This year, professional teachers have no Presidential candidate to vote for. Both sides of the ticket have embraced merit and performance pay schemes. Both Senators McCain and Obama have adopted positions that will further deprofessionalize teaching and treat children as assembly-line products, with teacher bonuses being offered for standardized products.
Merit pay already has a long track record of failure.
Merit systems were used to award teachers in some Kansas districts about fifteen years ago. With over 200 student teachers in Kansas schools, I can relate the following example without revealing identities.
While conferring with one student teacher, I could hear the teacher it the next room teaching a science class—really poorly. That teacher’s knowledge was so shallow that any student who had read and understood the book would be totally confused after attending class.
To my surprise, I discovered that teacher had just received the highest merit! I asked the good teacher who was supervising my student teacher why she did not apply for merit. The response was that to confirm answering every parent’s phone call within 15 minutes, dressing formally, and filling out the extra paperwork would consume so much time that preparation for good teaching would be nearly impossible.
Bottomline? It takes a good English teacher to detect a good English teacher, and the same for each other field. Administrators simply cannot have the breadth to make such extensive judgements. Merit pay has earned a well-deserved disrespect by the professional teaching community.
“Performance pay” resurrects merit pay, based on a teacher’s ability to raise students’ test scores. It is based on the assumption that better student performance indicates better teaching. It ignores an important variable: the student.
Students vary, just like doctor’s patients vary. Let’s take the case of five heart surgeons, one of whom is exceptional. When a really difficult case comes up, it is sent to the exceptional surgeon because that may be the patient’s only hope. Thus the best surgeon gets the high-risk cases and ends up with the poorest survival rate.
That is exactly what happens with schools and teachers. Elite schools, with students from advantaged families, graduate the best students because they only have the best, while their teachers could be quite mediocre. Meanwhile a superb teacher who chooses to teach in a school that is economically and culturally impoverished can be fabulously effective and yet his or her students may still fall far short of the elite school’s performance.
This is even more awkward when the State is encouraging schools to place the best teachers with the most needy students.
Some schools across the country have embraced this simple-minded system where pay and promotion are linked to student performance. The result is not better schools but teachers and schools that jockey to get better students; a situation similar to hospitals that turn away terminal patients in order to improve their track record. If merit and performance pay systems are expanded, we can expect to see more teachers and schools treat the less capable students as hot potatoes. Slogans such as “all students will succeed,” “we will hold teachers accountable” and “reward them with performance pay” may make good politics, but they make bad policy.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, KS.