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Thompson: Merit Badges for Teachers? You've Gotta Be Joking

Skinner_box_scheme_01Perhaps the key purpose of schools is teaching children to become "inner directed" persons, who can control their own behavior. Its hard to think of a single more destructive aspect of data-driven reform than its seemingly unintended consequence of turning children into "other directed" persons, trained to just respond to carrots and sticks.

Perhaps this is not a disgraceful byproduct of testing, but an embrace of a humiliating value system for both adults and children.  

The Tennessean’s Joey Garrison, in Merit Badge Idea for Nashville Teachers, Students Draws Ire, describes an incredible new way of supposedly bestowing respect on teachers – issuing merit badges.

He reports on the opportunity being granted to “earn ‘virtual badges’ — tokens, of sorts — for taking on additional professional development or demonstrating other accomplishments.” Garrison writes that the badge system might even be expanded and tied to compensation.

This is not an April Fools joke. The badges would be digital icons or logos on the district's computer system. But, they may also offer a physical badge, like those issued by the Boy Scouts.

Nashville’s chief academic officer, who pushes the idea, said that the district will solicit teacher input before developing its final proposal. They might tie the badges to pay in the 2015-16 budget.

There is talk of expanding this disrespectful idea to students, further teaching them to salivate before virtual treats. The kids could cash in virtual badges at online stores. The logic behind teaching students to devalue learning is, as usual, Orwellian, "We want kids to own their learning and own their experience, and this is a way to do it."-JY(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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I share your distaste for the term "badge" but not necessarily for the larger idea. It's appropriate to explore some approaches to differentiated compensation (assuming the base is not compromised - a big assumption to be sure), and rather than the tired rehash of performance pay based on test scores, I think we could use some incentive to develop other skills and competencies that can serve students and teachers well. Rather than hire outside consultants to do infrequent trainings, why not certify teachers who develop the skills to be on-site or in-house resources for their school or district? So, for my young friend who came to teaching with degrees and both English and computer science, there would be some opportunity to earn more without waiting solely for the years to accumulate on the salary schedule. He was voluntarily taking on lots of extra work and had great skills to share, but was doing it without compensation, which doesn't help the profession. At the same time, I've seen people entrusted with release time to support certain school/district goals, and the school/district didn't do enough to train or support those people. Had there been some expectation of demonstrated accomplishment prior to dispatching someone on that mission, it might have been more successful. The key questions: Who's setting the agenda? What skills/accomplishments matter? How do we ensure quality and authenticity in such a process? How do we come up with something that has a recognized value in strengthening schools and the profession, enhancing pay but not undermining other teachers?

I think you are missing the point of competency based credentialing (which is often represented as a digital badge). I see potential in badges creating uniform standard of growth connected to evidence. This can allow principals and teachers to communicate about types of professional development teachers attend or competencies they display.

How do Badges WorK?

Basically you have a learning pathway that can lead to specific competencies (objectives). The teacher must submit artifacts that contains evidence towards this competencies. Someone can then issue a badge. This badge is now portable, attached to metadata, and linked to evidence.

Are Badges a Better Alternative?

Currently many districts award credit for professional development based solely on seat time. For example, 10 hours of training on (insert buzzword pedagogy here). There is no connection to student learning and no evidence of growth. Competency based credentialing provides administrators and taxpayers with greater proof that money being spent on training actually translates to classroom growth.

Should compensation only be attached to unreliable growth estimates using the bad math of value added models. That makes no sense.

I do worry what will happen if competency based credentialing is institutionalized. The validity of a badge only exists in the value a community places in its recognition. If teachers do not have buy in to the system then it will fail.

I do know though what we have been doing (seat time recognition) and what we plan to do (VAM or SGP) does not work. By creating a new system that recognizes competencies and is directly connected to evidence badges could have a profound affect on the field.

Greg,

I agree that VAMs don't work.

But, words matter. The term badge is disgusting. You write, "Currently many districts award credit for professional development...."

So, why didn't Nashville use the term, "credit?"

I'd also alter your words to say:

Competency based credentialing MIGHT provide administrators and taxpayers with greater proof that money being spent on training actually translates to classroom growth.

Whether it does is based on David's conclusion:

"Who's setting the agenda? What skills/accomplishments matter? How do we ensure quality and authenticity in such a process? How do we come up with something that has a recognized value in strengthening schools and the profession, enhancing pay but not undermining other teachers?"

I'm suspicious of agenda-setters using the demaning words of merit badges. I'm also suspicious that better answers can ever come from anything but a mutual give and take. That precludes the district having the idea that it knows the answer and will provide carrots and sticks to get there.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.