RAISE Act: the wrong fix for the right problems

A great deal is wrong with Alabama’s public education system. Among the many problems are an inequitable and insufficient funding structure, a lack of flexibility and control at the local level and a shortage of highly trained and motivated teachers.

It seems everyone has different ideas about how to address these and other shortcomings that consistently cause Alabama’s public education system to rank near the bottom in the country. In our Republican controlled state legislature, the response has largely been to abandon it altogether.

First, the Alabama Accountability Act purportedly gave families the ability to leave “failing schools” in favor of private schools, with a tax credit to help offset the cost of tuition. Ironically, the original version of the bill had been one that most educators and school leaders in the state had supported, a bill aimed at giving local school systems more flexibility in how to spend state funding allocations.

Of course, in a now-infamous bit of back-room politics, the bill tripled in size in about an hour’s time and was passed by the Republican majority before anyone could even read the new bill.

More recently, the legislature opened the door for public charter schools in the state, again aimed at increasing “school choice” for Alabama families. While the effects of the charter legislation won’t be known for a good while, the inconsistency of charter programs in other states and cities suggests no major improvements will result from the experiment.

And now, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, who largely led the push for the Accountability Act and the charter legislation, has announced plans for yet another bill aimed at education, the Rewarding Achievement in Instruction and Student Excellence Act (RAISE).

To his credit, Marsh’s new bill seems to actually focus on trying to improve our public education system, rather than siphon families and money out of it. Still, even as he correctly identifies areas of need, Marsh is going about addressing the problems in a most counterproductive way.

In a letter to AL.com defending his proposed legislation, Marsh rightly notes that teaching is an undervalued and under-respected profession in Alabama, as it is in much of the country. He then offers that we need to reward our good teachers with higher salaries. A system he claims would incentivize bright, effective educators to remain in our schools rather than seek out another career.

The salary “reward” would be based on teacher performance, determined in part by evaluations and student performance, in addition to other unclear metrics. In other states, similar legislation has given significant weight student’s standardized test scores. And that’s where a large number of Alabama educators are seeing red flags.

Standardized test scores are simply not an accurate measure of a school’s performance, much less a teacher’s quality. These tests are a convenient measurement, and they can certainly provide useful data, but they have never been and will never be a complete picture of what is happening inside a school or classroom.

First, the comparative standardized tests, which seek to measure students’ knowledge and skills relative to each other, are designed so that half of the test takers will score in the bottom half in order to provide a substantial score spread. In other words, these tests are written to ensure that 50 percent of kids will fail. And more often than not, the easiest way to achieve this “spread” is though questions that involve a student socioeconomic status rather that learned knowledge.

So we’re designing tests in which someone has to be on the bottom, and then we’re blaming teachers and schools when their students do not perform well on a two hour test of multiple choice questions and which has no impact on a student’s grades. How have we become convinced that this is the right way to evaluate our educators?

To get back to Del Marsh and his RAISE Act, the other major issue with his plan for merit-based pay can be tied to the pervasive and insidious belief that education operates like the market and that competition between schools and teachers will result in a better system for all students.

Education isn’t about competition; it’s about collaboration. It’s about recognizing that every teacher in a school and every school in a district are united in a common goal of empowering students. 

Mark Hammontree is a senior majoring in secondary education-language arts. His column runs biweekly.

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