From Marks to Moolah

Vincent Avatar


Whenever I see an article about “pay for grades”( like the piece in the ASCD’s March 2009 newsletter) or “merit pay” like in the (Commentary in the March 11, 2009 issue of Education Week) I am reminded of a story I heard many years ago in a documentary about the communism in China. I want to say it was a PBS documentary I saw on a lazy Sunday afternoon in high school. But I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is the story stuck with me.

The story took place in the early days of the communist government. Land had been taken away from the landlords and distributed to the farmers and the working class. The population had been reorganized into communes. Wheat production was a priority for the government. The new communes were eager to prove their worth. Success would be measured by how much wheat was produced.

One day a photo began circulating. It depicted a child sitting on top of a large stack of wheat. The caption that came with it stated something to the effect of “so much wheat produced that it can support the weight of a small child.” Everyone in the party was excited. Their methods were working (or so they thought). As it turns out, the photo was a fake. The farmers of the commune had cracked under pressure. They had put a crate underneath the wheat stack.

While I can understand the reasoning behind pay for grades as described by the ASCD newsletter, I am cautious (is that the right word?) of the statement that lower income students “have little or no motivation to perform well in school.” I am concerned that those who believe this are the same people who consistently ignore the educational needs of Asian, Asian American, and immigrant students. I believe that most of these students understand the value of education and pursue it as aggressively as possible given their circumstances.

What percentage of students in these pay for grades programs are Asian? New immigrants? Do these programs perpetuate the anti-Asian/immigrant stereotypes that have deprived these communities of academic and financial assistance?

An even bigger question here is whether pay for grades programs succeed in establishing positive long lasting academic/education habits. Is the resulting learning sticky or is it just enough to pass the next immediate test? I wonder what we will see if we tracked a student in a pay for grades program after the program has exhausted itself? Will that student have retained the academic facts and skills? Will he or she have developed proper study habits? Beyond that what will that student have done with the money?

As a condition of receiving the money, are the students and their families required to have participated in personal finance training or workshops? Or are they free to run to nearest check cashing place? Do pay for grades programs involve themselves this deeply?

My stand on performance pay for teachers is more absolute. Test-based performance pay for teachers is just wrong. Rewarding teachers for increased student test scores would make test scores the single most important objective for a teacher. This pursuit is wrong.

Teaching is the craft. Testing is the tool the teacher uses to engage in his/her craft. A test is a tool to assess student learning and progress. Judging performance based on a tool is like judging the quality of a house on the type of hammer the builder used. It is not the tool that should be the basis of performance pay (though we certainly want to acknowledge the craftsmanship in a well formed tool). Performance pay should be given to what the tool is used to create.

For example, a teacher whose students experience difficulty passing Math Test A but notices that the same students perform slightly better on Math Test B researches and presents methods of teaching and assessing that close the gap between the results of Test A and Test B. This teacher would be presented with a performance bonus for using available tools to construct a potentially new method of teaching. The reward is based on what he/she has built with the tools and not on the tools themselves. There is a difference.

Remember the commune, the boy, and the wheat? If it is inevitable that schools become testing centers instead of places of learning, what safeguards are in place to deter cheating? How severe will the punishments be? Will situations like the one described in the BBC report about parents being jailed for helping their children cheat on tests become more commonplace?

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