Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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?

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Janis Seminara's picture
Janis Seminara
Writer, Writing tutor

When the powers at be finally get that teaching to the child's multiple intelligences is more frutiful than teaching to a test - a test by the way that perpetuates more tests - than merit pay will be secondary to the joy of true education. I know that sounds idealistic, but if we don't aspire to these ideals, than what is the alternative? When I tutor, so many of my students are gems, glossed over by their test and grade scores. Parents come to me saying, "but on the blah blah test, he scored so low..." Of course I have the luxury of one on one, and in this way I can help my students discover their strengths and learn how to use them to study and work independently in school. One of my happiest moments was when a student of mine posted a pic of himself on a social networking site holding up the study cards he created, sharing them with his friends in an informal study group. He got 100 on that vocab test. This thread made me thankful I can do this, until the educational community progresses, I belong where I am. Merit pay? One picture in cyberspace - golden!

Jason Kornoely's picture
Jason Kornoely
Elementary Teacher

Sternberg and Gorienko's Research indicates that when students are allowed to learn in ways that best suit them, they do better on standardized tests.

Can't we fight the good fight and teach students like we know they should be taught, and still have success on standardized tests?

Grigorenko, E.L., & Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Styles of thinking, abilities, and academic performance. Exceptional Children 63.n3 (Spring 1997): pp295(18).

This article written by Jason Ohler, from The Committed Sardine, touches on this too. http://bit.ly/c25MT7

Etienne A. Kouakou's picture

Focusing so much on standardized tests, unfortunatley, leaves little room for creativity within the classroom, which in turn runs counter to the notion that students' various leaning styles need to be addressed. Quite honestly, I find it strange that while the authorities are placing so much emphasis on standardized tests, they are also asking teachers to create lesson plans that include a dose of differentiation. I don't have any problem being creative for my students--it's part and parcel of what I do as a teacher. But I am yet to see a standardized test that is created with the notion of differentiation in mind!

Gaetan, great post! In New York where I taught for a while, students are tested in all four core subjects--reading, math, science and social studies. In DC where I recently taught, they want to test students in all major subject areas; the implementation is just a matter of time. The trouble is that many dedicated teachers are tired of the pressure and an evaluation system that is detrimental to teachers and students. Under the new IMPACT system used in DC, your students may make progress, but you may be let go because your students' progress margin is lower than that of the so-called "students like yours" (whatever that term implies).

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

I am kind of skeptical about research done on standardized tests. I mean, it's testing a test with a test. I used to believe that if I taught my kids to write from day one the way writers write--creative freedom; writing routines; true meaning of revision; style; voice, etc...they would do great on the writing portion of the state test. I've found the exact opposite. The better my writers became, the more they developed into a real writer, the worse they did on a standardized test. WHy? Because there is nothing standard about good writing.

A standardized test is a test given in a few days and measures what the kid can do in those few days. It does not measure long-term success in anything, nor does it measure a teacher's capability to teach and inspire.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

...it's lunacy to base a teacher's effectiveness on one test. You just can't do it. But it's the easy/cheap way out for most politicians to act like they are reforming education.

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com and Presiden of VBullying and School Safety Foundation

I agree with Dr. Bennett. Why can't the reading, writing and counting be about science, social studies and technology? They need to know how to read, write and count but that doesn't mean we can't be creative in how we teach it. Doesn't it matters less about what they're learning and more about how they're feeling about their connection to the teacher and the classroom in the early years? Isn't that the first impression we're left with? Are testing and creativity truly polar opposites?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

In the younger grades creativity and standardized tests are polar opposites. I'm not talking about alternative ways to assess in the classroom. They can value style, innovation, and creativity. A standardized test doesn't have the time, money, or energy to value the "whole student". As kids get older, as I did, they can use their creativity get around, over, through these "in the box tests". (hopefully) In all honesty, every single standardized test I took (IOWA, SAT, GRE) said, "No way this kid is going to make it."

I agree with you, Rusty. We can read, write and count in all other subjects. And teach it creatively. I'm just not sure of a standardized test in the way to assess it. Other assessments? Yes.

Clay Boggess's picture

Additional unintended fallout from grading teachers for test performance will be fewer well-qualified teacher candidates deciding not to enter the teaching profession because of what they are hearing and learning from other people's frustration over this growing problem. Teachers are becoming zombies too.

Clay Boggess

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Teachers are becoming zombies because of programs being purchased from big corporation that promise to raise your test scores. GUess who is making the tests? And when teacher avals are tied to test scores, the teachers will teach the programs to cover their rumps. (can't blame 'em) And here we are where we began.

Teacher zombies teaching kid zombies=

Stephanie Towe's picture
Stephanie Towe
first grade teacher from St. Louis

I work in a merit system however it is not tied to our test scores or student performance. It is based on classroom instruction and teacher participation in district committees, events, etc. While we are in transition to a more streamlined evaluation system I am looking forward to the change. Many feel this system leads to competitive teachers but it is the opposite. We are very supportive of each other and always looking for the best methods to reach our students. Teachers are encouraged to use best practices and there are PLC's to support teacher needs. The Professional development committee brings in speakers and consultants to support the needs found in the PLC's. While the merit system can have its challenges I do enjoy the challenge I place on myself to do my best teaching.

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