Saturday, April 25, 2009

Built in Conflict of Interest?

The buzz in School Reform Redux under Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration is to hold teachers accountable for the job they do.  (Nobody else has been held accountable lately--memos change 'torture' to 'extreme measures', ponzi schemes on wall street, underhanded realtors push adjustable rate mortgages on uneducated buyers--but teachers are a special breed and should be held to a higher standard.)
Ok, ok, no whining here.  No one likes an ineffective teacher less than I, so we should have some method of ensuring that teachers are earning their salaries.
But are student test scores the right way to go?  There have been many arguments that there are too many variables in student abilities to hang all the outcomes on a single teacher.  
But there could be other arguments against this method.
A local story got me thinking.  Tying raises and advancement to student achievement could build in a conflict of interest - the teacher's self-interest trumping what is best for children.
The local paper reports that a stellar athlete has chosen to sit out the spring season of her senior year.  She wants to avoid running regular weekly races that would interfere with a different sort of training.  Her - now former- coach declined to comment.  
There may be many things going on in this story that have gone unreported and I have no idea what the many reasons are that she is not running or why the coach won't comment. 
But I could understand that a coach might be frustrated in losing a top athlete at the end of what has been a very long career shared by the two.  Perhaps this is the year she would drag the rest of the team with her to states-and reward the coach for the years of sustained support.  But suppose it IS the best thing for the student - developmentally and over the long haul of a sporting career.  
Therein lies the problem.  A coach interested in building a reputation on the performance of an outstanding athlete may be tempted to use his considerable influence to counsel a student to stay to meet school goals over student individual goals.  
Teacher reputations are often made in just such a way - when a gifted student performs at their peak for a teacher or coach.   
If we institute a system where teachers are measured against student performance--and tie bonuses, raises, and new positions to such a system--in addition to already documented cases of cheating tied to meeting strict percentages, we could see an explosion of the exploitation of children.  
There are many ways to motivate people to produce results (torture-for instance).  Some can produce long-lasting damage.
In the main, teachers are great people, but they are people, and most human beings act in their own self-interest first.  See Campbell's law.
We'd better be sure we get this right before tying big stakes to narrow, one-dimensional measurements.