The Fordham Institute is a Washington education policy think tank that supports market-driven reforms. It has published a paper lauding the teacher pay system in Harrison District 2, which is one of the most unusual in the country: The Colorado Springs district has abolished seniority and education-based raises entirely, and now pays teachers exclusively according to how much they advance student achievement, as measured through state tests, district tests, student performance tasks, and classroom observations.
The problem is that the paper was written by Harrison's superintendent, Mike Miles, the man who crafted this system and has traveled the country promoting it. So although Fordham also published some interesting critiques of the Harrison plan by education professor Allan Odden, the entire endeavor fails to grapple fully with the discontents of the district's reform agenda.
In November 2010, while reporting a cover story for The American Prospect, I spent four days visiting Harrision schools and interviewing teachers and administrators there. I found a lot to like. Administrators insist that every adult–including guidance counselors, art teachers, and gym teachers–is focused on helping low-income students reach high academic standards. Principals use a fairly sophisticated classroom observation system to help teachers improve their lesson planning and instructional practices.
But there was one major aspect of Harrison's system that left many teachers anxious and demoralized: the intense pressure to raise scores on both traditional and experimental standardized tests, accompanied by the administration's deep (indeed, almost evangelical) faith in testing as the best measure of student learning.
In order to collect the data used to measure whether a Harrison teacher is advancing student achivement, the typical Harrison child will experience nine to 10 weeks per school year in which she is sitting for state or district-created testing in some or all of her classes. (If individual Harrison teachers are creating their own classroom assessments–a hallmark of effective teaching–this would be in addition to all the state-mandated and district-mandated testing.) When I was working on my article, the Harrison administration and I calculated that the typical student in the district experiences high-stakes testing at least 25 days per year.
The high stakes, of course, are generally for the teacher, not for the student. This is typical in the contemporary American school system. But it is important to ask the question of how Harrison's greatly increased amount of testing impacts students' experience of school. Here's how one Harrison elementary school teacher put it, in a conversation with Miles: "It seems we don't have time to teach, because every time we turn around, we're testing." And it's worth noting that reforms that emphasize testing are often so unpopular with college-educated parents in places like Scarsdale and Berkeley that they are tried first on low-income kids in places like Harrison, where parents are less likely to protest.
In the Fordham paper, Miles admits that assessment has been the biggest challenge for the district, noting the cost and intellectual difficulty of creating tests for every subject and every grade level, including in non-traditional subjects such as art, and for the youngest children. As I observed in 2010, Harrison's first attempt to assess "specials" in the early grades led to some strange test questions, such as requiring students, on a physical education test, to draw a picture of what two hands should look like when they are catching a ball.
Harrison has worked to improve its assessments since then, but we can't ignore or downplay the impact on students of various new teacher evaluation and pay schemes. This is especially important as states move forward with implementing their Race to the Top plans, which in many cases necessitate a bevy of new student assessments.