Could a new system of merit pay close the attainment gap?

It's 7am and the school year is about to start. The high-school principal is reminding her staff of 45 teachers (roll 700) about the school's aim, which they revised last term: to develop lifelong learners and effective contributors in an environment in which instruction and service promote high academic achievement and personal growth. I'm thinking four capacities (or two, at least) and Curriculum for Excellence. But I'm in south-west Michigan.

As she outlines her commitment to helping staff improve learning and teaching, she reminds them that their focus must be on their targets for improved academic results and positive destinations for seniors graduating next June. I am thinking of my former secondary headteacher colleagues in West Lothian, who will have delivered similar addresses just a few weeks earlier. We seem to have so much in common.

Then she drops the bombshell. Merit pay is to be introduced in 2012, based on student performance. It will most likely be based on the performance of the lowest-achieving students, and only a few teachers will qualify. The measure, aimed at closing the attainment gap, was introduced by the state governor over the summer, when he also passed legislation which removes power from the teacher union.

If I had expected outrage in the room, I was disappointed. After a few administrative announcements, the meeting ended and staff moved off to welcome their students. Talk was not about conditions of service, but about the chances for the senior football team this term, the Detroit Lions prospects in the NFL, and the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Oh yes, and the small matter of 11 per cent unemployment in the state.

As I discuss school leadership with the principal, I recognise the huge pressure she is under to get results - academic and in sports. The district school board will measure her on how well the school performs in both. School principals are frequently dismissed for failing to improve results. She accepts this. I explain that Scotland is looking at ways to extend greater power to school communities, and she is amazed at the contract security our heads and teachers enjoy. She points to new powers she was given last term to end the contracts of teachers who "under- perform". Just as she must meet the targets set for her by the school board, so her staff must meet targets she sets for each class. Failure to meet these can result in the teacher having to agree to a one-year individual development plan, at the end of which there will either be improvement or dismissal.

Our school systems have the same intended outcomes for pupils. But the approaches are very different. So much impresses me about the Michigan system, particularly its commitment to student achievement, although there is undoubtedly over-assessment of each child.

I agree with the focus beyond the classroom on sports, music, citizenship and the role for the community - areas we accept as influential but to which we have no consistent approach. But will a system of merit pay really close the attainment gap? My friend, the principal, says they have tried everything else, so why not?

Gordon Ford is former deputy chief executive of West Lothian Council.

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