The (un)comic strip Mallard Fillmore is continuing its attack on teachers for a second straight week. Yesterday the National Public Radio show, On Point, featured educational reform (as if schools haven’t suffered from enough reform). There is also a blog on Slate.com that has been featuring stories of educational reform. Yesterday, Barack Obama outlined his vision of educational reform. Perhaps the reform story that has gotten the most attention lately is the effort of Washington, DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s to push for merit pay for Washington teachers. I’m not opposed to merit pay in principle. I work at an institution where pay increases are largely based on merit. The problem with merit pay for teachers is how to determine which teachers are meritorious.
The most common approach rewards (or punishes) teachers based on student test scores. This approach ignores the complexities of student learning. It is difficult to claim, for example, that gains made by a particular fourth grade student are attributable only to the efforts of her fourth grade teacher. Learning does not follow a neat trajectory even in the best of circumstances. More worrisome is the assumption that the fourth grade teacher should be held solely responsible for students who don’t do so well as if previous teachers no longer influence student learning. Or that class size, curriculum, classroom resources, and school learning climate don’t matter. Or that, in the case of schools districts like Washington, DC which serve large numbers of poor children, that the conditions of poverty don’t affect student achievement.
When students fail in school it isn’t just the teacher’s fault. Many students fail despite the best efforts of teachers. Nor can the blame be placed solely on students themselves or their parents. When students in poor urban schools like Washington fail it is everyone’s responsibility. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a nation to allow her to fail.