Marquee-name reformers are engaged in a masterfully orchestrated campaign to convince taxpayers that competition between teachers will play a pivotal role in curing the ills afflicting public schools. They insist that what works in business to pinpoint accountability will work in education.
Rather than engage in the familiar rebuttal that schools are not businesses, I’ll focus instead on the experiences of Finland and Japan, where collaboration—rather than competition—between teachers has resulted in impressive student performance. I think the evidence speaks for itself. At the very least, it calls into question the assumptions being made.
Finland’s schools became the center of intense interest when its students scored at the top on tests of international competition. Conditions there from start to finish are designed to treat teachers as professionals. They are provided the opportunity to collaborate on a regular basis. Their views are given great weight in formulating policy. Their professionalism, however, is most dramatically apparent in the way assessment is carried out. Each year about 100 schools are selected for testing to determine if there are systemic weaknesses that need to be addressed. The results are used strictly for diagnostic purposes, and are never made public (“Dynamic Inequality and Intervention,” by W. Norton Grubb, Phi Delta Kappan, Oct. 2007. “Finland Builds a Strong Teaching and Learning System” by Linda Darling-Hammond, Rethinking Schools, Summer 2010).
Japan’s schools also provide teachers with similar support and respect. Like Finland, Japan has a national curriculum, which provides the basis for teachers to meet regularly in what is called “lesson study” because all teachers are teaching the same topics at about the same time. They develop monthly exams, and then score the exams themselves. Teachers study the results to determine their own effectiveness with their students, but the outcomes are kept private (“Needed: Fresh Thinking on Teacher Accountability,” by James W. Stigler, Education Week, June 9, 2010).
Finland and Japan’s systems of accountability are the antithesis of America’s. The U.S. uses high-stakes tests developed with virtually no teacher input. It then publishes and publicizes the scores in the form of closely followed rankings. Schools at the bottom of the tables are not provided support to improve but instead are intimidated with threats of closure. Reformers insist that this public outing is the best way to improve schools, even when the evidence from Finland and Japan strongly suggests otherwise.
This attitude should come as no surprise. Teachers in the U.S. have never enjoyed the status accorded teachers in other countries with stellar schools. Outsiders here are clueless about how most teachers perceive their work. As a result, they assume that teachers will respond in the same way to the same incentives as personnel in other areas. But this is not what the evidence shows. Consider the following three examples:
Education Next, in its Winter 2004 issue, published the results of a study of elementary schools in Texas from 1993 through 1996 (“The Revolving Door”). It found that teachers appear “unresponsive to salary levels.” Instead, they transfer from one school to another or exit the system entirely “more as a reaction to the characteristics of their students.”
A 2007 national study by the nonprofit Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found that if given a choice between two otherwise identical schools, 76 percent of secondary teachers and 81 percent of elementary teachers would rather work in a school where they were strongly supported rather than at a school that paid significantly higher salaries.
More recently, Texas retired its performance pay plan for teachers in May 2009 after four years of unimpressive returns on its $100-million-a-year investment. The Texas Educator Excellence Grant, the largest merit pay program in the U.S., also failed to reduce teacher turnover. This finding underscores what the Public Agenda and the NCCTQ reported.
Despite the evidence, however, pressure will continue unabated to try to introduce business methods to education. I wonder how teachers in Finland and Japan would react if they were faced with the same prospect.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.