Cross-posted at Dailykos: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/8/8/121923/3125
Merit pay, which has been a major talking point in political and public circles for some time now, has gotten renewed attention in the current debates regarding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush Administration’s answer to all things wrong with public education. There are a number of politicians on both sides of the isle who ardently support merit pay, including Mitt Romney, George Miller, Mike Blumberg, and Barack Obama. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings loves it. It’s become a key piece of one of the new proposals to alter NCLB. Called the All Students Can Achieve Act, This proposal, among other things, calls for connecting individual students’ test scores to individual teachers, considering growth models, and merit pay. As a person deeply concerned about public education, I wanted to believe in NCLB, but once you get beyond the soft and fuzzy platitudes, the law is a nightmare. And, while merit pay is not part of the original NLCB package, the fact that people raise it as a way to improve student achievement across the political spectrum means that it could become a reality.
I’m not one of those people who fall back on the idea that teaching is little more than a noble profession and that only people who are really committed to students should become teachers. While that is very important, I also acknowledge some very important realities. People need a quality education because it provides access to other things: college, the world of work, social connections, and economic stability. But economics is still only a small part of it. A healthy democracy requires an educated public. Thomas Jefferson pointed this out, and it was one of the reasons he pushed for public education (in the form of University of Virginia). And while Jefferson was still elitist regarding who should have access to higher education, the important point here is that a democratic society requires educated citizens who can make informed and thoughtful decisions. What does merit pay have to do with this?
Those who support merit pay argue that it acts as an incentive for teachers to work harder, it rewards teachers who are successful, and that it will draw people from other professions to teaching, particularly in the math and sciences. The argument is that merit pay has worked for big business, so it should be applied to public education. There are a number of assumptions here that are of concern, the least of which is that public education can be run like a business. Children and adolescents are not commodities. In my mind, the others are far more dangerous.
Let’s take the first reason mentioned above to support merit pay: it acts as an incentive for teachers to work harder. The assumption here, of course, is that most teachers are lazy, and don’t work hard enough. It’s true that there are teachers who do the minimum. That’s true in all fields. And yes, the union protects all teachers, even the problematic ones. But the union ensures due process, which means that an administrator can’t fire a tenured teacher because of politics, sexuality, personality, etc. If an administration documents the problems with a teacher, that teacher can be fired. But, the administration has to do its job, and not pass a poor teacher on to another district.
From this perspective, those supporting merit pay assume that if they reward teachers they can and will work harder. Many teachers are already working as hard as they can. Many work twelve, fourteen hours a day, and eight to ten hours over the weekend. What happens in a rich learning environment doesn’t just miraculously emerge from the back closet in the morning. To suggest that merit pay is a solution to the issue of student achievement ignores the fact that many teachers are already working as hard as they can.
The second argument, rewarding “good” teachers (as defined by achievement on test scores) is equally problematic. The assumption is that all teachers have the “same” kids. By that I mean that all classes are heterogeneously grouped (all ability levels in the same classroom), and all teachers have the same chance of getting the school genius and the student who really struggles. In reality, that just doesn’t happen. Many schools still actively track their students, which means that they are placed in classes based supposedly upon “ability.” So, if a teacher has students in the honors track, she or he will have a greater chance of student success on the achievement tests. The teacher who has the students who are repeating a class (because they failed it the first time around), is less likely to have high test scores. This is not to say that kids repeating a class aren’t as smart, there are many reasons they end up in such a class, and merit pay ignores that.
Teachers don’t necessarily get to choose who their students are. In fact, new teachers frequently have the most challenging student loads. This is bad for novice teachers, and leads to the huge attrition rate of teachers in the first five years of teaching. And honors classes are rewards for seniority in a building. Again, merit pay will not necessarily reward good teachers; it rewards teachers who have the right combination of students. I am not saying that a teacher working with students with a history of failure won’t have great success. I worked with a good friend who was well known for his work with failing students. But, the work is different, and requires different ways of defining success.
Finally, the final argument, that merit pay will draw people from other professions, is equally problematic. It ignores the lack of respect for teaching and teachers in general. Over and over again, when I mentioned I was teaching, people would say to me in that condescending tone of voice, “Oh, that’s nice.” Some people, including family members said to me, “But you could have done anything you wanted to, become a doctor or a lawyer.” I won’t mention what was said to me when people found out that I worked with inner-city students. The disdain was obvious. How is merit pay going to challenge that?
The reality is that merit pay fails to address to two major issues related to public education: the deep structures of public education and public perceptions of teachers and teaching. Tracking is deeply embedded in American society, and it’s important to meet the educational needs of all students. But to ask teachers to do the same things with different students is not realistic. It not only ignores the needs and strengths of students; merit pay rewards and punishes teachers for something that is beyond their control. In addition, how schools are managed doesn’t take into account teacher and student strengths and needs. How schools are governed and how decisions are made needs to change if we are to seriously consider merit pay. And, people need to take a longer look at what teachers have had to take on in the past few decades. They no longer simply teach students. Understanding the roles that American society has forced them to take on would go a long way to change public perception.
So, the next time you have the chance to talk to your local, state, or national rep, ask him or her about merit pay. It might be worth considering before you cast your next vote (especially if you are a teacher or have kids in public school).