Sunday, March 13, 2011

'Pay-for-test-scores' plan passes the House

Ivan Pavlov is known as the Russian physiologist who first described classical conditioning and behavior modification. You'll remember the image: Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate when he rang a bell.

(There's a great joke about this for dog lovers: One of Pavlov's trained dogs says to a new addition to the pack, "I've got Pavlov trained. Every time I salivate, he writes in a little notebook.")

The notion is that, provided particular stimuli, the trainee in question can be trained to perform a particular appropriate task. Early in the training, the trainee receives rewards for satisfactory performance or punishments for unsatisfactory outcomes.

This science has been long applied to animals -- mice and rats, famously, but also domesticated pets and primates. South Carolina's lawmakers now want to apply it to people.

A bill fresh from the South Carolina House of Representatives will eliminate the standard salary schedule by which certified educators have been paid for more than a generation -- roughly the length of time that South Carolina has, by law, supported a system of public schools. The vote for the bill sends clear messages to South Carolina's educators: Your degrees are no good here; your years of experience mean nothing; you'll be paid according to how well your students perform on standardized tests.

The bill presumes, presumably, that all children are created equal and all arrive at the schoolhouse door well-nourished, well-adjusted, well-equipped and eager to learn. Given this statewide population of Lake Wobegon's equally above-average young ones, our teaching force should be compensated according to whose students outperform the others. Lucky teachers with the highest performers will earn -- who knows? but it will be more than the rest -- and those whose children were slower to the draw will collect a commensurate gross salary. Thus, the first-year teacher assigned to teach AP Chemistry to honors students could, presumably, earn more than the 20-year veteran assigned to teach remedial English.

Under the House plan, so much depends upon the predisposition of an administrator in handing out teaching assignments, and the sheer luck of the draw in which students are enrolled in which schools. Certainly, no school administrator is subject any longer to the influence of a superintendent with a niece or nephew in need of a job -- especially in rural school districts, where a superintendent holds equal status to the sheriff or county council chair. Such blatant abuse of power and authority would be shamed and punished as soon as it's brought to light by... by whom? Who would bring such abuse to light?

In fact, South Carolina's colorful history is rife with instances of abuse of power, reported and unreported. It's likely that educators and other public employees in every nook and cranny of the state can point to cases in recent memory of gentlemanly agreements, mutual backscratching and one-hand-washing-the-other. In a culture where no real effort has been made to immunize ourselves of this abuse, no one seriously imagines that it won't be applied once "pay-for-test-scores" is implemented.

Tara Farmer, an 18-year classroom veteran, rightly declares the House plan "unrealistic."

"There's too many factors, and too many of them are beyond a teacher's control," said Farmer. "It's not that the teacher's not doing the best she can do, it's not that the student doesn't want to succeed, but there are a lot of factors out there that goes into whether a student's successful or not."

A report broadcast by WIS-TV this week points out that both Governor Nikki Haley and Superintendent of Education Mick Zais campaigned on "pay-for-test-scores" -- my term -- so to a large degree, the joke's on South Carolinians for electing candidates advocating this platform.

But there were legitimate reasons why wiser leaders long ago adopted the standard salary scheduled for certified educators. It placed the value on the quality of one's own commitment to education as represented by the college degrees, the graduate degrees, the additional credentials, and the length of service in the classroom. Once upon a time -- for a very long time -- a veteran educator with advanced degrees was a thing of great value; today, she is cast as an unnecessary drain on the public budget.

Misguided House members must believe that teachers of the future, like Pavlov's dogs, will perform the particular task at the appropriate stimuli in order to earn the yet-to-be-determined salary.

Question: Who will be the butt of the joke when students of the future, no different from students of today, sometimes fail to fill in the correct bubble on the standardized test?

Answer: South Carolina.

No comments:

Post a Comment