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The Question of Merit Pay

I was an elementary principal, not long into my administrative career when the superintendent of the district announced that he’d like to award merit pay to administrators.  Looking back on the proposal, I think it was a prelude to a similar proposal for merit pay for teachers in the district, an idea that was beginning to gain some traction nationally.

The administrators met as a unit, and the superintendent pitched the proposal, asking us just to listen to his idea.  The more experienced administrators asked a few questions for clarity’s sake.  Then the superintendent left, leaving us to discuss the proposal.

There were about 20 of us, and we were loosely organized as a unit under a state organization that wasn’t Merit pay really a union.  I had far less experience as an administrator than some of the others, but I had been with the district long enough to know who the winners and losers would be under the superintendent’s proposal.  While there would have been more winners than losers, the losers prevailed.  “We can’t let them divide us like this,” the most veteran and least effective principal said.

Divide us?  I thought. Nobody worried when I was paid the same as principals who ran schools half the size of mine. Nobody here had a problem when they cut my assistant.  Nobody cared if I was assigned extra duties district-wide.  Am I missing something?

Here was a chance for some of us to shine, I thought.  If you don’t want to make the effort, that’s your choice.  But if I want to, what’s the problem? 

The proposal went nowhere, mirroring an earlier effort by the state to award merit pay.  The result of that proposal was that all teachers got the merit bump so that it wasn’t “divisive” either.

Well, under the “some things never change” category we can now slide New York City’s pilot program to reward teachers whose students demonstrated achievement on standardized tests.  The program was aimed at teachers in high poverty schools.   Of course, the only way the union would agree to the proposal in the first place is if the entire school was awarded the bonuses, not the individual teachers who actually earned them.

Here’s what I don’t understand about this “divisiveness” argument:  I wasn’t feeling too collegial after being denied a chance at merit pay by people who didn’t want to put in any more effort than they had to.   In New York, schools received $1500 or $3000 for every union member in the school based on the school’s progress.  The principal, the union leader, and two other staff members decided how to divide the money among the staff.  Wonder how collegial the high performing teachers felt under those circumstances.

 

 

Comments

I don't see how it can work fairly. What if I teach Art and it isn't tested? Am I rewarded for gains in Language Arts and Math? What if I teach students who don't speak English fluently but are tested because they have been in the US for a year? What if I teach Special Education? How is merit pay made available fairly to all teachers in the secondary level? I just don't see it working.

I don't see how it can work fairly. What if I teach Art and it isn't tested? Am I rewarded for gains in Language Arts and Math? What if I teach students who don't speak English fluently but are tested because they have been in the US for a year? What if I teach Special Education? How is merit pay made available fairly to all teachers in the secondary level? I just don't see it working.

Before becoming a teacher I worked in the private sector, and my salary increases were very much tied to my performance, so I'm comfortable with the idea philosophically. But the private sector isn't the same as public teaching.

I'm a hard-working teacher who builds long-lasting relationships with students, and who does whatever she can to reach each student. I am successful only when my students thrive, feel capable, learn how to think critically, and develop positive character traits. These things are important, but do they always equate to a test score?

And how might merit pay change my good teaching practices? How might it affect another teacher with different values (might they teach only to the test or even cheat, for instance)?

Having merit based on test scores alone is rife with problems. Would GAINS be rewarded rather than just scores? Would gains for ELL and Sped students (which are harder to come by) be rewarded at a higher rate? Would teachers who teach low SES kids be evaluated differently? (They certainly should be.) What about teachers who teach classes for which there is no standardized test? Also, when would the test be administered? If it's too early in the year, would I be being evaluated or would it really be the teacher prior to me?

What about students new to the class? Would they be exempt from consideration? Would students going through personal problems be exempt? Perhaps they have been doing well, but then their parents get divorced or they are sick on test day or or or or or. Who would keep track of all the exceptions?

I'm concerned about this, even though my kids do test well. I like to pat myself on the back and believe their achievement is due to great teaching, and maybe it is. But I can see also that maybe it isn't.

Merit pay needs to be thought through very carefully for unforeseen and probably unfair consequences, before we base our teacher evaluations and salary increases on test scores.

The questions raised here are absolutely valid. I'm not suggesting that merit pay be based solely on test scores (although it probably sounded like that from the blog). I think it would be great to work with teachers to decide what constituted "merit," taking into account the variations raised in the comments. It wouldn't be easy, but it's possible. As a principal I would have loved to pilot some ideas with teachers and try to work out some of the kinks in the system. From my years of teaching, I still maintain that every teacher in the building knows who's doing the job and who isn't. In terms of fairness, is it fair now that good teachers are paid the same as those who don't get the job done?

I "like" you on Facebook. Would love these for my oldest boy!

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