Everywhere you look these days someone'ês writing about assessing and paying K-12 teachers based on the improvement in their students'ê test scores. The idea'ês been around for a couple decades, long enough for it to spread from mostly conservative education critics into the left-of-center mainstream. It'ês now a requirement for states seeking federal grant money from the Obama administration'ês Race to the Top challenge.
Typically, Friday'ês op-ed in The Seattle Times by Brad Smith, Microsoft'ês general counsel and board chair of the Washington Roundtable, which advocates the Race to the Top reforms, carried the teacher-pay message, urging school districts to buy in, urging them to 'ê'ê¦be willing to implement bold reforms such as evaluating and compensating teachers based on student performance'ê¦'ê
Not surprisingly, the idea is a battleground nationwide between those advocating education 'êreform'ê — now with President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, on their side — and teachers' unions, which argue, predictably, that such a system wouldn'êt be fair because teachers have no real control over the levels of preparation and the home environments of the students who come into their classrooms. In the pay-for-performance debate, that is actually a reasonable caution, but its force has eroded through years of use as an excuse for the poor performance of urban schools.
The conflict, though, tells us there should be a better way to ensure there'ês a 'êquality teacher in every classroom,'ê which educators rightly say is a crucial goal. After all, how successful would a major company or school district be if its key strategy for improvement amounted to war on its employees? (For a case study, see Chapter 4, 'êLessons from San Diego,'ê in Diane Ravitch'ês new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.)
Without doubt we need better teachers — here in Seattle and in every public school district in the U.S. Every parent knows this. Some fraction of teachers is incompetent, lazy or burned out — I'êd say one in 10 based on my children'ês experience at Whitman Middle School and Roosevelt High School a decade ago. Another group lacks subject matter knowledge. Keep in mind that such problems are not unique to teaching. Various levels of incompetence and malfeasance are the standard. Consider auto and oil company executives and bankers, for example. You can argue the percentages but not the fact.
So maybe when we test students to see how good their teachers are, we're testing the wrong people. Maybe we are testing the victim. Maybe the answer is to test the teachers. Raise the bar for admission to the profession and for continued employment.
It'ês easy to find news accounts of officials deploring the lack of trained math and science teachers. Other stories document how frequently teachers find themselves teaching subjects for which they are not prepared. And there is the general (and valid) complaint that colleges of education lack rigor, focus on classroom 'êstrategies'ê and produce graduates who, in fact, lack subject-matter knowledge relative to graduates in other majors. Not true everywhere nor true for every new graduate teacher, but true enough. And despite its use as the basis for teacher pay increases, researchers can'êt find a solid correlation between a Masters'ê Degree in education and improved teacher performance.
All these are problems that can be tackled by testing teachers.
In fact, Washington already does this, requiring a test for each subject-matter endorsement on a teacher'ês certificate. Unfortunately, the one-time tests given for initial certification or endorsement are not particularly rigorous. Content is largely set at high school level — the level students should reach at graduation! — or devoted to probing knowledge of teaching strategies. Furthermore, what the education establishment really thinks teachers should know and do is contained in the Washington State Teacher Endorsement Competencies. Click on a few samples here and see what you think.
There are several weaknesses with the current system. One, of course, is the lack of rigor. Another is that teachers face the challenge of a subject-matter test — and a short one at that — only at the start of their careers, despite changing information in the sciences and scholarship in the humanities. Testing teachers'ê subject-matter knowledge with a rigorous battery of exams every five years, say, would push them to keep current in their fields, probably with greater effect than the typical summer training institutes which tend to focus on teaching techniques rather than course content. Most people in any field coast a bit on what they know, or think they know. Regular tests would work against that.
Third is the lost opportunity. A broad-based testing system, coupled of course with on-the-job evaluations, could have benchmarks at several levels that states or local school boards could use to set pay ranges much as some states now authorize extra pay for National Board-Certified teachers. For example, failure to reach a level of basic knowledge would mean probation and, after a second chance a year later, dismissal.
To make this work, the examination system would need to include a number of tests to capture breadth of subject-matter knowledge and to ensure reliability of the results. The battery should include tests like ETS'ês Praxis tests, SAT II subject matter tests and the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) — all of those and maybe one or two more. Benchmarks could be set by testing control groups of academic experts and professionals in various subject areas, thus setting up an equivalence between teachers and the level of knowledge typical in the professions their students will ultimately enter.
Such a system would have a variety of benefits. It would tie pay to the characteristics of the teacher (his/her subject-matter knowledge along with additional on-site evaluation), not to the variable skills and uneven readiness to learn of the students (though good teachers can overcome these things). Further, creating an equivalence between teachers and professionals in their fields would enhance the stature of the teaching profession. It would generally increase the public's and legislators'ê confidence in the quality of our teachers, paving the way for greater support and higher pay, which in turn would help attract the most talented college students to the profession.
A subject-matter testing system clearly would work best for high-school teachers. It would be applicable for middle-school teachers but less so for elementary teachers. And still, at any level who would not want their children taught by a person with a broad and solid knowledge of the world? That would be worth paying for.