Accountability gone amok and pay policies gone awry

Our students deserve assessment and accountability systems that are sophisticated enough to prepare them to meet the demands of a global economy. Accomplished teachers can help make it happen.

So it turns out that high-stakes tests—and the accountability systems based on them—aren’t working out so well.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on a new study showing that the NYC district’s $56 million merit pay system has had no payoff for student achievement. The investigation, conducted by the RAND Corporation, concluded that “the bonus program had no effect on students’ test scores, on grades on the city’s controversial A to F school report cards, or on the way teachers did their jobs.”

The RAND study lines up with the myth-busting report of the National Research Council which concluded earlier this year that test-based incentive programs “often use assessments too narrow to measure progress….(and) have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries.

Despite the evidence, district officials seem bent on finding a merit pay program that works. If NYC administrators are serious about finding a teacher compensation model that students deserve, then they should take a look at our inaugural TeacherSolutions report or a recent report by Florida teachers on pay-for-performance. A smart approach would value the spread of teaching expertise, not just reward high-performing teachers.

Meanwhile, in other high-stakes testing news, the Atlanta story just keeps getting uglier.

According to The New York Times, district administrators “humiliated principals who didn’t reach their (test score) targets,” who in turn, “demean(ed) teachers with whom they worked.”

One Atlanta principal “had teachers with low test scores crawl under a table.” He may have been following the example of his district’s superintendent, who “gathered the entire district staff at the Georgia Dome,” seating “those from schools with top scores” on the Dome floor while staffers from schools with low scores were sent to the stands.

How do these shenanigans help children succeed? They don’t. Such actions only intensify the pressure that teachers feel. Should we be surprised that cheating occurred in such a climate?

Decades ago, eminent social scientist Donald Campbell observed, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

As noted in a just released report by the U.S. Department of Education, top-performing nations do not draw on the same kinds of high-stakes standardized tests and top-down accountability systems used here in the United States. Instead, these nations (e.g., Finland, Singapore, etc.) invest in teachers, who are deeply prepared to serve as experts in assessing their students.

We have options. We can stick with high-stakes test scores (and the accountability systems that hang on them). Or we can create the results-oriented profession that students deserve. We can invite teacher leaders to help create robust accountability systems that draw on varied assessments, many of which are designed and scored by classroom experts themselves. We can compensate teachers in ways that encourage them to spread their expertise.

These options are within reach, as described in a paper I wrote with three master teachers. We argue that policymakers should look to expert teachers to develop meaningful assessments and ensure the conditions necessary to implement high standards with fidelity and rigor.

And real-world evidence of teacher leaders’ contributions to better teaching and assessments is in the works. This fall, CTQ will launch, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a virtual network of National Board Certified teachers who will be part of an effort to implement and assess new approaches to teaching and learning. Their work will demonstrate the value of formative, authentic assessments as an integrated part of effective instruction. They will help refine just-in-time ways to determine whether students are meeting the high academic standards represented by the Common Core not just at the end of the year, but every single school day.

Our students deserve assessment and accountability systems that are sophisticated enough to prepare them to meet the demands of a global economy. Accomplished teachers can help make it happen.