Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Pleasant Surprise

Today was a really good day for me. I had good attendance in my classes across the board (a rare event), and I realized that I have actually taught my students something this year. Lanier High School is piloting strategic compensation based on student performance. On the whole, I believe there are more problems with performance-based compensation than positives, but the model we are using forces teachers to do something very valuable: use pre- and post-tests to measure student learning. Using the data from the pre-tests, teachers were asked to set student learning objectives to be measured later in the year. In 10th grade English, we have two objectives, both of which are to measure student growth; success is determined by how much the student improves from pre- to post-test, not on an overall percentage mark set for all students. 

The first was chosen from two options, and the test, which tests knowledge and understanding of literary elements, was given to us. This test is very problematic, as the reading passages are very high level. Lanier has an extremely high population of language learners, as well as a vast majority of low-income students who traditionally struggle with reading; for the purpose of this test, the high reading level is troublesome because we have so many students who come to us reading drastically below grade level. Basically, if I have a student who comes to me reading at 3rd or 4th grade level, something that is not uncommon, even if I double their reading level, the passages used on this test are still very challenging for them, making the assessment of literary element understanding ineffective. 

We were able to choose our second objective as a 10th grade English team, and we chose the reflective essay, a key component of the students' state assessment. My students are in the process of finishing their post-tests for the essay, as I need to administer both tests before I go on maternity leave. As the students' tests are coming in, I have been scoring them and comparing the students' marks to their pre-tests. I am very proud to say that all but one of the students who have turned in essays thus far have improved by their required amount. Obviously, the pay attached to this improvement would be nice, but at this point, I am equally glad to know that my students have actually learned something substantial from me this year. 

Again, I have a lot of issues with performance-based pay, especially when the assessment systems are set up in a way that are really skewed against teachers with a high population of language learners, students with learning disabilities, etc. I also question whether or not performance-based pay actually provides an incentive for all-around better teaching or just teaching focused on more specific objectives, let alone wonder whether it encourages unethical behavior and divides among colleagues. These questions still float around in my head, but as I near the end of my time with my students this year--a group that has came in at an unquestionably higher level of need than my students in the past--it is nice to reflect on what they have done well, and today, comparing their writing scores from October to now allowed me to do that.

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