Florida’s Big Bonuses for Teachers’ High School SAT Scores Miss the Point

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss recently described a scheme being implemented by Florida’s state legislature, “called ‘Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships’… using 44 million of taxpayer dollars to give up to $10,000 bonuses to teachers who got high SAT and ACT scores before entering college—even if they took the test decades ago.  New teachers would just need to show their test scores at or above the 80th percentile on the SAT and ACT, while veteran teachers would also have received a ‘highly effective’ evaluation rating… And now Florida lawmakers want to extend the program to go beyond one year.  In fact the House education committee recently approved a bill to do just that.  So this nonsense could easily last more than one year and waste more than $44 million.”

Strauss’s column has caused me to reflect on the qualities of the fine educators I’ve known and to marvel at the crazy logic of today’s school “reformers” who seem to need a a number to measure excellence.

I thought about Florida’s SAT bonus program when, late in December, Strauss reprinted a column from Michelle Gunderson, “a 29-year… veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools.  She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in curriculum and instruction.”  Ms. Gunderson describes the challenge faced by teachers when children appear mid-year, children who bring serious problems to a setting where many other children also need her attention: “One of the things you learn as an elementary teacher in the Chicago Public Schools is to always have materials available and an extra desk or space for new students.  You learn to expect the unexpected and that a child can show up on your doorstep at any minute of any day… Many times children who come to us after the first weeks of school are displaced or have parents who are seeking a school that can help their troubled child.  These were the thoughts on my mind when a little boy appeared at my classroom door in the second week of school this fall, an hour after school had started, without an adult accompanying him to the class.”  This child was homeless with very little previous schooling.  “Everything was new—letters and sounds, standing in line to go to recess, putting a coat in a locker… It was exhausting for us both—and his classmates.”

Here is how Ms. Gunderson responded: “I started by realizing that each time our new student was not able to follow classroom routines, we all needed to help and guide him with patience and understanding… We adopted phrasing that did not punish or scold.  We would say: “This is not how that goes. Would you like me to show you?”  She received calls from parents who did not want their children to experience this child’s problems, and she responded: “Your child knows right from wrong.  That is a blessing and a credit to you.  He also knows that there is ugliness in this world and has a big enough heart to still offer friendship to this child.”

After six weeks, the child moves away, but Ms. Gunderson celebrates what everyone in the class was able to learn from the child’s presence: “There is no place on a rubric of teaching and learning that could measure the community kindness the children in my classroom showed during this time… I am determined to teach the common core of goodwill.  Those are my standards.”

The article on Florida’s SAT score bonuses also caused me to think back about my tour eight years ago of the loveliest and most stimulating elementary school I have ever visited: Harold Washington Elementary, also a Chicago neighborhood school. The old building, not an up-to-date space by any means, was the canvas on which the principal, Dr. Sandra Lewis (now-retired) had painted the school’s values of welcome, affirmation, and high expectations.  One stairway displayed framed photographs of every one of the school’s families.  A prominent marquee hung over the entrance to the Margaret Burroughs Performing Arts Theater—the old-fashioned, two-story auditorium filled with the original 1915, varnished wood seats screwed to the floor.  The room is now painted pink with life-size panels of black performers lining the walls—Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Andre Watts.  Dr. Lewis explained: “Our school’s band, orchestra, vocal group, and dance troupe perform here.”  At monthly assemblies in the same space, all students posting perfect attendance enter a lottery for a new bicycle.  The main hall on the first floor where the primary grades are located—marked as Harold Washington Boulevard with a street sign—is a civics lesson filled with murals of Chicago’s public institutions—the city hall, the courthouse, the library. Parked right at the intersection with the school’s staircase is the black Cadillac in which Harold Washington was chauffeured around town when he was the mayor.

Both of these educators, Dr. Lewis the principal and Ms. Gunderson the teacher, bring a lifetime of experience and skill to the educational settings they create for children.  Both have pursued graduate programs at local universities and both bring their knowledge about child development and learning theory directly into the settings where they serve children. Both attend to the safety—physical and emotional—of the children they serve.  Both welcome children and families with respect and without judgment.  What these women bring to their work is surely their smarts—and also training in how to create a learning environment and how to manage the curriculum and the children and the routine of the school day.  And they bring calm, confidence, and dedication.

These two women may or may not have had astronomical SAT scores, but I suspect that bonuses based on SAT scores would seem meaningless to them.  They have more important things to think about.

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