Of the readings, two struck me most:  the excerpt  from How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and the slideshow notes from Netflix:  Resource Guide on Our Freedom & Responsibility Culture. In so many ways, these very different texts were illuminating the same idea:  What’s working and how can we do more of it?

The Heath’s point out that focusing on a situation’s “bright spots” and looking for ways to expand those brights spots is a more home-grown and successful method than analyzing all the reasons behind a problem.  In the Netflix philosophy, they reward employees who meet high standards and weed out the underperformers to make room for more “stunning colleagues.”  In both texts, the authors believe that focusing on and building more of what works is the key.

I particlulary liked the Netflix concept:

We’re a team, not a family.  We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team.  Coaches’ job at every level of Netflix is to hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.

My question:  It actually came up during last week’s teacher fishbowl:  as educators, we have a duty to serve ALL students, not just the most successful.  Is it hypocritical or somehow dangerous to weed out teachers with the severity suggested by Netflix?  If we “focus on the bright spots” and aim to support teachers who are underperforming, are we wasting students’ valuable time and schools’ limited resources?  Who would be left if we asked ourselves, as Netflix does, Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving in two months for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep? My fear is that, in the world of teaching, those left standing may be a very small group.  My hope is that, those left standing would raise the bar and welcome bright new “stunning collegues.”  Of course, the next step of the Netflix philosophy was paying people what they are worth so….

As is so often the case, the idea of merit-based pay seemed, at first, straightforward.  However, the more I read, the more I struggle to envision a system that would address all the concerns raised.  Within the context of our budget unit, one of my fears is the current inequity in funding for schools.  Will merit-based pay break the cycle of the poorest schools having the worst pay scale and least experienced teachers?  Will there be funds directed to those schools to attract the best teachers or will all the best teachers draw towards the best schools where they are able to achieve the best performance and have the best administrators and thus the best paycheck?

Lauren Smith’s article about Washington D.C. schools states:

Early signs of success (with merit-based pay) exist: The District of Columbia has shown impressive gains in its student test scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests since 2007, and in the past two years, the achievement gap between white and African-American students has closed from 70 percentage points to 50 percentage points.

These are impressive results in two years and make me wonder how they were achieved.  Were the teachers brought in to replace those fired that much better at teaching?  Were complacent teachers, secure with tenure, shocked into performing?  Did teachers change the focus of their instruction so that students performed well on the tests (and did this sacrifice or enhance their “education”)?

Kim Marshall describes schools that are having success with student achievement:

In many of America’s most effective schools, principals make frequent unannounced visits to classrooms and give informal feedback on what students are learning and how instruction can be improved. Teacher teams in these schools collaboratively design curriculum units, give common assessments to their students every four to six weeks, immediately huddle to discuss what worked and what didn’t, share best practices, reteach what wasn’t mastered, and help struggling students.

Certainly, the current pay scale does nothing to encourage this level of collaboration or motivation to improve.  If a merit-based pay system encourages more environments like this than I believe schools will see improvement in their students because the emphasis is on supporting and improving teachers.  Will the DC district continue to see improvement without encouraging a support system for its teachers?  Is a merit-based pay scale enough?

Marshall, Kim. “Is Merit Pay the Answer?” Education Week 16 Dec. 2009. Print.

Smith, Lauren. “D.C. Schools Chief Michelle Rhee Fights Union Over Teacher Pay – US News and World Report.” US News & World Report – Breaking News, World News, Business News, and America’s Best Colleges – USNews.com. 21 Dec. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. <http://www.usnews.com/news/national/articles/2009/12/21/dc-schools-chief-michelle-rhee-fights-union-over-teacher-pay.html>.