Wrong Way to Reward Teachers

By Linda Perlstein
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Before Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich goes any further with merit pay for teachers, which he announced last week, he should consider the third-graders of Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis.

Teachers ought to be subject to some form of merit pay; it has always seemed silly to me that they are compensated mainly for the number of years they stick around. But merit pay shouldn't mean simply rewarding teachers based on student test scores, as it does in many of the jurisdictions that are implementing it. To do that assumes that the bulk of a child's score is attributable to the performance of his classroom teacher and that the test tells you most of what you need to know about a child's progress.

More and more, classroom agendas are being set not by teachers but by administrators. At Tyler Heights, a high-poverty school I observed last year, teachers use structured reading and math curricula that they had no role in choosing, along with Anne Arundel County pacing guides that tell them what to teach each day. Once a week teachers follow "explicit lessons" that are completely scripted -- so much so that the county administrator who introduced them to principals said that even "a bank teller could pick up the lesson immediately."

When students need extra help, that's usually provided by other teachers, during class, during the summer or after school. And test preparation is guided by a set of schoolwide practices that all teachers follow.

So who deserves the credit, or blame, for students' scores? The classroom teacher is a big part of the equation, surely. But so are the teachers who provide the extra help, the principal who sets the agenda and the district administrators who choose the curricular materials.

And then there are the parents and children themselves. Whose performance is reflected on the test of a child absent 40 days? Or on the test of a girl who should ace the Maryland State Assessment but who, in the month leading up to the test, protests something in her life -- neither parents nor teacher could figure out what -- by turning in scribbles instead of answers? Or on the test of a child who needs special education services that his father refuses to allow for him?

An impressive 90 percent of Tyler Heights' third- and fourth-graders passed the reading assessment this year. Only 82 percent of the fifth-graders passed, and they were considered the smartest kids in school. I wonder if the scores in the fifth-grade class I observed were jeopardized by the teacher's frequent rejection of the school's "laser-sharp focus" on the MSA, as the principal put it, to detour into the real-world discussions that so engaged her students.

In one of last year's third-grade classes, most of the kids were on grade level and had little trouble understanding new lessons. In another class, the kids came with few skills -- many used fingers to subtract three from five -- learned slowly and had an awful time subduing their anger. Yes, "all children can learn," as politicians put it, but many of these 14 had had quite a hard time of it ever since kindergarten.

So, because more of those children failed the MSA in that class than in others, should their teacher be penalized? Maryland's accountability system compares current third-graders to third-graders from the year before. Although state officials are considering what is called a "value-added" model, in which improvement is judged by measuring a student over time, they don't have one yet. Until they do, they shouldn't consider basing teachers' pay on whether one random group of kids does better than another.

And they shouldn't assume, either, that tests tell you everything. Upping the pressure gives teachers an incentive to narrow the curriculum to just what's on the test. That's fine if the assessment tests everything. But any Tyler Heights teacher would tell you that the third-graders' 90 percent proficiency on a reading test comes at the expense of glossed-over science, social studies and writing curricula, and even of many of the state reading standards that teachers know won't be tested.

I am impressed by the children of Tyler Heights doing so well on their test. I am impressed by their teachers and their principal, because I know just how much hard work went into doing what they were asked to do.

Testing pressure and turnover at the school are already high. Experienced teachers have told me that if their pay is directly tied to scores, they'll teach someplace easier. It's not because they are lazy. It's because they know what those scores mean, and what they don't.

Linda Perlstein, a former education writer for The Post, is the author of "Tested: One School, and America, Struggle to Make the Grade," to be published next year.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company