Yet again, it seems the Fraser Institute has shown us just how foolish they are.
In a recent publication the "right-wing think tank" (who just a few weeks ago told Canadians it was possible to raise a child for $3000 a year) came up with a plan that would see teacher pay tied to student achievement. The report entitled Obtaining Better Teachers for Canadian Public Schools was authored by Rodney Clifton, whose resume shows a lot of writing, but does not mention anything about time spent in an actual class. And this disconnect between theory and practice is evident throughout Mr. Clifton's report. Ultimately, the entire idea of merit pay is built on several false illusions, and as such to connect teacher pay to such illusions is ineffective and foolish.
In a recent interview with CBC's Here & Now Clifton argued that teachers should be subject to merit pay. In such a system teacher pay (for the most part) would be allocated based on incremental scores at the beginning and the end of the year. One can only assume that such assessment would be done through a standardized format, much like the literacy tests the Fraser Institute is so keen on.
In the interview and the corresponding report Clifton notes (albeit briefly) some of the challenges behind the system. He seems to see unions as the most problematic risk. How odd that their members would not support a system that puts them at odds with their fellow employees. But, he also notes that standardizing tests as means of assessing whether the student has received an effective teacher is a means by which education can circumnavigate the dangerous territory of socioeconomics. Socioeconomics has never been the Fraser Institute's forte. We see little-to-no analysis of the socioeconomics of schools in their annual Report Card, so we shouldn't be surprised that they seem to believe that a standardized test can over ride years of economic hardship.
I teach at a school with a house-hold income far greater than other regional schools. We - not surprisingly - have the highest literacy scores in our board. As we should. It goes without saying that parents with access to educational resources will more than likely be able to raise relatively strong students. Prior to my current posting I taught at a school on the other end of the socioeconomic scale. Annually, this school ranks near the bottom of the Institute's list. The truth is that socioeconomics are key to not only student engagement, but accessibility.
The Neo-Conservative Fraser Institute slithers through our media perpetuating a myth that our teachers are shamelessly inadequate. But, what they seem to forget is that the problems they see within our school are systematic problems that stem from the very thinking that they endorse. Instead of properly investing in schools, education and ensuring that our students are socially secure so as to be educated, they have chosen to merely focus on the issue of pay. Perhaps, instead of focusing on a right-wing American style merit system that is in all estimations is a disaster perhaps Mr. Clifton should consider looking at the countries nearer the top of the list, like that of Norway. Instead of the merit system, Norway has chosen a differentiated model that "provides a place for everyone, for all children and adults, with their various talents and ability levels".
In the aforementioned CBC interview Clifton stated that standardized testing would be key in assessing the "effectiveness" of a given teacher. However, others - most specifically Pasi Sahlbeg, Alfie Kohn & Sir Ken Robinson - have more than efficiently explained why these tests don't work. Most recently Thomas S. Poetter wrote: "Classrooms should be rich places for intellectual activity, creativity, imagination, and wonder. Furthermore, choice, a critical aspect of a democratic life, has been almost completely removed from the classroom for both students and teachers. In many cases, teachers can’t help but do what they’re told to do, and often regress in their work, taking the path of least resistance to satisfy the boss and other powers that be. If test scores are going to be the one and only judge of educational worth, why jeopardize any stake you have in the enterprise? Teach to the test; students might score better, and all will be well. Right?". The truth is obvious Mr. Clifton. Using standardized tests as a means of assessing a teacher's effectiveness is, well, ineffective. Teachers will no doubt teach to the test, because if that is what the governing body of the institution would deem important, then it is what we would do.
Furthermore, Clifton seems to celebrate the idea that "schools that demonstrate that their students are progressing at acceptable, or better, rates should receive block grants from their districts that would be awarded by principals in cooperation with superintendents to teachers and other personnel on the basis of their contribution to the students’ academic progress". Oh, that does sound lovely. Gifts given to schools for not creating imagination and wonder, but for merely "teaching to a test". But, what Clifton has ignored (because again, it is a socioeconomic issue) is that such incentives would marginalize inner-city schools, where socioeconomic barriers often keep students from achieving success.
Of course, to do away with standardized testing you must first hold teachers in high regard, something I would argue many in our society don't. But, the reason I would argue that they don't is often based on the assumptions put out their by scholars like Clifton. If we accept, that teachers are not professional and lack credibility, then we can justify standardized testing. But, the case is that for the most part this just isn't true. This style of testing is, according to Sahlberg a "virus that must be eliminated to enhance standards of learning". But, instead of it being a virus Clifton seems to see it as a means of rewarding the well off at the expense of others.
I would however like to commend Mr. Clifton on two points. Firstly, he notes the "characteristics of effective teachers". Upon reading this section I was proud to see that our staff, our principals and board have not only encouraged these practices but moreover embedded them into our daily rituals. Secondly, I would like to commend Mr. Clifton for finally admitting that standardized testing is not about students, but as he articulates clearly in his report, is about teachers. Something proponents of standardized tests have always told us was not the case.
Teachers, Mr. Clifton are professionals. We are not going to fight one another in a pedagogical Hunger Games tearing off the last rations of whatever your think tank believes should be allotted to us. We are professionals, who deserve to be treated as such. So, instead of hinging an entire theoretical argument on a word like "effective" I would ask you to walk into a class and teach that student who does not want to spend a minute in school. Come and meet the student who can't read because his parent(s) was too busy working 12 hour shifts to even know where he was, yet alone what he was reading. Sit down and try to explain to a kid who thinks the system is broken that a test is really about what is best for him. All your books and reports might tell you one thing. But, to truly understand what we get paid for, I recommend you leave the Ivory tower and join us in the classrooms, where we work to encourage, to create and to inspire. In other words, we are already effective Mr. Clifton, now we just need a system that can help us be more effective.
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.