Once again, many educators are exasperated at proposed education legislation emanating from Goat Hill. The RAISE Act (Rewarding Achievement in Instruction and Student Excellence), like other various education reform legislation that has been put forth in the past several years by state leaders, has a name that sounds soaring, but actually falls far short of progress.
The bill’s author, Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston), says one of the bill’s goals is to reward good teachers by increasing teacher pay, pegging it to student performance. Sounds good enough, right? But the way it aims to accomplish this is by resurrecting a system those in and outside of education have recognized as an utter failure: rewarding teachers based on the results of high-stakes standardized testing.
You thought “No Child Left Behind” was dead, with its high number of testing days resulting in less instructional time? With teachers teaching to the test and de-emphasizing meaningful academics? With intense student pressure to pass said test, and increased costs from all this high-stakes testing? Think again. The bill will even create a brand new entity to sift and decipher all this new data: “The Alabama Longitudinal Data System Center,” along with a “Longitudinal Data System Commission.” (Who says we don’t like big government?)
Marsh notes emphatically that taxpayers need to know the legislature will hold educators accountable for results. I would submit it’s high time taxpayers in Alabama hold legislators accountable for the screwy things they’re doing to education.
You see, unlike other professions, education is one of those fields where many people assume just because they went to a school — any school — they’re somehow experts in what it takes to make a good one, or a good education system. Compare this to other fields. When it comes to law enforcement, the public is often told they must try and put themselves in the place of a police officer or law enforcement personnel before criticizing or trying to second guess their actions or policies. We are rightly cautioned to allow the experts and those with seasoned experience to develop best practices and policies to ensure both what’s in the best interest of the officers and the safety of the public.
Likewise in the medical field. The fact that some have gone to a doctor at some point doesn’t mean they are qualified to tell doctors and nurses how to do their jobs. Accordingly, politicians may often develop broad objectives and goals for health care, but often rely heavily on experts in the field about how to succeed. This is true for many other fields, but not with education.
As we have seen, time and time again, for some reason our state legislators feel like there is no need to follow the advice of experts in our state when it comes to education policy. Those with post-doctorate degrees, doctorates and master’s degrees in the field of education are just considered vested interests whose opinions are suspect at best, opinions to be politely nodded at and then totally disregarded.
So, when Eric Mackey, head of Alabama school superintendents, says school system superintendents throughout the state are nearly unanimous in their opposition to Marsh’s bill, it is of little consequence to Marsh and his ilk. When officials from the Alabama State Department of Education urge caution, noting, “there’s a lot of research that shows you don’t go overboard with the use of test scores … we’ve misused test scores for a long time,” it will most likely be to little effect.
It doesn’t matter that when you discuss student achievement and learning outcomes, particularly in a state like Alabama, the 1,600-pound gorilla in the room (yes, we’ve grown past 800 pounds) is poverty and its ill effects on classroom learning. Addressing the issues, however, takes money, money the legislature is reluctant to spend. Indeed, this is a time when social services are more likely to be cut than increased. Education “reformers” like Marsh who brush aside the challenges poverty brings to education, and merely say “it’s all about what the teacher does or doesn’t do in the classroom,” only demonstrate their superficial understanding of the problem.
Located on the campus of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, one of the top five schools of education in the nation, the National Center on Performance Incentives conducted a stringent three-year study to ascertain if teacher bonuses affected student achievement. Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt Center, noted, “We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives, does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes, and we found that it does not.”
In other words, raise teacher pay because it’s fair and right and should be done, not from some flawed notion of how it should be done.
In an open letter to Sen. Del Marsh and the Alabama Legislature, written by 2016 Alabama Teacher of the Year Jennifer Brown and signed by many other top teachers in the state, the problems Mrs. Brown and other signees have with the RAISE Act are lucidly articulated. In a very moving closing statement, Brown notes: “It is likely for all of these reasons to have serious negative effects in the classroom and beyond … school systems need the flexibility to develop accountability models based on the needs of their student bodies. Alabama has made great strides in education, and we must continue to focus on improving student learning. This bill is likely to blur that focus.”
Sounds convincing, right? But, then again, what do they know: they’re just educators.