Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Merit Pay Debate

Yesterday, at the invitation of the Richmond Teachers for Social Justice, I participated in a panel discussion of merit pay. It is a hot topic everywhere right now, and there are, certainly, two distinct camps...those for it and those vehemently against it. I fall into the latter group because I believe that while educational reform is needed in a fundamental way, I don't believe that merit pay schemes are the way to accomplish what we need to accomplish. Below, I am posting the remarks I made in my four-minute opening. I tried to put a human face to the issue by telling the true story of a student I had many years ago who would have suffered had he been subjected to today's testing crazy world.

The push for merit pay and pay-for-performance plans for teachers in recent years has been extraordinary in light of the fact that there is no proof that they work or that they have any merit of their own.

Most of you have already heard about the fundamental flaws in the merit pay debate, so let me use my time this morning to put a human face to it by sharing a true story of a little boy that I taught many years ago. This story demonstrates, I believe, all that is wrong with the merit pay debate.

My student’s name was Matthew. It was 1977. Matthew was in my class of heterogeneously assigned 6th grade students for two weeks before it was decided that all of the 6th graders needed to be re-grouped homogeneously based on “ability.” While Matthew had been in my class, he had demonstrated himself to be a highly motivated student. He did his homework, kept up with all of his assignments, he participated in class, and he had a solid “B+” average based on quiz scores, weekly spelling tests, and at least one major test that I had already given the class.

When it came time to re-group, I decided to keep Matthew in my class of mid- to upper- level students because he was demonstrating his ability to keep up with the work and he was clearly one of the most motivated students I had. No one was working harder or had a better attitude about his school work than he.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when I started reviewing my students’ standardized test scores from the year before. Matthew had scored in the lower 20 percentile, and that seems to be about where he had always tested over the course of his school career. By rights, there should be no way he was working at the level that he was working, much less making the kinds of grades he was making. I was amazed and somewhat flummoxed. What should I do about it? Should I re-assign him to a lower group?

I decided to keep him and see how he did. A couple months later, on a snowy Parent-Teacher conference day, I met with Matthew’s mom. I shared with her what a great attitude he had. He was maintaining his solid “B+” and he was a model student. I also shared with her that I had had some concerns about him because of his low standardized test scores, but we agreed that he was perhaps one of those kids who just don’t test well.

She shared with me that during the first few weeks of school, Matthew had told her that he was “finally in the class where he belonged.” You see, in elementary school, Matthew had been assigned to classes based on his test results…but in his heart of hearts, he knew his own potential, and he knew he didn’t belong there. He saw that he had a chance to prove himself in my class, and prove himself he did.

What would have happened to Matthew in this modern day of testing craziness? I would not have been allowed the professional judgment to keep him, for one thing. His test scores would have taken care of that. He would have forever been relegated to slower classes where he did not believe he belonged.

Do we really want to communicate to our children that the only important aspect of them that we care about is the test score that they achieve on one day out of an entire year of 180? And I have to wonder…would I have wanted to keep Matthew and give him a chance to prove himself if I had thought that his performance on a standardized test was going to affect my pay for the next year? Would moving him out to protect myself and my own best interests have served him? We all know the answer to that question.

The problem with the whole merit pay proposal is that it just doesn’t work in spite of its enthusiastic fans asserting otherwise. And to top it all off, it is insulting to the millions of hard working, dedicated teachers in our classrooms to imply that they are holding back their “BEST” work because they need to be paid in bonuses instead of being paid professional salaries.

I am not arguing that we don’t need to do everything we can to promote having a great teacher in every classroom. Indeed, I believe to my very core that we owe it to every child regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or economic background to provide the highest quality education we can. It is our moral duty. It is the civil right of every child. If we want to compete globally, of course, we need to provide the best possible education for our young people. But there is absolutely no credence to the argument that merit pay or pay-for-performance plans will get us there. There are other ways to do it, but they are complex and complicated and messy, and they can’t be reduced to a ridiculous mathematical algorithm. Until we get real about what it IS going to take, this debate will simply rage on, and nothing will change... and kids like Matthew, caught in the middle while we adults wage philosophical warfare, will suffer for it.