12/20/2007 09:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New York City Teachers Agree to Performance Pay, And I Have a Problem With It

This week, teachers at 205 New York City public schools--86% of those eligible--signed on to participate in a performance-incentive bonus program that is largely based on meeting benchmarks for standardized test scores. I understand teachers' willingness to buy into a deal that can put an additional $3,000 in their paychecks. However, this program defines success as ratcheting up test scores, and that is a huge problem.

High-stakes standardized testing rarely gets questioned anymore for its legitimacy as a lens for school accountability and student achievement. Its proponents are so powerful and its propaganda machine is so well-oiled (if you're against it, you espouse "the soft bigotry of low expectations") that its tentacles now reach into virtually every public school classroom in America.

The culture of measuring students and school solely via high-stakes testing distorts curriculum, demoralizes students, and provides incomplete, inaccurate assessments. The current testing regime's fallout is massive and ugly. The fear-inspiring culture of test prep makes kids associate school with tests, not to developing their minds.

And -- this is a serious point -- high-stakes testing devalues the joy of the learning process.

This accountability regime is the education lovechild of business sphere interests; it's numbers-driven and mechanistic. The ends are all that matter. Forget the means. (No one wants to say it, but this model tacitly encourages manipulation and cheating.) It sends to principals, teachers, parents, and students a loud, clear, and dangerous message: if you get the stats, you're successful.

I wish children could be assessed based on their actual work over the school year, and not by one week of pressure-laden testing. The only good argument against that kind of comprehensive, student-centered assessment is that one can't trust teachers to instill enough rigor in their assignments, a thoroughly cynical message.

However, there's the world I'd like to live in, and there's the world there we have. When I criticize the institution of high-stakes testing, I might as well be shouting -- like many others -- that we should get out of Iraq now. It's just not going to happen while the keepers of power and high offices want to press forward. (I'm still going to shout, though. Someone is listening.)

This concession -- that high-stakes testing is a given reality -- is reflected in this week's performance pay deal in New York. Both the teachers' union and City Hall declared victory on the compromise, since the merit bonuses will go to entire schools that meet benchmarks, and not to individual teachers. The union says this will encourage cooperation between teachers and administrators -- and that's true. But the teachers and principals will be cooperating toward the common goal of pumping up standardized test scores, a mistaken aim if one truly wants to educate children. The United Federation of Teachers has accomplished a tremendous amount to support teachers and students, but I have a philosophical disagreement with them on this issue.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, two men who made their bones in the business sector, have scored a win in advancing their agenda.

Most of the Democrat presidential candidates -- except Senator Obama -- have spoken out against teacher merit pay, an increasingly hot-button issue. With the controversial reauthorization of No Child Left Behind coming up next year, the issue will be getting a lot more ink, and this week's New York compromise will be in the spotlight.

Excellence should be rewarded, but test scores don't measure a teacher's excellence. The scores (how many kids barely eke over that minimum proficiency hump? how many fall short?) measure one's ability to play a specific game. The rules of this multiple-choice game are not transferable to the greater world. Such a depersonalized system should not rule education, a wholly human institution.

Bonus pay is a good idea to entice master teachers to work in difficult schools, to mentor neophyte teachers, or to take on extra responsibilities like an after-school club. However, it's a cancer when it abets the mislaid obsession with cranking empty statistics out of unwitting children.

Dan Brown is the author of the new teacher memoir, The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. Happy holidays.