Sep 122011

Should teachers’ wages be based on performance? Should a teacher be able to be fired? According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Quebecers are in favour of paying teachers according to their performance. On September 8, 2011 Serge Laurendeau, QPAT-APEQ President, spoke about this subject on CBC Radio Noon Montreal and you can listen to the conversation here.

This debate seems to be partly due to the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport‘s (MELS) attempt to increase the student success rate in the province to 80 percent. Although a noble goal, the need for a scapegoat should the plan fail is clear: teachers are going to be blamed student failures. The logical fallacy in this plan seems obvious to me. As an analogy, a doctor is not considered a “bad” doctor if his or her patients remain sick or die during treatment. If a doctor works with terminally ill patients, then his success rate will naturally be lower than if he worked with less serious cases. The same is true with teachers. A teacher doesn’t choose his/her students so it is unfair to attach a student’s success and the outcome of his/her studies to the efforts and energy put forth by the teacher.

The theory of constructivism supports this idea. Simply put, a teacher cannot make a student learn. Instead, students generate knowledge and meaning from interaction between their experiences and their ideas. This is a very difficult and humbling idea for teachers. A teacher can work 40-60 hours per week and triple his/her efforts, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into student success. That’s up to the student.

This debate is unfortunate because it diminishes the qualitative nature of education and emphasizes the quantitate nature. Since students measure success differently, some will choose career paths that don’t require university, CEGEP, or secondary V. At the moment, the Quebec Government has decided that the only measure of success is the number of students who achieve their secondary V on time. Teachers spend a lot of time, energy and efforts on the students whose special needs are high but who will never be a part of the 80 percent that the Government hopes will graduate on time.

Measuring students quantitatively is appealing to administrators who need to evaluate the efficiency of schools as if they were businesses. But if a backlash against Quebec’s educational reform and a back-to-basics movement is the direction that we’re headed, then it is worth looking to our neighbours in the South to see if we can glean any lessons from the No Child Lef Behind program.

Ever since George Bush’s No Child Left Behind program was initiated in 2001, standardized testing has been used to evaluate not only students but also schools and teachers. As a result, teacher retention and pay increases have been tied to student performance on standardized tests. In other words, if kids do well, teachers get to keep their jobs and receive pay raises. If kids do poorly, however, teachers receive a lower salaries and even risk losing their jobs. It should come as no surprise that after this policy was put into practice, many teachers were caught helping their kids cheat on the tests. I first read about cheating teachers in Levitt and Dubner’s enlightening book Freakanomics and was horrified by the news. “Why would a group of professionals jeopardize their careers in exchange for improved test scores?” I asked myself.

After reading about teachers who cheated in Freakanomics (the teachers changed their students’ answers on tests to help their students move on to the next grade level as well as to protect their jobs), the authors hypothesize why teachers felt the need to act dishonestly. The stress for students to succeed and for teachers to keep their jobs simply became unbearable. The motivation of the teachers was no longer to help the students learn; instead the motivation was to help the students achieve better test scores. Scoring high on standardized tests became the true measure of success and the price to pay was dishonest teachers.

The public should be worried about the pressures that are put on students, teachers, and schools as a result of the arbitrary targets determined in order to achieve student success. In an effort to improve the graduation statistics, will the curriculum be watered down?

Let’s return to the question of “merit pay.” If a teacher is more popular, should they be rewarded financially? The damage to the teaching profession and to a teacher’s morale can already be seen in sites such as where students can seek revenge on their teachers anonymously online. Or will the administrator evaluate teachers? What will be the criteria? A teacher who has a group of quite students and doesn’t refer students to the office for behaviour problems will be popular, but it doesn’t mean that more learning is taking place in the classroom. Or should the parents evaluate teachers? Parent expectations vary widely. Some parents like homework and insist on it while others are against the practice. Some parents believe that their child is not being challenged enough or is being pushed too hard. Some parents believe that cell phones should be allowed in schools and they text their students regularly during the day.

The real question that needs to be answered concerning merit pay is who does it really benefit? If one wants to encourage student success, the constructivist theory would suggest that merit pay should be given to the students, not the teachers. After all, the students are the ones that are most capable of achieving success and will respond to incentives such as “merit pay.”