. For example, our school wide literacy effort made a big difference in student performance on State assessments. However, since literacy strategies were practiced in every classroom every day, it was impossible to single out an individual teacher to receive a merit pay bonus.
Team efforts should garner collective rewards. Merit systems pit one teacher against another competing for scarce resources--the merit bonus. We need to reward and encourage collective effort not the individual all-stars teachers, who exemplified 20th century assembly line schools.
School leaders want and welcome accountability, but lets make it a meaningful and fair system, not one that singles out individuals for rewards or punishments. School leaders rely on the voluntary cooperation of teachers, students, and parents if the school is to succeed. Set us up to succeed!