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Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies?

| Gaetan Pappalardo

Tap, tap, tap---tap, tap--tap. I'm sending a signal from down here in the muck, down here where the boogers are hard and the shoelaces are eternally untied. HELLO up there? In the 80's words of Def Leopard, "Is anybody out there? Is anybody there?" Call me crazy, but how come I don't see or hear serious discussion about what's going to happen to elementary school students and teachers when teacher evaluation is tied to test scores?

"We're going to pay good teachers more; hold the bad ones accountable." I'm sure you've heard the same thing from the Obama administration. And right from http://www.barackobama.com: "We will recruit an army of new teachers and develop innovative ways to reward teachers who are doing a great job, and we will reform No Child Left Behind so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them."

So, okay. What happens when Obama's vision here becomes law? And how exactly do they plan to assess all this improvement they expect to see? With budgets the way they are, I can only infer that they'll fall back on standardized tests. And the teacher reward? Tied directly to scores.

I'm not saying that the negative impact of merit pay will be any greater in the elementary grades. All teachers on all levels play a crucial part in a student's development. However, I'm sorry to bring up an old, but very true saying: "First impressions last forever." The pressure to perform will squeeze the life out of the innocence of grade school and crush the curiosity that attracted them there in the first place, students and teachers alike.

The Dominoes Fall and the Zombies Rise

Domino #1: Most elementary standardized tests assess math, reading, and writing. When merit pay is squished into the system, classrooms around the country will morph into a zombie-land of reading, writing, and math (Some already have.) I must read. I must write. I must count. I must read. I must count. I must . . . well, you get the point. This isn't a bad thing, right? Right. BUT, all of this reading and writing and math will be taught solely for the purpose of passing a test. Big money will be spent of prep materials and programs and kids will begin to believe that they are in school to pass a test. Not learning to live life to the fullest. Not learning to be curious or to think. Not learning to learn.

Domino #1 falls and hits Domino #2: There goes science, social studies, technology and any other kind of free-thinking non-test taking creative endeavors. You gotta make room for test prep, more room than ever since merit pay or loss of job is in sight. And then what happens to our country? The art of teaching will disappear and clone teachers will spew out soulless, robotic test takers.

Domino #2 falls and hits Domino #3: While the zombie test takers move across grade levels their level of zombieness will increase and all creativity as we know it will cease to exist. Just like their dead, rotting flesh. That's not good. In a recent Newsweek article: "The Creativity Crisis", a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 "leadership competency" of the future. The article guessed that video games and the lack of creative development in school are two machetes slashing at the heart of creativity. With merit pay in place, creativity hasn't got chance to make a comeback.

Down, down, and down for the count.

Let me remind you that this domino effect will go as low as Pre-K. Everyone's got to be evaluated. It's only fair. I know, their kids can't read. How do you give a standardized test to a kindergartner? What about art, music, and library? Those teachers need to be evaluated too. Speech? Gym? I can go all day. But wait, here's an even larger question. How much money will it take to test, monitor, and score every grade level and special area? That's a lot of money and a lot of time to prepare, practice, and actually take the test.

Is it worth the money? I don't think so. If you want true educational reform you put your money into heavy professional development, my friends. In the words of author, Barry Lane, "You don't fatten a pig by weighing it." I'm not talking about a six-hour workshop. I'm talking about intense national programs like The National Writing Project and The National Science Teacher Association; I'm talking about learning from the best. Invite authors, master teachers and educational thinkers to inspire the teaching population; create learning communities and think tanks within school districts that include teachers, parents, and kids. Just because we teach eight-year-olds doesn't mean we can't sit around and talk theory and philosophy.

So let's assess kids (the ones with with a pulse) instead.

We are pushed as teachers to create well-balanced citizens who will contribute to society. We are encouraged to instill a sense of confidence in our students who will some day harness a career in a field of their choice. We are tending a human garden, not screwing parts together. We are indeed teaching human beings. Human beings have many needs: educational, social, emotional, physiological, and . . . dare I say, creative. Can you test resourcefulness in thirty minutes? Leadership? Hard work? Art? Collaboration? Can you assess being a human? Can you assess the fact that a teacher raised the self-esteem of a student?

What pressures are leaning on you as merit pay leaks into the lower grade levels? Are there ways to do it without a high stakes test?

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Excellent article.

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I agree totally. NCLB and the testing at its center have already turned our schools into testing factories and nothing more. Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts." This definitely applies to high-stakes testing. We only test what can be reduced to a paper and pencil test. All good educators know that there are many things we want our students to learn that cannot be measured on a fill in the bubble test. We are developing students who will pass the test, but will often fail at life because they aren't creative and don't know how to think. I had the pleasure of hearing Diane Ravitch speak this summer- she gets it! Her book "The Death and Life of the Great American Schools" should be required reading for all legislators, school board members, and administrators. And please, someone send a copy to the President!

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