Friday, April 2, 2010

Of Sticks, Hammers, and Carrots

The Answer Sheet blog points to a couple of items of concern.

First, it reprints an open letter from Jim Horn to President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan about reauthorizing NCLB. The key quotation,
Despite all the politicizing of the teaching profession, at heart teachers remain child advocates and cultivators of the next generation of citizens. Teachers want children to succeed and flourish, but it is not because they have been paid to do so. A student’s growth and well-being remain the teacher’s most ardent concerns, despite the fact that she is undervalued, demonized, ridiculed, mistrusted, and paid less than most other professions that require the same level of education and training.

If a child’s test scores are to be used to make decisions regarding a teacher’s most basic needs for adequate sustenance for her family and for a dollop of dignity from her principal, then you risk damaging the teacher-student relationship that goes as far back as Socrates.
Second, a report on Florida's efforts to "hammer" teachers.  The term "hammer" comes from one of the bill's authors.  The legislation would tie teacher pay directly to student test scores.  Districts could not take into account years of service or education.  The key quotation,
This approach could easily spread beyond the borders of Florida. It’s everybody’s business.
The Florida approach can easily find a home in South Dakota.  The State currently offers few legal protections for teachers or any other workers.  That fact won't stand in the way of people's perceptions that teachers are overpaid, lazy people who teach for the thrill of June, July, and August.

Teachers need to make it possible for their students to learn.  They should know their material and how to communicate that knowledge.  Although Socrates famously argued that he know nothing, he obviously know enough to ask great questions. Test scores won't show whether teachers help students learn, know their material, or promote asking great questions;  test scores illustrate whether students can take tests.  That's it.

Further, high school students need to take responsibility for their education.  As a wise man once told me, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink; you can send kids to school but you can't make them think."  Tying test scores to continued employment or pay automatically allows students avoid thinking and learning.  They get to put the responsibility on someone else.  In fact, they can fail every test and every class, and it will be the teachers' fault.

The efforts to link teacher pay or job security to student results indicate a lack of reading skills.  Proponents will probably admit to using a carrot and stick approach because the best teachers will get the "carrot" of higher salary while the poor teachers will get the "stick" or in this case the "hammer"of lower pay or unemployment.

A careful reading of the story, however, reveals that the boy never got results while using the stick to punish the donkey.  The more he "hammered" the donkey with the stick, the less work the donkey accomplished.  It was only after the stick became an extension of the boy's arm and was used to dangle the carrot in front of the donkey that the donkey began to pull the cart.

The people who love NCLB or who support the Floridan bill seem to assume that testing will produce students who are better prepared to work or attend college because teachers who have been doing absolutely nothing for the past fifty years will suddenly start teaching and thousands of new applicants will eagerly seek the benefits that come to teachers whose students pass NCLB mandated tests.  They are wrong on both counts.  A high school career that allows students to blame someone else for their failure to learn will produce graduates who need extra workplace training or remedial college classes.  The proposed changes to NCLB and the Florida approach will make the teaching profession more desirable for only those people who enjoy being "hammered."  In that case, future teachers will have to be drunks or masochists or both.

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