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I am absolutely convinced that teachers developing solid relationships with students, and encouraging students to develop similar caring relationships with their peers, is a key to a successful classroom.

During my career as a community organizer, we used to say that successful organizing was just another word for relationship-building.

I believe President Obama, a former community organizer, understands the importance of these kinds of relationships, too.

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times (who I generally think is pretty thoughtful), appears to agree with this assessment. In a column last week, he wrote:

The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year.

So far, so good.

Then he continues:

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).


I’d sure like to know how in the world he expects to be able to fairly measure relationship-building and tie that into merit pay (Mathew Needleman recently wrote about merit pay in this blog).

A little later in the column, Brooks answers my question with what I consider to be faulty logic.  He claims that somehow test scores will be able to determine which teachers are effective at building relationships:

Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students’ achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students’ levels up by only half a grade.

I believe I have great relationships with my students.  And I believe that’s true with many other teachers at our inner-city school.  And, overall, I feel okay about the progress our students show on standardized tests (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our school is one of the few high schools in the nation that has escaped Fourth Year Program Improvement)

If we took the route, though, that the school recently featured by The New York Times did and our classtime was focused on test prep — day in and day out — I wouldn’t be surprised if some student test scores would be higher…in the short term.  I suspect their desire to become life-long learners, their intellectual curiosity,  and their emotional and moral development might very well suffer, however.

“Rigor” does not have to mean “testing,” as Brooks writes in his column.

I’m not afraid of standardized testing — to paraphrase a saying, I believe it has a place, but also has to be kept in its place.    However, I would say — unequivocally — that testing does not help teachers develop relationships with students and nor does it accurately measure the quality of teacher relationships with students (though I do have to say that I suspect some students might try a little harder on a test that they believe is important to a teacher who they like and respect).

It’s unfortunate that Brooks took the idea of building relationships — an important and under-discussed element in teaching and learning — and used it to come up with a non-sequitur related to merit pay and testing (and then even tried to tie it into the voucher debate).

15 Responses to “Relationship-Building, Merit Pay, & Testing”

  1. [...] It’s titled Relationship-Building, Merit Pay, & Testing. [...]

  2. Well said. If there was some way to actually measure good relationships with students vs. cattle prod teachers then I think I would change my position on merit-based pay. But in no way can it be measured by test scores. It scares me to think there may be people in the board of ed who believe that logic works.
    Knowing our students as learners and changing how we teach each student in order to help them maximize learning so they can pass a test is different than developing a good relationship with students beyond the curriculum. Both are extremely important, but unfortunetly too much of preparing for testing includes “how to bubble”, “how to track your answers”- lessons that take away from active, engaging learning.
    One of my amazing coworkers took the time to teach one of her third graders to brush her hair every morning. The student gets to leave the classroom for about 5 minutes, take a brush bought for her by the teacher, and spend some time in front of the mirror. The result is an improvement in the little one’s self confidence and peer relationships. It has been HUGE for this little girl, but not something that will be measured through her upcoming state tests.

  3. DrGranma says:

    Terrific feedback on Brook’s comments. You are 100% on target. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Arnie Duncan read some of this. I worry is still a VERY strong NCLB and traditional can-we-count-it guy. The problem is that those who read here probably represent the choir.


  4. Mrs. Lipstick,

    Great anecdote about the hair brush that demonstrates the point perfectly!


  5. DrGranma,

    Sigh…I fear you’re right about preaching to the choir….


  6. Mr Steve says:

    I think that building a student’s self confidence will show an improvement on the upcoming state tests. Of course this is where we get into the area of causal and correlational impacts on test scores. Classrooms aren’t labs where we can isolate one constant to verify a hypothesis about the role student self-confidence plays on testing. How do you objectively measure self-confidence?

    However, I believe that a student with more self-confidence in themselves may be willing to put a different amount of effort into taking a test that one lacking self-esteem.

    A teachers attitude toward testing can begin to develop into the area of building relationships. What is the nature of the feedback a teacher gives a students after a test. On our state mandated “NCLB” test, we don’t get a chance to give them feedback. However, that is only one test of many that we give throughout the year. The test prep, drill and kill mentality can be alleviated by deconstructing a test, walking students through their thought process so they not only understand their mistakes and why the made them, but also the opportunity to learn the skills and knowledge to not make that error again. Students gain confidence in their problem solving skills and self-confidence increases.

    Testing is only one avenue for providing substance for these types of discussions, but if we know they are going to have to perform on a specific format of test, why not include that format. Project based learning is great and also provides students opportunities to think about how they learn, but until a project based assessment is accepted as a valid measure of how students learn we’ve got to deal with the bubble sheets, so let’s make the best of what we’ve got.

  7. Hey Larry,

    I enjoyed this read and couldn’t agree with you more when you talk about the “unmeasurability” (is that a word?!) of the relationship building work that teachers do.

    Have you seen this bit by Matthew Ladner over on Jay Greene’s blog:


    In it, Ladner talks about “white-space” employees—-those people who make contributions that can’t be measured so they don’t look like all-stars on the stat sheets, but they always play for champions.

    Interesting concept.

    The other thought that comes to mind for me is that people who want to connect relationships to test scores are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Relationships fall within the realm of social norms and merit pay falls within the realm of market norms.

    Much research has been done by a guy named Dan Airely that it’s almost impossible to mix these two sets of behavioral expectations—-people will work in one realm or the other, but not both.

    Here’s a post I wrote about that recently:


    I always enjoy it when our thinking runs parallel….your experiences challenge me to think deeper.

    Rock on,

  8. alicemercer says:

    There’s a term for that in business, cost vs. cash centers. Here’s an excerpt from a post I did on measuring the success of teachers:

    Generally in a business you have two types of departments, cost centers (they cost money to run, and don’t have a direct revenue stream), and revenue centers. Folks in revenue centers get measured on dollars. For instance, when I was at Wells Fargo they looked at the ROA, return on assets, and ROE, return on equity, that departments and individuals generated. Most of what I worked in were cost centers. They tried to make us more efficient by having us “bill out” to the departments we supported, but really we weren’t on subject to the numbers near as much as the revenue folks. Teaching is like working in a cost center, and the evaluations there are pretty darn subjective. If Killian and others are complaining about a lack of accountability in teaching, it’s endemic to jobs that don’t involve taking in money.

    Can you measure that?

  9. Mr. Steve,

    You make a good point that we need to be aware of the “world as it is” as well as “the world as we’d like it to be.”

    While we want to make changes, we also need to figure out how we, and our students, can best cope with what we have now.


  10. Bill,

    Thanks for the support, and for added reflections.

    I’ll definitely explore the sources you suggested, and re-read your post on the topic.


  11. Dorothy says:

    What a ‘hot-potato’ subject. I will be watching developments with interest. As a teacher from a very low socio-economic school and part of a long term schooling improvement initiative our students do perform (surprisingly) well on tests. And our teachers are working incredibly hard on both the relationship building (which includes sports coaching, drama, culture groups etc) and the academic. If we need some differentiated pay scale, how ’bout value added ? Our students arrive at school at 5 years of age with a mean performance of 3 yrs (in literacy). Our goal is to catch them up and have them moving beyond by the time they are 10 yrs. So value added could be great compared with some of the schools from other parts of the city :)
    Just kidding – we succeed by being collaborative, not divisive.
    Auckland, NZ

  12. Dorothy,

    Sorry for the delayed response. I’m curious — is merit pay much of an issue in New Zealand, or is it another one of our uniquely bizarre U.S. ideas?


  13. Dorothy says:

    Well, you guys are trail blazers with these kinds of ideas :) So merit pay does get discussed from time to time by the media and politicians. But our Teachers’ Union has managed to circumvent it by successfully advocating for schools to get increasing numbers of management units (worth NZ$4000 per unit per annum) which can be awarded to high performing teachers BUT the whole staff is required to discuss who gets these extra units!
    So in our staffroom lists were co-constructed in a very open process of what kinds of activities justify these units. So eg I get one for overseeing the technology (technicians and computers/networks) on top of my teaching duties; sports coaches; drama coaches; special needs teacher managing all the teacher aides etc etc.
    This is on top of the ‘traditional’ extra units paid to deputy principals and team leaders for their leadership roles.
    So it is possible for a hard working and exemplary classroom teacher to have 3 extra units of pay – and democratically agreed by colleagues.
    Would that work in your district/state/country?

  14. Dorothy,

    What you’ve done sounds creative, though it sounds like it could get a little tricky with colleagues deciding who among them gets the extra units. That would be my primary concern.


  15. [...] I’ve posted about a relatively incoherent colum he wrote last month (see Relationship-Building, Merit Pay, & Testing). [...]

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