Merit-based pay and formative assessment

Several reports have been released of late telling the government to lift the financial status of teachers if the shortage -both current and looming- of Maths, Science, and LOTE teachers is to be solved. The past two federal ministers of education, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, have responded to such reports by asking their state counterparts to implement a merit-based pay scale for teachers.

Teacher unions are usually opposed to such ideas. They argue that good measures for teacher effectiveness are lacking and that such moves would be divisive as they would promote competition in the staff room.

The Education Wonks have an editorial (or wonkitorial as they call it) commenting on a scheme in Iowa which links teachers' pay to the grades achieved by their students in standardised tests. They point out that some research studies have shown that students do not take these tests seriously enough, and teachers would end up being penalised for their students' carelessness. In another wonkitorial they point out that the No Child Left Behind program would turn teaching into the only profession where 100% effectiveness is not only expected, but required.

What is of interest to me is how results on standardised tests are used to improve student learning. To my knowledge, the student learns his/her grade, the parents see their child's rank in the state, and the teacher feels baffled or justified depending on whether the grade confirms or disproves school-based assessment.

Responding to the push for such high-stakes assessment, Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, of King's College in London, wrote a fabulous paper entitled Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. This and other such papers brought the idea of formative assessment (aka assessment for learning) to the fore.

One thing that Black and Wiliam argue is that teachers are well trained in grading assessment tasks, but are usually unsure about how to use their findings to support student learning. This might seem to be a criticism of teachers, but these scholars then proceded to working with teachers in the UK to look at ways in which formative assessment could be implemented. In their work, they did not condescend to teachers. Instead, they presented general ideas and allowed the teachers to lead the way in discovering effective ways to implement formative assessment. I highly recommend the book: Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice, by P. Black, C. Harrison, C. Lee, B. Marshall and D. Wilima.

An example I read in a recent paper is that of a preservice teacher who pretested primary (elementary) school children on their knowledge of the moon. He concluded that they knew "very little" and proceeded to teach his unit assuming nothing. This was because, while they knew that the moon was not a source of light like the sun, only two could explain their thinking . The author of this paper suggested that the next lesson should have been based on the question: if the moon is not a source of light, how do you think it glows? This would have been an example of using one's assessment of what students knew to guide further learning.

So, what does all this have with teachers' pay? There is a two part answer:
1- Raising the stakes even higher will make standardised tests an even greater source of anxiety and even less useful for learning; and
2- This could lead to schools in "rough" suburbs finding it even harder to recruit good teachers, as these would leave to work with kids who are more likely to get higher grades.

Black and Wiliam suggest a value-added assessment of teachers' performance, where a teacher is rewarded for the improvement his/her students have made between standardised tests.


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