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Archive for February, 2010

Some American public school districts are now offering salary incentives or “merit pay” to encourage and reward exemplary teachers.  In Houston, Texas, the merit pay system started in 2005 provides teachers with $40 million (up to $11,000 extra per year) for measurable improvements in student performance.  President Barak Obama surprised many by saying “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers and to stop making excuses for bad ones.”  Should Canadian provinces be looking at teacher quality initiatives like merit pay?  And if so, what kind of systems might work best?

The Americans seem attracted to merit pay systems because they fit more comfortably into the current “Race to the Top” reform agenda.  The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) is now often cited as the exemplary model and it is driven by principles and models of effective teaching.  Over the past week, Melinda  Gates has weighed in with an influential commentary in The Washington Post (February 19, 2010).  ” An effective teacher,” she claimed, ” has more impact on student performance than any other school-based factor.”  Recent research in Australia by Dr. Richard Dinham and ACER tends to support that contention.  Although 50% of student performance is linked to “student motivation,” about 30% is directly affected by “teacher quality.”  In the United States, the Gates Foundation has also announced a Measures of Effective Teaching project, in 7 school districts, working with 3,000 teachers.  It will develop measures to promote effectiveness, including videotaping classes, analyzing test scores, surveying teachers, students, and parents.

While the Gates Foundation has found modest support among teacher union ranks, the Teacher Effectiveness movement also faces formidable foes. With the passing of Albert Shanker the American National Teachers Union has found itself beseiged and has tended to rely heavily upon public voices such as the late Gerald W. Bracey and Alfie Kohn to do its thinking.  Since 2005, Alfie Kohn has been the fiercest opponent of Merit Pay for teachers.  From the beginning, he has claimed that “It Doesn’t Work” and long before it was even implemented in a planned or systematic fashion.

We should be considering other options perhaps better suited to the Canadian educational milieu. When we do, the Australian “Smarter Schools” model will have clear advantages.  First proposed in April 2008, the Austraian project for improving Teacher Quality (TQ)  is funded by $550 million over 5 years and includes both “facilitation” reforms and “reward” incentives.  Business support has been critical and the Australian Business Council has invested heavily in “teacher quality” programs. (See the Stephen Dinham and http://www.acer.edu.au websites)   It is a far more comprehensive system of teacher development than the U.S. free enterprise experiments.

The Australian plan is based on an ingeneous new teacher salary scale system tied directly to levels of teaching competence.  It replaces the traditional Canadian “seniority, credentials system” with a  “Standards-Based Career Structure.”   Instead of being rewarded for seniority/long service and “positions of responsiblity,” teachers are expected to progress through four new stages of competence: probationary, registered, accomplished, and school leader.  Salaries do not plateau at mid-career, but can rise to 1.46 X the starting salary.  Simply put, the most competent, accomplished teachers also rise to the top on the new scales.

Having identified Teacher Quality as a critical factor in improving student performance, we should be looking for systems that work, not just recycling predictable Alfie Kohn commentaries.  Now, it’s your turn.

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Education is now a tremendously high profile public issue in the United States unlike in Canada.  Since the election of President Barak Obama in November 2008, the new administration has made education reform a top priority, recasting the discredited NCLB into the “Race to the Top” initiative, fuelled by $4.35 billion in federal stimulus spending.  In a bold move to win bi-partisan support, Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan  has introduced a new “turnaround schools” policy, embraced “charter schools,” renewed the commitment to high-stakes testing, established a “We Are Teachers” mentoring program, and proposed that teacher salaries be based upon merit, tied to student test results.

The American education debate has become volatile, driven largely by an almost relentless drive to close the gap in international test results or to reverse the cycle of decline. Leading education authorities like Andy Smarick, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, are urging the current “Education President” to go even further.  In a highly influential Winter 2010 feature essay for Harvard University’s Education Next magazine, Smarick claims that “U-Turn” policies based upon “turnarounds” have so far utterly failed to “drastically improve America’s troubled urban school systems.” “When conscientiously applied strategies fail to improve America’s lowest performing schools, we need to close them” and to begin anew with “fresh start” schools.

The U.S.“School Wars” now have a new front.  Well-known New York University professor and author, Diane Ravitch, has joined the fray, co-founding “Common Core” in staunch opposition to the “21st century skills” curriculum and the current testing mania, claiming that such reforms threaten to destroy the teaching of “core knowledge  essential to critical thinking.” Her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), has hit like a bombshell.  The current obsession with testing and chartering, she charges, is not producing higher standards and may well imperil the system.

Why is Canadian education, by comparison, like “sleepy hollow”? Surveying the scene, Atlantic Canada remains a sea of relative tranquility with the odd cove of ripply waters. Public concern about the state of education still runs high, judging from recent Nik Nanos opinion polls (September 2009) placing the issue (at 7%) third in importance and ahead of the environment, and even higher among the 18 to 34 age group. Yet education in Canada is the preserve of the provinces and that may explain why, as a public issue, it lurks in the shadows.  Perhaps that’s just as well.   Now, it’s your turn.

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“Which school is the best?” That is one of the questions most commonly asked by today’s parents. Since most parents want what’s best for their children, it is a question which never goes away. Yet it’s also a question that almost always elicits an equivocal response and then a “mini-lecture” from most educators. Ranking schools, we are told, is a dangerous “free market” business concept, it threatens to unleash cut-throat competition, and it unfairly labels as “bad” many schools in lower income neighbourhoods.

Most education departments and school boards have responded to rising parental expectations and now accept the need for provincial testing to assess student performance, normally beginning in Grade 2 and extending to Grade 12 graduating year. Standardized testing is now commonplace and individual school accountability reports are becoming more prevalent, but the idea of rating or ranking schools still meets stiff resistance within the public school system. Educational authorities, strongly supported by teacher unions, continue to hold the line.

The lively public debate over the rankings has now spread to virtually every province. Although school rankings were first introduced in the 1990s by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) has now emerged as its chief proponent. Since 2003, AIMS has produced Annual High School Report Cards ranking all schools in Atlantic Canada. In early February 2010, AIMS expanded into Western Canada, releasing their first High School Report Cards for British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Where do the Canadian provinces stand on the question of school rankings? The Fraser Institute high school rankings have gained grudging acceptance in BC, Alberta and Quebec. Ranking public schools remains hotly contested terrain in Ontario. Among the western provinces, BC and Alberta provide the most public disclosure of results. “Manitoba operates in the dark ages,” declared AIMS Report Card authors Bobby O’Keefe and Rick Audas. The recently released AIMS school rankings made news headlines in early February 2010 across the West and earned high editorial praise from the Winnipeg Free Press.

Canadian educational authorities, backed by teacher unions, are dead-set against system-wide rankings of public schools. The vehemence of the response from Canadian educators begs the key question: Why does Ranking Schools remain one of the great “taboos” in the world of education? Join the conversation.

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