Thursday, February 10, 2011

Educators respond to the Zais plan

It took no time at all for teachers to respond to Superintendent Mick Zais's plan to improve schools other than traditional public schools in South Carolina. Jackie Hicks, president of The South Carolina Education Association, issued a statement to the media that's posted at The SCEA's website. Hicks finds Zais squarely in the middle of "a political movement whose real agenda is to perpetuate our system of inequality and unstable funding of our public schools."

They repeat several big lies over and over: Our students are far behind those in other countries. Our schools are failing. Bad teachers are responsible. Teacher unions protect those bad teachers and hence are responsible for failing schools. They hold up Finland, which has dramatically improved its national student achievement scores, as an example of how a nation can come from behind.

While these “reformers” are sincere in their beliefs, their claims are wrong. Their unshakable faith in continuing to espouse ideas which have been tried and tried have failed over and over again.

Her reference to Finland is enlightening and calls to mind the recent columns of education researcher Diane Ravitch: "Is Finland the Answer?" and "What Finland's Example Proves." But Hicks also delivers a history lesson on merit-pay schemes attempted in South Carolina during her time in the classroom, and their outcomes:

Let’s look at the evidence regarding the “pay for performance” plans espoused by the Superintendent of Education. South Carolina has tried merit pay plans over the years. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, districts could choose to provide merit pay on a school-wide or an individual basis. These plans were abandoned, however, because they were too expensive and did not improve standardized test scores. Their costs escalated and became more than districts and the state wanted to pay.

About three years ago, the Richland One School District made another try at pay for performance. The program cost the district three times the projected cost and it was cancelled after only one year. It also lowered teacher and staff morale and pitted teachers and staff against administrators and board.

Research shows that paying teachers a bonus based on student performance does not improve student achievement. A pay-for-performance study released by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation followed nearly 300 Nashville Public Schools fifth- through eighth-grade teachers from 2007 to 2009. The result? No overall effect on student achievement across the entire treatment group.

The executive director of Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives, said, “We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.”

That study is not alone. This last June, the Mathematica Policy Research study found that a merit pay pilot program for teachers that began in Chicago schools in 2006 had no effect on student achievement. According to the study, merit pay did not improve student standardized test scores or teacher retention – two main goals of the program paid for with a $27.5 million federal grant.

In short, students who don’t have to deal with grinding poverty are not behind those in other countries; they are at the front of pack. Our schools are not failing; indeed, they are the only place many children feel safe and vital. Bad teachers are not responsible for poor test scores; poverty is. And South Carolina has not one teachers union.

Union? It's funny that reformers in South Carolina and elsewhere cite the Finland example as often as they do, because, and Hicks and Ravitch point out in their texts, Finland is nearly 100 percent unionized.

Hicks writes:

Compare Finland’s results with South Carolina’s. Finland has uniformly high academic scores. It also has a childhood poverty rate of just 3-4 percent and its teachers are almost 100 percent unionized. South Carolina has low scores in most academic areas, a childhood poverty rate of 20 percent and zero percent of its teachers are unionized. Indeed, teachers do not have the right to unionize. For the South Carolina students who live well below the poverty line, their problem is neither their teacher nor their public school. It’s their poverty. The current tax and funding policies of SC perpetuate the problem.

Here is where a little time spent in the classroom might give a little seasoning to future superintendents of education. Hicks reminds us all of the strategies proven to work when the mission is to strengthen student achievement in traditional public schools:

There is, however, a way to improve educational outcomes in South Carolina: Invest in public schools and charge them with carrying out programs that go well beyond the school day, such as high quality, universal pre-school and kindergarten, after-school programs, summer programs and tutoring that have been proven to mitigate the impact of poverty on children’s lives and to improve their learning. Reform our antiquated tax system, which favors special interests over our children, and the prosperity of SC. Increase the beginning teachers salary so that the best and brightest of our students become and remain teachers.

Let us institute real reform and not the same old tired ideas we have tried in the past. The future of our children and our State are too important to continue to play the same old blame and finger pointing games as has been the case in the past.

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