Giving additional pay to the best teachers sounds like a great motivator.As a teacher who receives high marks on evaluations, I potentially could receive more pay under such a system. However, to most teachers, the idea of merit pay is discomforting and complicated.
The Houston Public Schools recently became the largest school district in the United States to approve merit pay for teachers. Merit pay is tied to standardized test scores. If a teacher's class shows significant improvement or maintains high scores, the teacher is rewarded accordingly.
I teach Spanish, a subject not covered on standardized tests. It would be difficult to determine the pay of teachers whose subjects are not covered, such as music, art and physical and special education.
Some merit pay advocates suggest more testing. I shudder to consider my students enduring more tests and stripping more time away from
instruction.Content areas such as science, social studies, mathematics and English also are affected. Underclassmen usually are required to take certain courses, such as freshman English. Imagine 40 in a class with students of all abilities, including students with learning disabilities or non-native speakers of English.
Each special-needs student has his or her own Individual Education
Plan. Each IEP must be followed, which includes considerable extra planning. I've seen students enter sixth grade with a first-grade reading level. By the time they move to high school, perhaps they are reading at a fifth-grade level. By the definitions set out by our president and standardized tests, these children would be considered failures, even though they had jumped four reading levels in three years.
Under the merit pay system, the teachers who toiled to improve those
children's reading ability would be considered less than competent. Therefore, the best, most experienced teachers often gravitate to teaching the higher-level courses. The least experienced teachers often end up in schools with the most struggling students.
In my school, two years of foreign language is required for students. I
teach mostly third-year Spanish and have few students with disabilities. Colleagues who teach first- and second-year Spanish face classes of 40 students, often with 10 to 15 of those having special needs. In my previous school, when we crunched the special education numbers, more than 25% of the high school student body had some form of learning or cognitive disability.
How do we compare the effectiveness of teachers in these differing situations?This raises another major concern: the further politicization of education. The merit pay system could pit one teacher against another. Some teachers might stack classes with "good" kids and put lesser achievers into the classrooms of new, unsuspecting teachers.
Also, if testing doesn't determine the merit pay in a district, classroom evaluations most likely will. So far, I have been fortunate to have impartial administrators judge my classroom. Administrators, however, are not all fair. There are horror stories of administrators who play favorites and drive out teachers they don't like. Some refuse to support teachers with struggling students.
Even if a committee filled with parents, teachers and administrators is set up, impartiality is not guaranteed. It would create another level of bureaucracy and politics and cause less time with students. Urban teachers would be unfairly hurt by a merit pay system. Our schools have a higher turnover in teachers, and many schools have a tremendous turnover in students.
The politics that merit pay would cause would send some teachers bolting from struggling districts. Many new teachers already leave the profession within five years. If there is money for merit pay, it should go directly to classrooms. If school boards and government officials want to see schools improve, class sizes need to be cut and struggling students need support from aides and tutoring programs.
Instead of merit pay, there should be equitable funding of districts so
that all children have quality teachers. Merit pay dollars should also go to professional development of teachers. Many advocates of merit pay are often the same people who work hard to cut public education and promote vouchers. What seems like an incentive to teachers is really a backhanded way to hurt them and their students.
Diane M. Hardy of Milwaukee is an educator in Milwaukee Public Schools. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Merit Pay Lacks Merit
From Spanish teacher, Diane Hardy in Milwaukee: