Friday, October 21, 2005

Merit Pay for Teachers

This makes me want to SCREAM!!!!! It's not that I am unilaterally opposed to merit pay for teachers. Honestly, I don't know how I feel about it. I think it's worth discussing, perhaps, but I have to be very VERY clear when I say that it would be an extremely complicated system that would have to be in place for it to actually work. Extending this idea to hiring might make some sense, too, so that teachers are hired based on some combination of skill and seniority. I still believe that seniority is very important, and it's only very warily that I approach the idea of merit pay for teachers.

Here's why: Most people say teachers should be paid according to their ability to "produce results." That is, to produce kids who have high scores on standardized tests. However, in saying that, we are forgetting that we are not talking about products here, we're talking about HUMAN BEINGS! Any educator knows that the LEAST accurate measure of a child's learning is a test score, and even less accurate are standardized tests. Economic conditions, family situations, whether a child is sick the day of a test, the fact that some kids freeze up when they take tests... these are only a few of the multitude of factors that can affect a test score. Do we want to teach our children to take tests, or to learn and function as literate, critically thinking, socially responsible human beings?

Furthermore, a system so focused on merit pay and test scores will ultimately create the kind of imbalanced education system we see in many parts of the United States: schools in wealthier areas get higher test scores, and end up with more funding. Schools in areas where people have a lower socio-economic status generally end up with lower test scores, and end up with less funding. This is, of course, a simplification of the situation, but in general, this is what ends up happening. It creates a system where the rich end up with a better education.

I came across the following analogy on an American teacher's website. It highlights the ridiculousness of this "merit pay based on test scores" idea:

The Best Dentist ---"Absolutely" the Best Dentist

..........My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I've got all my teeth, so when I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd think it was great.
.........."Did you hear about the new state program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.
.........."No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?"
.........."It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as Excellent, Good, Average, Below average, and Unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. It will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better. Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice."
.......... "That's terrible," he said.
.......... "What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try to improve children's dental health in this state?"
.......... "Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."
.......... "Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."
.......... "Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele; so much depends on things we can't control. For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem; I don't get to do much preventive work. Also," he said, "many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off," he added, "so many of my clients have well water, which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"
.......... "It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. I couldn't believe my dentist would be so defensive. He does a great job.
.......... "I am not!" he said. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."
.......... "Don't get touchy," I said.
.......... "Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. .......... "Try furious. In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average, or worse. My more educated patients who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating actually is a measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"
.......... "I think you are overreacting," I said. "'Complaining, excuse making and stonewalling won't improve dental health'... I am quoting from a leading member of the DOC," I noted.
.......... "What's the DOC?" he asked.
.......... "It's the Dental Oversight Committee," I said, "a group made up of mostly lay persons to make sure dentistry in this state gets improved."
.......... "Spare me," he said, "I can't believe this. Reasonable people won't buy it," he said hopefully.
.......... The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"
.......... "Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."
.......... "That's too complicated and time consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."
.......... "That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said despairingly.
.......... "Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you some."
.......... "How?" he said.
.......... "If you're rated poorly, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.
.........."You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? Big help."
.........."There you go again," I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."
.........."You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score on a test of children's progress without regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."
..........I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened. "I'm going to write my representatives and senator," he said. "I'll use the school analogy -surely they will see the point." He walked off with that look of hope mixed with fear and suppressed anger that I see in the mirror so often lately.

If we are even going to TOUCH the idea of merit pay for teachers, the idea of basing it on test scores needs to be thrown right out the window.


Blogger Josef said...

I just threw the idea out there.

Pithy response.

Hopefully, you'll be able to return to work on Monday! W/ a deal!! Best wishes on that!!!

1:39 PM  
Blogger Josef said...

Premier Campbell speaks on Ready...

2:00 PM  
Blogger Hillary said...

This is not just in response to what you said in your comments. I am reading blogs and news reports, and am hearing more and more people talking about merit pay for teachers. I am just getting sick of hearing people suggesting something without knowing really what it means.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Josef said...

Okay :-).

Nice to hear a contarian POV and best luck this weekend. Fair winds and following seas and all of that.

All hail Peacemaker Ready!!

3:18 PM  
Blogger Hillary said...

Do'pnt get too excited too quickly. Many teachers are NOT happy with these reccomendations. I suspect there will be a far greater "no" vote than one might think. Probably not enough "no's" to stay out - but who knows - but probably not a very strong yes vote, either. I guess we'll just have to see.

3:31 PM  
Blogger PelaLusa said...

Hilary, you make some interesting points. But what other profession:
- Bases its pay directly on seniority?
- Has little to no accountability?

Nobody is suggesting that you are a bad teacher. You seem very passionate about your profession.

Interested in your answers to the 2 questions I've just posed.

4:24 PM  

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