Advocates of merit pay, including President Obama, who has encouraged its use through Race to the Top Grants, believe that teachers should receive performance bonuses when their students perform above a certain level on standardized tests. I believe this is wrong for a number of reasons. First off, the assumption behind performance bonuses is that students perform poorly in school because of their teachers and that if teachers were more motivated, say, by money, they would teach their students better. I think most teachers would find this highly insulting. If someone were to choose a job for the money, it sure as heck wouldn't be teaching! To think that lack of student performance is due solely to teachers not trying hard would be laughable if it weren't so disrespectful.
Would you want your pay determined by how well someone else does? And some third party gets to set the standard too! This is the second reason I find merit pay unreasonable. Let's try an example: You're a piano teacher. I'm your student. You're a great teacher, and I love playing the piano for you. This, however, is inconsequential. You don't get your full salary because I made five mistakes during my last recital, and the committee for Piano Perfection set the standard at 3 mistakes. I may be satisfied with my performance. You may be OK with it, but it didn't meet the standard and thus, no bonus for you. Too bad. Let's try another: You're a doctor. You have a very complicated patient with multiple medical problems who gets hospitalized. You keep him in the hospital a day longer than "standard care" in order to fully treat his many problems thoroughly. You and the patient are both pleased with the competent care he received. Too bad! You are penalized monetarily by the insurance company because your patient didn't get well fast enough. Oh, wait, that's already happening...
Third, merit pay for test scores ignores the reality that children in some schools come to school at extreme disadvantages compared to their peers in other schools. Socioeconomic status is the largest predictor of test scores, and it is much easier to meet test expectations in a school district where children come from homes filled with nutritional food, warm clothes, lots of books, and a safe and supervised environment to learn and play than from homes without these things. Teachers who have to deal with children's physical, social, and emotional needs on an intense level on a daily basis have less time to devote to test preparation. When their pay is tied to how well their students perform, this gives a disincentive to teachers to work with difficult student populations who probably need help the most. Perhaps the teachers of "at-risk" students should be the ones to receive bonuses without regard to test scores, as they often perform two jobs-teacher and social worker.
Lastly, as this study indicates, merit pay does not work. Leaving aside the issue of whether standardized test scores are a valid way to measure student progress (another rant altogether!), issuing bonuses to teachers for increased scores does not produce results. Perhaps teachers would be better served by providing them with increased support and training opportunities rather than just demanding that they produce results. Perhaps paying ALL teachers a decent living wage and providing them with the supplies they need for their classrooms so that they don't have to purchase them out of their own pockets would also be a wise use of funds. Perhaps if we got the bureaucrats out of our classrooms and allowed our teachers to actually teach rather than administer standardized tests that determine their and their students' fates, some learning might actually take place in school.
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