News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Flashpoint

April 14, 2011

FLASHPOINT: State’s education reform plan an insulting mess

TERRE HAUTE — I hope there are enough legislators in the majority party of the Indiana General Assembly who have the courage to look more carefully at the spate of bills sponsored by the “reformers in Indianapolis” regarding education and review the reasoned comments of so many people like Mike Lunsford and the editorial page of the Tribune-Star who point out the absurdities in the present thinking about educational reform.

There are a number of unanswered questions which need to be addressed before any radical or logical changes should be made to improve our schools.

n What is meant by rewarding teachers on the basis of “performance”? Performance seems to be determined by the “reformers” as scores on standardized tests. Why are the results of a standardized test more significant in measuring progress than a whole body of work required over a period of time? There are so many variables in test-taking that make it difficult to accurately measure what was learned with one exam. For example, in this county one school may have a solid support basis at home and another one does not. Can we compare the performance of the teachers in these two schools when home conditions are so different?

• Are teachers in Indiana so ineffective and uncaring that it will take merit pay to motivate them to do a better job? Teachers come with a degree of merit. Typically they have completed a minimum of four years of college, passed numerous examinations and successfully emerged from the scrutiny of qualified individuals both at a college and in a public school setting. And they know that teaching is more than just repeating knowledge. They have learned how to reach students, motivate them, and help them develop human and technical skills. 

Undoubtedly there are some ineffective teachers, but why devise a system that puts stress on all of them because of a suspected few? In the final analysis, however, teachers may be effective in one situation and not get results in another.

• If a teacher in a class of 24 pupils has 12 who show progress and 12 who do not, does the teacher get merit pay? What if a high school teacher has three classes that show progress and three that do not? Coincidentally, what would be considered improvement on these tests and who determines it?

• How much merit pay would be given and from what source of funds? I have not seen any figures but I know from experience as an educator who had to mete out these funds that the amount has been rather slim but it is enough to create tension among the faculty. Is it worth it to go through a complex analysis with teacher pitted against teacher for a meager reward?

• Are private schools and charter schools going to be obligated to accept any student who applies as the public schools are? If not, why not?  

• Why not give public school teachers the same opportunity to innovate and experiment as is being advocated for private and charter schools? Give them time, facilities and support in their own classrooms and see what happens. 

• What is important to learn? There is a lot of talk about math and science, subjects even singled out by the president in his State of the Union address. As important as those disciplines are, the public schools have a more important mission. Not everyone needs to be proficient in math and science to make a contribution to society, but everyone needs to be a responsible citizen for democracy to survive. Mike Lunsford is right. Our education system must be punctuated with civics, economics, the arts and experiences which lay the foundation for true democracy.

The convoluted mess of bills presently in the Legislature is an insult to the dedicated teachers who relentlessly ply their trade daily for the benefit of all students. Instead of forcing ill-conceived notions about performance on teachers, listen to all sides and then formulate a true reform agenda.

When all parties work together in an environment of mutual respect rather than in an adversarial manner, acceptable reform is more likely to emerge.

— Marvin A. Henry

Terre Haute

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