Dissent of the Day

A reader writes:

I am a regular reader of the DD and I normally either agree with or respect much of what you write about. But I felt the need to give you some insight on why I think merit pay for teachers based on test scores (as proposed now) is an absolutely terrible idea. I was a public school teacher for 8 years, teaching in the barrio in San Diego and in southeast Washington, D.C. (Benning Road if you're familiar with the area), places not known for they exceptional schools. I am now in law school but my final year of teaching was spent at a for-profit charter school in D.C., open to the public but the school had the right to choose it's students. The school had implemented a merit-based pay scale; teachers would meet with the principal at the end of the year with their students' test scores and make the case for why they should get a raise and how much of a raise they should receive. There were ripple effects to this as experienced teachers would fight to get the higher proficiency classes leaving the lower classes for the inexperienced or rookie teachers. The lower performing classes tended to also be the discipline problems and therefore many young teachers simply would get frustrated and leave the profession.

Additionally, teachers were more competitive with each other as their goals were based almost on a law school type curve where it wasn't enough to just do well, you also had to do better then the next guy. One of the obvious results of this merit pay system was that the weaker students who needed the best, most experienced teachers were left with newest, least experienced ones. A similar trend has been seen over many years with city versus suburban schools, where many teachers would do their time in a city school and then vault to the easier and better-paid suburban schools. Merit pay based on test scores will further this flight of teachers and cause this to happen within schools themselves. A merit based system would pose the question; why would any teacher possibly want to teach in a low performing school or take a low performing class if there were not going to get a raise at the end of the year?

The only option I'd even begin to consider to be realistic is if the merit pay were based on improvement, not targets as proposals are set up now. With an improvement-system more reward would be given to a 7th grade teacher who has students enter reading at a 2nd grade level and who exit reading at a 6.5 grade level, (a substantial increase, even if not the 7.8 grade level targeted by most merit based systems), than a teacher who improves his/her students' scores from 7 to 7.8 (the standard amount of improvement expected). An additional idea mentioned, and I don't remember by which candidate, is higher pay for teacher that go to lower performing schools (after a few years acknowledging that it can often take a few years to change the environment of a school). Acknowledging these huge flaws in a merit-based system is anything but "whining". If we really want to leave no child behind then we need a system that will achieve that, merit pay as proposed now, does not.