Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bring Out The Best

It has become fashionable to blame lazy, incompetent teachers, and the unions that protect them, for all the ills of public education.

As a lazy, incompetent teacher, I’m offended. Here’s why.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have a job in the food service industry. It doesn’t pay that well, but it’s steady work, you like the schedule, and it sure beats your last gig as Libby Mitchell’s campaign manager.

Your employer offers you a $15,000 bonus if you increase your productivity this year. You’d be willing to work a little harder for that, right? And maybe try some new ideas that might make you more efficient? Of course!

But how is your “productivity” going to be measured? Suppose your employer decides to base this awesome bonus on how well you can keep five tons of mayonnaise from going bad over the next 12 months.

As pallets full of economy-size jars of Miracle Whip begin to appear on the loading dock, you know there are obviously things you can do to keep the gooey white stuff as fresh as possible. Some fit nice and snug in your freezer. A few are loaded with special NASA chemical preservatives, and therefore would not go bad if you neglected them completely for ten years.

But plenty of others appear to have already been left out in the sun for a few days, and there are hundreds more whose history is unknown. You struggle all year, trying new ideas and doing the best you can, but at some point, no matter what, your workplace is going to smell worse than a dead skunk in a landfill.

(Feel free to stop here and go make yourself a tuna sandwich if you want. I’ll wait.)

Malaise sets in as you realize that keeping mayonnaise fresh has very little to do with your actual job, which is to keep customers happy. Condiment freshness is part of that, but there’s a lot more that goes into it, such as having a good memory, working quickly, and resisting the temptation to bring a sidearm to work.

And then you find out that Miracle Whip isn’t even mayonnaise. It’s “salad dressing.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all this, you’re not alone. Please bear with me.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University just released a study that shows offering teachers extra pay if their students’ test scores improve has absolutely no impact.

For three years, half the teachers in the study were given $5000 to $15,000 per year in bonuses if their students’ scores improved. The other half continued to work under the normal pay scale, without any opportunity for bonuses.

In the end, there was no difference between the two groups’ test scores.

This tells us one of two things: A) That teachers are already so loaded with cash that it will take a lot more dough than that to motivate them; or B) They’re all using the same mayonnaise.

Does this mean merit pay is a dumb idea? Maybe. But the study mostly illustrates a different problem: standardized tests do not give a complete measure of teaching and learning. They’re just one small part of the system of figuring out how well a teacher teaches and a student learns. If you’re going to track down “lazy” and “incompetent” teachers, do it with a system that actually works, and accounts for all the nuances and complexities of the job.

In other words, by all means, “Bring out the Hellman’s.” But if that’s all you feed people, you won’t be in business for very long.

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