Teachers’ Relative Merits

Recently my virtual friend Tom mentioned to me the discussion of teachers’ merit pay that is going on in his home territory in western Canada. It brought a bit of a sad smile to my face for its familiarity. It seems to be going on everywhere, though for the moment it seems to be on the back burner here in the Nordic region. How can we determine what teachers in general are worth to our societies, or which teachers are particularly valuable and which are essentially a waste of space? Frankly these are questions that no one has come up with good answers on yet.

There are two basic extreme views on the matter. The extreme left view starts by saying that teachers are an essential part of the social infrastructure of any functional society, and they deserve to be rewarded significantly more for the important role that they play. They should be given carefully designed basic guidelines to work with, and it should be insured that they follow the letter of the law within those guidelines, but beyond that there should be little attempt to evaluate the quality of their work. The relationship between each teacher and each of the learners she/he has to work with is an individual question; and test scores, drop-out rates, students’ later career success and/or placement in continuing education are all factors that depend far more on the learners’ environment outside school than they do on the teacher’s performance as such. Each teacher needs to be trusted to do her/his work on the basis of her/his personal calling and intrinsic motivation to help young people, and teachers need to have as much public support and autonomy as we can give them to enable them to do their jobs as only they really know how the jobs are best done, as long as they do it according to the rules we set for them. Sure, some teachers burn out and keep teaching anyway, and that is a problem for all concerned; but the answer there is not to put greater pressure on teachers to perform, but to make sure that they receive adequate care and support to keep them from burning out, and to properly help them when they do.

Then there is the extreme right view: schools should not be a further extension of social welfare services, and casting them in that role has caused nothing but problems. Schools should be basic enterprises which provide a basic service to those willing and able to pay for that service. The purpose of this service is to enable people to play basic roles in the society, and more specifically in the economy. If it is doing its job right, a school will enable those who graduate from it to continue on the path towards a valuable and productive life. This involves awareness of basic facts, mastery of basic skills and aptitude enhancement towards specialization in something that others find useful and valuable. Those who provide a valuable service in this sense deserve to be rewarded accordingly, and those who go through the motions without giving kids anything useful should be fired. The best way to tell if teachers are actually teaching kids anything then would be by way of standardized test scores. If the kids are performing at grade level or above, and thus on target for productive careers, the teachers should be recognized and rewarded for doing a good job, but if the kids are performing below grade level, or if they remain generally incompetent in the subject being taught, the teacher shouldn’t be paid until they do. That’s how free enterprise works, and schools should not be exempt from market mechanisms of quality control and supply and demand. Once you do away with the socialism built into the system, school quality will automatically improve.

(I hope no one here is so ignorant as to cut and paste quotes from either of the above paragraphs and then stick my name underneath, as though that would be my position on the matter!)

Between these two extremes is a whole lot of uncertain ideological territory, and somewhere in there is also the truth of the matter in terms of what will best provide the balanced, functional, dignified and empowering education children deserve. This truth may be somewhat variable for different contexts, but some of its general principles will inevitably be the same everywhere in the world.

I’ll lay out three of my own ideological principles to start with here. Some may consider these to involve unjustifiable leaps of faith, but I still suspect that the vast majority of those educated enough to be interested in reading blogs like this to begin with will tend to agree on these points:

1. Human rights are important, including the right to a basic education for all children.
2. Social polarization which leads to disregard for the basic human rights of a significant portion of the population in any society is inherently dangerous and morally questionable.
3. Meritocracy, involving genuine fair opportunities for anyone with important contributions to make to society to be given the opportunity to make those contributions, and for people to be judged and rewarded according to the content of their character rather than accidents of birth, is the ultimate goal towards which every society and every education system should be striving.

If anyone reading this has any doubts or misgivings about any of these three points, please reply here and tell me, and I’ll try to address your questions fairly and respectfully, but for now I will proceed on the assumption that these points can be taken as a reasonable foundation for discussing the pros and cons of various educational policies.

Rather than trying to convince you of what could work, it might be easier to direct your attention to what those from across the Western political spectrum can agree isn’t working. For that I can quote from a book review I wrote a year and a half ago, which didn’t get published on account of my style in my first draft being a bit “too personal” for the journal’s editorial taste, and my never getting around to revising (embarrassed blush). The name of the book in question is The Elementary Education System in India. Exploring Institutional Structures, Processes and Dynamics. (ISBN: 978-0-415-48328-5) It was written by a team of local academics there, financed by a grant from Oxfam. In terms of literary style it’s not a real page-turner, but the fascinating, almost surreal subject matter made it an interesting experience to read and write about:

…for every upwardly mobile IT worker in India there are dozens of poor people trying to survive on scavenging or un-mechanized subsistence farming. For every Indian “honors kid” there is another Indian kid doomed to life-long illiteracy. Why is it that a country which is so successful in so many other ways still struggles with these kinds of problems? What efforts have been made to correct them? What more could still be done? These are the questions that Rashmi Sharma and Vimala Ramachandran set out to answer […] by way of a comparison study between two of India’s 28 states: Rajasthan in the northwest and Andhra Pradesh in the southeast. […] Both states’ economies are primarily agricultural with a mix of new industries in the cities. Both have historically been problem cases in terms of child labor. Both have a predominantly Hindu population with a good mix of upper castes, lower castes and “untouchables”, together with migrant tribes and Muslim minorities – all living somewhat segregated from and suspicious of each other. Thus representative towns within each of these states could presumably provide a reasonable set of case studies for pointing out the problems in India’s elementary education system as a whole. […]

Some of the problems discussed along the way will sound familiar to anyone who has worked in education: schools chronically under-funded; teachers chronically underpaid, resulting in qualified teachers being scarce; less competent teachers blindly following whatever textbooks they are given; personal promotions based on sucking-up skill and strict seniority calculations rather than dedication and ability; teachers’ unions being part of the problem rather than the solution; periodic curriculum renewals which rank-and-file teachers never bother to read, and which are rarely followed up on; parents not always seeing the importance of their children getting a better education than what they got; and the perpetual challenge of teaching pupils of radically different ability levels in the same class.

Other findings here seem to show that the old British educational culture, as seen in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, lives on in India: corporal punishment and public humiliation of pupils as standard practices; repetition and rote memorization as primary learning methods; pupils being left in a “sink or swim” situation, with teachers not really caring which they do; and teachers considering it their God-given right to treat kids like dirt.

Still other findings point to uniquely Indian problems, bordering on the surreal: Brahmin families with levels of influence that sound like something straight out of a mafia movie; teachers whose jobs come as a matter of political patronage, who rarely bother to show up to do any teaching; the 75% of teachers who do show up for work on any given day only spending about 40% of their working day actually teaching; schools for the poor which are never actually open, and which neighbors didn’t even know were schools; school lunches so bad that even the poorest of pupils will not eat them, but which many collect to bring home and feed to their goats;  parents telling their children not to eat school food because it has been cooked by members of lower castes; some of the most academically successful schools operating out under the trees for lack of a school building; and teachers saving up to be able to pay the appropriate bribes to get transferred to more respectable postings elsewhere in their districts.

All in all, the worst of the Indian elementary schools set up to help the poor function in name only. Prejudices based on caste and gender roles continue to dominate these people’s lives. Bureaucratic corruption operates with impunity: government programs to educate the marginalized are seen by some as golden opportunities to siphon off resources intended for people whom no one really cares about anyway. Others in the field have developed an indifference towards a situation which they see as inherently hopeless. But then there are those few teachers who, out of a sense of personal calling, continue to do what they can to make life better for those few poor children they are able to help. Meanwhile any parents who can afford to do so try to put their children into more respectable private schools.  […]

From this reviewer’s perspective the best hope for India’s elementary education system would be for state governments there to find better ways of recruiting, developing, encouraging and rewarding home-grown teachers who are both fully competent in their subject areas and genuinely concerned for the welfare of the children they teach. What little is working well there is working because of the personal dedication of this sort of teachers. But this suggestion is more than just a little utopian: if Finland, a world leader in educational achievement, still hasn’t managed to develop a workable system of teacher merit pay, how can we expect India’s struggling elementary education system to solve this thorny problem?

That concern for the problems involved in recruiting, maintaining and justly rewarding teachers, not only in India but throughout the world, perhaps especially in the US, continues to be a burr in my mental socks. Obviously some teachers are better at their job than others, and deserve to be rewarded more substantially for the contributions they make. Just as obviously those who recruit the brightest kids as starting “material” and thus get the highest final scores on standardized tests aren’t necessarily doing the best and most valuable work in the field. In order to recognize the human rights of those in even the poorest schools, in order to reduce the growing sense of social polarization in many countries, and in order to get closer to the theoretical ideal of meritocracy, some system of merit pay for teachers needs to be developed that does not depend merely on test scores.

Can this be done adequately based on a point system of some sort, where the extent of improvement in learners’ abilities achieved during the course of the school year, the teacher’s effectiveness in addressing special needs cases, the outstanding accomplishments of star performers, the successful course completion rate and the continuing educational and/or vocational success of graduates all figure into a complex formula to determine how big a bonus teachers get in addition to a basic subsistence salary? That would be better than the status quo in almost all cases, but it could also be a political nightmare to negotiate and initiate. Could the issue of teacher bonuses simply be left at the discretion of headmasters, principals, deans and the like, who are in turn responsible for the school’s overall concrete results? If these administrators’ integrity and professionalism can be trusted beyond question, why not? But rarely can the professionalism of any administrative group be trusted without question, and as long as corruption remains a possibility this could be a recipe for incredible scandals. Should teachers be subject to periodic inspections and ratings, conducted by government officials whose job is to fairly and objectively evaluate the quality of each teacher’s work? In different places and to varying extents they already are, and practice this might be the only suggestion here likely to do far more harm than good in the long run. This might be viable as a system for initial teaching certification, but last thing we need on a continuous basis is for teachers to be performing to impress inspectors rather than focusing on their interactions with those they teach.

My most radical suggestion, not as a final solution but as an added flexible mechanism for measuring individual teachers’ value, would be to put a large portion of the decision making power in any potential teachers’ merit pay scheme in the hands of those being taught, and their parents. Sometimes with all of the power trips that teachers get into, showing the students “who’s in charge,” they (we) forget what the point of the job is: enabling these young people to succeed in life. If learners aren’t sensing that they are getting something of value out of the school experience, odds are the system is FUBAR; if learners can see the importance of the education they are receiving, odds are the teachers are doing a particularly good job. Yes, there are risks involved in such an evaluation system in terms of some less professional teachers blatantly sucking up to their students rather than pushing them to learn, but in the long run that won’t work. Kids want to play sports for coaches who can help them win, not for coaches who try to make up for what they don’t know about the game by being nice guys. The same will inevitably apply regarding teachers. When they see a value in learning, kids will want to have teachers that enable them to learn. It’s the teachers who dare to push the students to get results (e.g. those like Taylor Mali: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpog1_NFd2Q) who will really benefit from kids and their parents being given a say in how much teachers make.

There are no magic bullets on this one, but those on both extremes need to realize that this is not a black and white issue, that quality assurance of some sort is important, but that a short-term profit-motivated market dynamic will not solve the problem. Above all we should agree that giving children––all children––the sort of education that will best enable them to contribute fully to the world we are sending them into is the most important thing, and the rest is just logistical challenges that we should try to confront open-mindedly, without political dogmas preventing us from doing what ultimately needs to be done.

Don Quixote rides again…



Filed under Education, Ethics, News, Purpose

2 responses to “Teachers’ Relative Merits

  1. Good post. I particularly liked your ideological principles.

  2. David, the point about allowing students to have input in the judgment of a teacher’s merit is worth further consideration. My wife’s role as a ‘literacy’ instructor at the local university involves a great deal of work designing, administering and presenting what are called Student Evaluation Forms (SEF). These assessment tools are taken very seriously by faculty and administration in their determinations of how well instructors are performing. Are there problems with this method of evaluation? Most certainly there are. How can a student really be aware of all the benefits they derive from a course of instruction? Often what is ‘learned’ takes time to come to fruition. Then there are petty grievances that may have less to do with the instructor’s performance than with personal issues faced by the student. On the other hand, those interpreting the results of SEF’s can be trained to distinguish between legitimate complaints and personal attacks. Furthermore, learners often have specific needs that, unless educators are well informed, will not be addressed by the curriculum unless such feed-back mechanisms are utilized. And in the end, and especially with adult learners, they are both taxpayers and tuition payers and therefore ought to have a say in how their money is spent. Allowing them to have a voice also helps build their self-esteem as participants in the important dialogue over what it means to be educated, and thus they may be more inclined to become active members of society at large–which is perhaps the most noble learning objective in life!

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