Discouraging Developing Scientists via Merit Pay?

While recently reading Daniel T. Willingham’s book, “Why Don’t Students Like School” I was compelled to search out his web literature and see what other works he might have created recently. I found his wiki, www.DanielWillingham.com and perused his links until I came across a YouTube video that reminded me of a previously written blog post regarding Dan Pink’s thoughts on motivation and my own personal wrestle with supporting or objecting current merit pay initiatives.

In Willingham’s video, “Merit Pay, Teacher Pay and Value Added Measures,” Willingham outlines six reasons for why merit pay can’t be based on the most currently supported system, value added measurement or, more simply, giving pre-course and post-course assessments to students and rating student (and teacher) performance based on overall improvement. I found all of his points to be thoughtful, but his fifth point stuck out to me the most: should teachers only worry about short-term gains? Willingham argued that tests based solely on specific standards and level focused objectives would sway educators to undertake fewer tasks that held longer-term value. (Willingham, 109)

What a blow to science education it might be if such salary stipulations were put in place for teachers. In Chapter 6 of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Willingham asks, “what’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists mathematicians and historians?” His answer among others is to practice activities that are appropriate for experts despite the fact that they will most likely not do much good for the students cognitively at their current stage. Willingham points to science fairs as such examples. (109) I think of activities that I currently perform during the school year such as a “Land and Water Heat Transfer Lab” and my “Planet Colonization Project.” Such activities allows students to develop their own experiments, outline detailed procedures, analyze collected data and develop solutions to the dilemmas they discover through their data analysis. Such activities, Willingham suggests, spur motivation while lending experience to needed future expert-skills such as drawing students attention to the need for close observation or the process of interpreting results. As Willingham puts it, “the bottom line is that posing to students challenges that demand the creation of something new is a task beyond their reach — but that doesn’t mean you should never perform such tasks.” (Willingham, 109)

Thomas Friedman points out in “The World is Flat,” that there is already a falling numbers of college-bound Americans pursuing degrees in mathematics and science compared to the rest of the world. It would not make sense to add additional stresses to our education system that would weaken the push on students to follow paths towards such expertise. In order to stay competitive we must continue to give our students every opportunity to practice and experience science and mathematics first-hand. The proposition of instituting merit pay under such methods as evaluating short-term goals would undoubtedly lead to the slashing and even elimination of such long-term-success-minded tasks.

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About MrMusselman

K-5 Science Specialist for the Burlington Public Schools of Burlington, MA.
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