Accountability Opinion

Charters, Performance Pay, & Serious Trade-Offs

By Deborah Meier — June 18, 2009 3 min read

Dear Diane,

Yes, it seems so obvious to you and me. Using their metrics, the boosters of mayoral control can hardly point to any trend that supports their claims. On NAEP data, the two biggie mayoral control cities show no change, and on graduation data, NYC shows some improvement, but Chicago shows none, even if we go by the city’s data. If we look at the data in the recent RAND study, it confirms many others—charter schools do no better re. test scores than their comparable neighborhood schools—some better, some worse. The data on merit pay don’t exist, of course—and it’s already a national priority. But that most comparable jobs use “performance-based” pay just isn’t a fact. The Economic Policy Institute has published a report on the subject that hardly is conclusive, but the logic suggests serious trade-offs that none of the folks in D.C. seem to be even aware of. If you do X, there are “unintended” but inevitable consequences—especially if you’re not even aware of them. (As for the charge that local control leads to more corruption? Having the right friends in the right place may lead to millions under mayoral control vs. hundreds under local control.)

School reformers perhaps should be required to publish “cautions” the way drugs do—if you do this, watch out because….(In bigger print, however.) In fact, it’s an essential “habit of mind” of a well-educated person—paying attention to trade-offs.

Regarding the kind of national standards being proposed is really a national curriculum. One of the arguments for it is a give-away: with national standards, if a kid moves from school x to y, he’ll barely miss a heartbeat. Again, no concerns over unintended consequences—teacher burn-out at the very least. There are forms of standards that could avoid this—if we feel the need for them—such as those CPESS modeled (“habits of mind”) alongside some broad sweeping propositions in each field. More like the Advanced Placement English test (at least the way it used to be). It didn’t require everyone to read the same books or spout the same answers. It directed “attention” to certain themes and ideas so that students could use what they had read and studied to come up with their own responses to timeless issues in literature. Ditto for history or science. These wouldn’t be “specs” for test producers, but specs for schools to consider in designing curriculum and assessments.

The class-size debate isn’t on the “reform” agenda. But it has been assisted by two excellent books. An EPI (Economic Policy Institute) book in the form of a debate and a wonderful study and brief in favor of smaller classes by Garrett Delavan, “The Teacher’s Attention.”

NAEP then could do the deeper and broader job of seeing how these play out over time, including a look eight years down the line—in college, on the job, as a voter.

I had a fascinating conversation with a teacher who has been teaching physics for 15 years in L.A. and the surrounding area. She teaches 200 students on most days (in groups of 40 or so), at least three of the classes have the same test-prep curriculum. She feels bored. Ready to “move on”—but to what? I asked her to describe what she wishes she could do—even if it were unrealistic. Her wishes? Small classes so she could explore science more deeply with kids, the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary teaching with colleagues, to be able to approach physics from directions that might not match the state exam, to expand her own intellectual horizons alongside of and separate from her students. What kid wouldn’t say, “amen”?

In such settings, a teacher with 15 years of experience wouldn’t be at the end of her career (and wits) in the classroom. Imagine schools, in collaboration with universities, as the site for teacher-training—prolonged apprenticeships. My friend would then also be teaching other colleagues and would-be colleagues and learning from some interesting scientists on campus.

This was the “reform” idea of the late ‘80s. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to imagine this happening today. But, you ask—how did we move so far from this vision in such a short time, so that we now have a bipartisan plan for schools that make the old factory-model look innovative? Partial answer: We left practitioners like me and educational scholars like you out of the loop and instead turned to financiers and lawyers!


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