Saturday, June 19, 2010
Allan Peachey: Transforming Education
President Obama had recently announced his plan to reform public schooling in the United States. I recognise so much in what Obama is saying and I am staggered that a Democratic President is so willing to stand up to the powerful American teacher unions on issues like performance pay. Obama wants to spend federal dollars on, amongst other things, evaluating teachers and awarding performance bonuses to principals and teachers who have earned them. This is music to the ears of someone like myself. So different from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, well defeated by President Bush, said in a moment of candour that he could see merit in performance pay for teachers. Kerry was immediately summoned back to Washington to be thrashed by the teacher unions and threatened with having union funds cut off from his campaign. Bloomberg and Klein comment that in New York City schools are graded A to F based on how well their students are learning. Principals and teachers in schools with high grades become eligible for performance bonuses. Schools with failing grades have their principals replaced and in some cases are simply closed down. Over the last seven years more than 90 schools have been closed down in New York City. Even more important is the fact that the new schools which have replaced them are producing dramatically better results than the ones that were closed down were producing. It is actually a simple formula. All it requires is a bit of political courage.
And there is something else that Obama wants to encourage. He wants States to develop systems of teacher evaluation that judge teachers in part on the basis of student performance. In my view the ultimate test of a teacher is how well they make youngsters learn. Or, to quote Bloomberg and Klein directly, “this will go a long way toward improving teacher quality”.
I see judging teachers by how well their students learn and performance pay as two sides of the same coin. At present, once a teacher starts teaching the only mechanism which determines how much they are paid is their years in the job. For too long now years in the job have equated to experience, which is then equated to competence and effectiveness. I am of an age now that means I have come to value experience enormously. But only a particular type of experience – that accompanied by wisdom. And all the experience that I gained over more than 30 years in teaching has year by year made me more convinced that until we link teacher pay to competence and to whether students are learning or not and break the link to years in the job, we will not be able to reshape teaching into the modern profession it needs to become if all of our children are not just to learn, but to also acquire the knowledge and skill needed to compete in an increasingly global workforce.
Efforts by successive New Zealand Governments to bring about some sort of reform of the schooling system have been characterised by good intentions, vociferous political argument and significant increases in the spending of taxpayers’ money. These efforts have also been characterised by the minimal success that they have achieved. And why has that success been minimal?
Part of the answer lies in our unwillingness to confront the reality that some of our schools are failing and when we are finally forced to do so our lack of timeliness in acting decisively. There are so many examples of failing schools being left to fail while we wait for the principal to retire in his or her good time. I suppose that is at least an acknowledgment that the quality of the principal does matter. But in the meantime what happens to the children stranded in those schools? Too many of them become statistics of failure. That is why I like the New York approach. Replace the leaders of schools which are failing, if necessary close the schools down themselves. I actually disagree with the view that such decisions are hard ones. They are not hard, they are just right.
The other part of the answer lies in our willingness to pay teachers just for how long they have been in the job with no regard for their competence, their ability and their energy. That is why I applaud President Obama’s desire to award performance bonuses to those principals and teachers who have earned them. Just maybe this President will do what his recent Democratic predecessors have not been inclined to do – challenge the very historically powerful American teacher unions.
And a final thought – maybe performance pay for teachers is just the final drive that is needed to make National Standards actually achieve their objective of reducing the number of New Zealand youngsters who are not learning to read, write and do maths.
at 11:09 PM