Tuesday, March 21, 2006

All Hail the Market!: Linking Test Scores to Teacher Salaries

The Marshfield News Herald has an article today about the growing idea in Wisconsin and around the country that teachers should receive salary bonuses based upon how their students score on state-mandated standardized tests.

While the idea has not caught on as policy anywhere in Wisconsin quite yet, the article notes that there are formal proposals out there.

Teacher unions tend to be against merit-based pay because of how difficult it is to judiciously spread around the love. Indeed, even within individual schools there's great variation in the applicability of such a system.

How could an Art teacher, for example, be expected to earn bonuses when there is no standardized test for Art? And even within subject areas that have a standardized test associated with them, such as English or Social Studies, there is a significant difference between a teacher who mostly teaches AP students and those who teach exclusively non-AP students.

But the unfairness to teachers does not fully explain why tying teacher pay to student performance is the use of state-mandated standardized testing at its worst. Tying standardized tests scores to teacher pay fundamentally shuts down academic freedom and local control in the classroom--unless, that is, the teacher chooses not to care about getting salary bonuses.

I get into more on that issue here.

I hope the connection of teacher pay and standardized test scores remains nonexistent in Wisconsin. But if what's happening around the country in the wake of No Child Left Behind is any indication, as the issue of how to most efficiently increase teacher salaries arises in the future, this manner will likely become the preferred way for school districts around the state.

That way, from the district's perspective, you get to take out two birds with one stone. You can focus on improving your standardized test scores, which No Child Left Behind explicitly ties to your funding, and simultaneously offer your teachers a competition-driven compensation system.

All hail the market!


Blogger jyd said...

Outstanding post.

Merit pay tied to standardized test scores has another unintended consequence.Teachers "interested" in the increased pay will have the most to gain by working almost exclusively with the lowest scorers in the classroom. Moving a child from the 92% to the 95% isn't nearly as important as the student who could go from 45% to 60%.

It's amazing that conservative mouthpieces rail on the dumbing down of our schools and yet the very policies they support do exactly that.

March 21, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment.

You're right. Some conservatives might argue, though, that focusing on lower scoring students is a good thing. But, really, it's the manner in which teachers will likely approach the lower scoring students that's the problem.

In my experience (albeit relatively brief) as a teacher, students would score low on a test not because they weren't capable of doing better, but rather because they either didn't care or the test didn't match properly with their learning style (not to mention my teaching style).

Trying to force students to care about a standardized test (particularly when they know the scores are tied to teacher bonuses) and trying to convert their learning styles to fit a standardized test can often feel like trying to jam a round peg through a square hole.

March 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pay tied to test scores is usually not really merit pay. It is bonus money and is most often not inserted into a salary schedule, so a teacher has to earn his bonus yearly. If I'm a high school English teacher, I have to ask the question, whose test scores do I have to raise? I get 135 new students a year. Do I raise their ninth grade test scores? To help me get my bonus, would my school have to test every year?

March 28, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Right. When I used the phrase "merit-based pay" I was referring to pay based upon student performance, which is a different type of merit system than the one already built into teacher salary schedules that factors years of experience and education into pay increases.

In terms of how often standardized tests would need to run, I imagine it would be every year in order to make it equitable. Right now the Wisconsin standardized test, WKCE, only is given at grades 3-8 and 10. Those teachers who don't teach those grades would be at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to getting salary bonuses.

Plus, right now the WKCE test is only administered once per year in the fall term. It's pretty difficult to assess exactly who is responsible for increased (or decreased) test scores between 8th and 10th grades, for example. You would really need to test once at the start of the year and again at the end to truly determine which teachers should get bonuses.

I imagine the proposals that are floating around places like the Wisconsin Association of School Boards take all of this into consideration.

The question is, though, how much do we want to change the structure of our academic year to accomodate a salary bonus system? The more we make our school year about catering to standardized tests, the more we leave the real work of teaching and learning behind.

March 28, 2006  

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