Education Matters, Sandra Nichols, Race to the Top, Arnie Duncan, NCLB, student achievement

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September 28, 2009

Another education reform gimmick on the way!

Sandra Nichols
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  "It is thought — especially within the business community — that teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, should be rewarded with salary increases. But no link has yet been identified connecting "merit pay" to increased academic achievement."

After No Child Left Behind, the cleverly named Federal legislation that has made bubble tests the standard of excellence in American schools, what will they think of next? Well, they've already thought of it. It's called "Race to the Top." Rather catchy, don't you think?

While the national debate about health care reform rages on, change is also planned for our public schools. Taking his cue from Obama's proposed education reforms, Arnold Schwarzenegger is urging California legislators to repeal a key provision in California law affecting how our teachers are evaluated and compensated.

The Governor's inspiration is linked to a guy with a similar name, Arne (say "Arnie") Duncan, President Obama's Secretary of Education. This new Arne is driving the reform bus that our Arnie is now boarding.

Last week I received an invitation to attend a White House sponsored "Community Conversation" focusing on closing the achievement gap for Hispanic students. Juan Sepulveda, the President's point-man on the White House Initiative, traveled throughout California to hear concerns, gather ideas, and report back to Obama and Arne.

At the "Conversation," I participated in a panel discussion facilitated by Mr. Sepulveda exploring topics from merit pay, to the parental role, to how much testing is too much. Included were college presidents, professors, a school board trustee, a businessman and parents.

Wonder why a Republican governor would promote reform driven by a Democratic agenda? Just follow the money. More than four billion dollars in Federal grants will be awarded under Race to the Top, which Duncan hails as the educational equivalent of "the moon shot". But only states that permit the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers may apply. California has a law that prevents such a use, so our Arnie is pushing legislators to abolish it in order to qualify under the new Arne's rules.

Linking teacher evaluations to student test scores is strongly associated with "merit pay," It is thought — especially within the business community — that teachers whose students score well on standardized tests, should be rewarded with salary increases. But no link has yet been identified connecting "merit pay" to increased academic achievement. On the flip side, teachers whose students do not meet progress goals would be identified and either pressured to improve or counseled out of the teaching profession.

Here's a reality that has been proven by research. Low test scores are associated with economic disadvantage, minority groups, special education, and English Learners. This is the achievement gap so often discussed yet so poorly addressed. Disadvantaged students and those whose parents did not go to college generally score lower than students from well-educated, economically secure, English-speaking households. The disadvantaged students were targeted for special attention under No Child Left Behind, universally hailed as a positive development.

If merit pay were linked only to student test performance, teachers in upper-class neighborhoods would be rewarded for teaching at schools drawing from upper-class neighborhoods, creating a scenario in which schools with many disadvantaged students become associated with the least well-paid teachers. Most teachers who teach at-risk or disadvantaged students will not only lose out on those pay raises, they'll be targeted for rehabilitation based on the inaccurate assumption that they are not performing well. Some of these are hero-teachers. I think you know them. They wear sneakers instead of high heels. They work on weekends, make home visits, and buy supplies for their under-funded classrooms. They motivate kids to stay in school.

You won't find these teachers promoting their successes. They are busy grading homework and planning new strategies. Like true heroes, they don't see themselves as such. For they do the work they love to do. They teach. They inspire. They make a difference!

Sandra is a board trustee for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, California, and a recently retired, 31-year public school teacher. Her opinions are her own.

© Sandra Nichols 2001 - 2009


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