When Bean Counters Take Charge

One of the interminable debates that goes around and around in education is the issue of how much teachers should be paid. When pointing out the shortcomings of education systems in most countries, critics frequently point to the fact that teachers are typically paid in the lower ranges of salaries for people with their levels of academic qualifications (except notably in Scandinavian countries).

As a result, i was very interested to read this Fast Company short article about a Manhattan Charter School, that set out to pay teachers well above normal levels:

Fast CoExist Article: When a School Pays its Teachers a Lot, Lot More

The teachers in the school were paid a lot more than normal – around $125,000 plus performance bonus potential compared to less than $75,000 normal teacher salary in the area. However, right from recruitment it’s clear that the culture was very different. Firstly, the recruitment climate seems to have been more akin to that found in high intensity commercial environments. These teachers were expected to do a lot more work, to undergo extensive professional development, to take on more administrative duties and were subjected to very vigorous performance assessment.

There are some startling aspects that stand out in the article and some that aren’t mentioned on which I would love to know more.

Firstly, the culture driven in the school saw teacher turnover of 47% in a year. This is truly startling. What does a ‘hire and fire’ culture like that do to school atmosphere, sensitivity and attention to the holistic development of children. What kind of place is this for a child?

The only criteria the article tells us about on which the school is assessed is the performance of the children in standardised tests (quelle surprise!) and, it seems, the research was sponsored by none other than the king and queen of bean counters – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Corporations like Microsoft work on principles like – ‘what gets measured, gets done’. As a result, they fall in to the belief that these are the same principles that should be applied to schools if you want to achieve improvements in education.

Now, let’s get cynical here for a minute. If I’m a teacher in this school, let’s say you’ve given me a class of 30 children at class 5 level. How they achieve in standardised tests is going to determine whether I get to keep my job. It’s also going to determine whether my boss gets to keep his job (important!). In the first 1-2 weeks working with these children, I’m going to do some fairly rigorous pre-assessment. As a result, I might conclude that I can categorise the children in my class. First, there’s the A-Team. These are kids for whom school learning comes easily, who are already achieving ahead of average and they have home environments that drive academic achievement. The A-Team are my bankers. Come the end of the year they will deliver, almost regardless of how well I teach them.

Then, at the other extreme is the F-Team. These are kids with low self esteem, already some way behind in their academic achievements for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to expect anything great from this bunch. The least I need to do is to make sure that they don’t massively let me and the school down. However, they have a loser mentality and i don’t have time to address that. So, I just need to work on the basis of damage limitation and a few simple tricks so they don’t drag my figures down.

In the middle are two groups. The B-team are safe bets. Not spectacular and probably they and their families are content with their performance. They’re not really capable of much more without a lot of effort and there’s no guarantee that they will respond in the 40 or so weeks I’ve got to work with them. So, I look to them for solid, but not spectacular results.

Then there’s the C team – a group who have not performed that well in the past, but have far more potential. This is where my energies will go. If i can lift this group sufficiently, my overall class figures will look great, I’ll get my bonus, I’ll get to keep the job and my boss will get to keep his.

So, we’re all happy?


Is there anything just about that? Is there anything moral about it? Sadly, as the teacher, I’ll excuse myself on the basis that ‘It’s the system’.

This can’t be the way, surely. Doesn’t the education reform debate and research have to happen on a far more human and humane level than this?


One Response

  1. There’s a fine line between radical thinking and insanity. That line seems to have been breached in this case!

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