Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Legislative Goals

You've probably seen the pseudo-meme floating around Facebook and other places, saying something like this:

Legislators want teachers to be paid according to their effectiveness as evaluated by student test scores.
How about paying legislators according to their effectiveness - as evaluated by job creation and economic growth?

Being a teacher myself, although in higher ed rather than public ed so it doesn't work exactly the same way (yet), I understand the reticence of teachers to be evaluated on something they don't have complete control over.  Now, the argument could be made that teachers do have control over their classrooms and that they should be doing everything in their power to motivate their students to work.  If the students fail to progress, it is the teacher's fault.

I don't totally buy it.  I'm in the SMART goals camp.  For a true goal, you need something that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.  Specific means that you break up goals into appropriately sized pieces.  Measurable means you can objectively tell if you achieved it or not.  Attainable means it's possible to achieve.  Relevant means there's a purpose behind it.  Time-bound means at some point you need to be done, whether you finished it or not.

So whether we let teachers set their own goals or set their goals for them (since we do pay their salaries), their salaries should be tied to meeting goals, and their goals should be SMART, so they can be objectively measured.  That said, using student test scores fails the SMART test.  It is not attainable, because it relies on someone else to do something in order for teachers to meet their goals.  An individual student could have a goal to achieve a certain score, but if a teacher does not have direct control over achieving the passing score, it is not SMART for the teacher.  It's measurable, and students take the tests at the end of every year (time-based), so it fits some pieces.  You could argue relevance.  I'd have to know what test students are taking, but many tests are actually poor indicators of anything useful (or indicators that are particularly un-useful like the social efficiency curriculum theory), so they tend not to be relevant to the kinds of learning students should be doing, or to flip this back in the control of teachers, the types of learning teachers should be promoting.

So there are some problems with the teacher pay thing, but I have to admit that it's a false analogy to say that politician pay should be linked to job creation and economic growth, in spite of how poor a job I see them doing on that goal and as nice as it would be to hold them responsible.  I see the connection with teachers more directly, in that their job is teaching students, in spite of the problems I've already discussed.  The question, then, is whether it is job of legislators to create jobs and grow the economy.  I wonder if that's not giving them too much credit.

The government does create the environment in which businesses function.  But is it really their role to create jobs?  Isn't it also their job to create a safe environment for us?  So if crime goes down, that should count for something.  What about road construction and maintenance?  So do legislators get bonuses for building two more roads than the previous year?  They own the post office, so what if they didn't create more jobs but they do help the USPS reduce their costs?

One of the biggest problems is that you're going to get what you decide to measure and base performance on.  If we base teacher pay on students passing tests, we'll get teachers that reward students for passing tests.  If we reward legislators for job creation, we'll have legislators who encourage war, since war is one of few known job creators.  War is also conveniently a good excuse to take away our freedoms and make it appear we are more secure.

We must make sure we're asking for something we really want.  I'm not sure we want jobs created by legislatures.  We also don't want students who are good at taking tests.  Perhaps that is the point of the pseudo-meme.  There's just too much complexity that is lost behind the trite saying.