NOTE FROM CHRISTA: In scrolling down bloggy memory lane, I happened upon this post I wrote over three years ago. Only, now, it’s the present. But my passion for education on the verge of being paid for my students’ improving test scores has not changed. If you live in Louisiana, and you don’t know what’s happening in public school education in this state, then get ready. Your tax dollars will be funding vouchers for students to attend private schools, one of which teaches using DVDs only. But I digress. If you’re interested, follow this link and keep scrolling through the posts: Diane Ravitch.
“Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement.” President Obama, 3/11/09
Really, President Obama? Is that before or after my health benefits are taxed? You know, the proposal for which you criticized John McCain that you’re now suggesting you’ll support.
So, Mr. Obama, you’re going to “reward” me for my students’ higher test scores. Though, really, it’s not as if you have personal experience with children being subjected to standardized testing. Your two daughters attend Sidwell, where the average annual tuition per student is $29,000. Private school students are not required to take these tests; therefore, your daughters’ teachers aren’t handcuffed to test scores. To tuition, maybe. But not “improved student achievement.”
We public school teachers are a savvy bunch. We know “reward” is a euphemism for “merit pay.” We also find it amusing that the politicians clamoring for it were, largely, taught by teachers who didn’t receive it. And, we also share a giggle or two knowing politicians are unlikely to subject themselves to the very approach they deem important for teachers.
Merit pay, also known as “pay-for-performance,” has been successful in school districts around the nation. Also successful in some foreign schools is caning students as a discipline measure. The point being, the desired result isn’t always a reflection of the integrity of the program.
Do teachers want higher salaries? Well, of course. Unlike AIG, which continues to lavish millions on employee bonuses, we haven’t been the recipients of billions of dollars of bailout funds. Though, it is estimated that teachers spend about $4 billion every year; that’s an average of $1,200 per teacher. It’s their own money, not reimbursed, and it’s used to purchase classroom supplies.
The rest of this will be personal. I don’t pretend to be the voice of all teachers. All I know is what I’ve learned in the 20+ years I’ve spent in public high schools. So, here it is:
Many people I’ve talked to think teachers fear the idea of merit pay because they don’t want to be held accountable. Baloney.
Here’s the essential problem. I’m referencing a discussion from a January 21, 2007 post by Hube over at The Colossus of Rhodey because he’s spot on:
In discussing merit pay, a principal was quoted, “This straight-line pay-for-performance formula awarded teachers objectively in a way that squares with popular notions of fairness and skirts fears of subjective judgment. In most merit-based lines of work, say baseball, it’s called getting paid for “putting numbers on the board.”
“Doing away with as much subjectivity in teacher evaluations (for bonuses) is a good thing; however, the analogy to baseball is far from perfect. Baseball players have only to rely on themselves for their performance. They control all the “factors of production,” so to speak. On the other hand, teachers [also] have to rely their students, obviously. That is a pretty significant factor of production with aspects outside of teacher control, is it not?” (Hube)
Accountability? Bring it on. My administrators know they can walk in my classroom any day, any time. They’ve not only walked in unannounced, they’ve brought other teachers and supervisors from Central Office. They’ve sat next to my students. Asked them what they were doing and why.
Do I coach my students ahead of time? No. I want my students to answer honestly, and I’m not afraid of what they’re going to say. If a student doesn’t think s/he is learning, I want to know. Unfortunately, some of my students don’t realize until years later that they’ve learned something. I have the emails to prove it.
I’m a “good teacher,” Mr. Obama, and not because my students’ scores attest to that. My students, for over twenty years, attest to that. Not all, obviously. But enough of them that I continue to do what I do because I know I’m reaching students. Because, Mr. Obama, I teach students. I don’t teach the book.
I’m a good teacher because I don’t teach to the test. I teach to the student. After high school graduation, my students-at least 90% of them-will attend college. My goal is to prepare them, not simply for college, but for the world beyond high school. To teach them what to do when they won’t know what to do. To teach them strategies for success, to think critically, to open themselves to becoming lifelong learners.
Student achievement, at least in high school, is measured by standardized tests in the four core areas: math, science, social science, and English. These scores and No Child Left Behind [translation for teachers...leave a child behind, then it's MY behind], conveniently provide the whip-crack for teachers. At least for those of us who teach core subjects.
So how will foreign language teachers, art teachers,business education, consumer science [for those of you over the age of 30...that's home economics], speech teachers, and physical education teachers receive merit pay? My high school P.E. teacher would have owed money based on my performance. What about special education teachers? On what would merit be based for their teaching personal care skills, social skills, employment skills? How is merit pay going to reconcile “achievements” in grade levels ranging from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade?
What about teachers in areas where students go home to parents who can’t read and/or write, or no electricity, or no dinner, or no one home?
Are there “bad” teachers? Of course. Mary Kay Letourneau was education’s poster child of bad. Every profession has “bad.” I’m thinking, just off the top of my yuck list: Dr. Michael Kamrava (Nadya Suleman’s fertility doctor), Michael Vick, Bernard Madoff. . .
It bothers me that the teacher who’s been using the same test for the past fifteen years and whose students are coloring pictures of The Globe Theater is paid the same (or more depending on years of experience) as I. It bothers me that some administrators, who have three years to decide if a teacher should be tenured or not, aren’t doing their job. It bothers me that some administrators wouldn’t know good teaching if it slapped back into their offices, and those administrators will be evaluating teacher performance.
If politicians want to apply “merit pay” as the balm to a disgruntled public, then base it on a system that makes sense. Reward teachers for professional development. Insist that teachers earn a master’s degree or National Board Certification within a certain number of years. Provide opportunities for professional development that aren’t oxymoronic. Hold teachers accountable at the school level for adherence to curriculum and/or grading policies. Evaluate teachers more than twice a year.
Then again, basing merit pay on test scores could be a solution to its own problem. If it’s all about the scores, provide every student a computer, insert the necessary test prep software, and schools would no longer need teachers. Just technology monitors.
All clip art in Discovery Education’s Clip Art Gallery created by Mark A. Hicks, illustrator.