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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Accountability and Incentives: A Cautionary Tale, pt1


I understand the rationale behind the push for ever-increasing teacher accountability -- it's natural to want to insure that your kids are getting the quality education they deserve. Teachers can't just sit back and say, "Trust me, I know what I'm doing." Those days are over. Fair enough.

But we teachers need the rest of the country to understand that when we push back against how teacher accountability is being implemented, we are not just scurrying around trying to hide our incompetence or protect our "cushy" jobs.

We can handle the scrutiny. Most of us would be eager to let our students' successes serve as evidence of our effectiveness as educators. I don't think we fear accountability -- if that accountability is implemented properly, if success is defined properly.

It's not about rigging the game in our favor, lowering the bar, or any of that nonsense; it's about making sure that we're judged for the things that really matter, the things that we teachers do that actually improve students' lives.

The American public needs to realize that not all forms of teacher accountability are created equal. Worse, the most popular methods can be misleading or downright detrimental. Even "no-brainer" approaches like rewarding "effective" teachers with bonuses have already ended in failure. Just because greed-maximizing incentives (sort of) work for capitalism doesn't mean they work for education.

However, hearing these arguments and really feeling them are two different things. And somehow teachers have been turned into the enemy -- or at least that's how it feels to us -- to the point where no one seems much interested in listening to the people who have the most expertise on the subject.

But I think the power of satire and absurdity has a chance to get the message across. So, in that vein, I offer you:

Part 1: The Announcement

The not-too-distant future. The President of the United States sits in the Oval Office, stares confidently into the camera, and addresses the nation:

"My fellow Americans, I am deeply concerned about our children's health. Nothing could be more important to the future of this great nation.

For decades we have been testing students' physical fitness levels. The sit-and-reach test of flexibility has been a staple of fitness testing in PE classes since my own years in junior high school. Every child is tested every year. There are, of course, established Federal performance benchmarks for each age level.

But this is not enough. The Chinese and Indians have demonstrated year-over-year gains in their children's flexibility that far exceed our own. Do we throw in the towel and say that we can't compete with Tai-Chi and Yoga? No! We fight! We improve! That's what we do in America! We reach forward, we stretch with hands one on top the other, with straight legs and no bouncing or jerking movements.

But how do we fight? How do we improve?

image from PresidentsChallenge.org
We already know the answer. We know how important it is to hold teachers accountable, to know if they are effective or incompetent. We have a right to know, as taxpayers, as citizens of this great democracy, whether or not they are doing right by our kids. It is obvious then that it is unacceptable that these sit-and-reach benchmarks carry with them no incentives to reward the best PE teachers, nor do they identify or remove the very worst PE teachers.

Ladies and gentlemen, this cannot continue. Americans must outstretch China and India.

That is why I am proud to announce a new program called: Sit-and-Reach to the Top.

States who participate and compete for Sit-and-Reach to the Top grants must include provisions to tie PE teachers' salary and job security to their students' sit-and-reach scores.

We cannot afford to let incompetent teachers continue to neglect our children. 
We have given PE teachers a free pass for too long. That ends today.

When our children can reach their toes they'll be that much closer to reaching their dreams."

Can you see where this is going? This fictional policy is absurd but its impact parallels what teachers actually face today. In the next chapters we'll explore those ramifications as this new initiative goes into effect at a typical junior high. What will it mean to the tenured veteran? To the overwhelmed new teacher? To the teacher who is actually motivated by money? And what about each of those teachers' students?

Part 2 coming soon.

In the meantime, forward this to anyone who cares -- or should care -- about education.