Merit Pay, Ctd

A reader writes:

I’d like to support merit pay. But as the husband of a teacher (and a great one), I have several qualms.

1. Who Makes the Call? Many administrators and principals have limited classroom experience, and even that may be at very different grade levels or in very different subject areas. Unfortunately, we also often see school administrators sacrificing much on the altars of practical expediency, parental pressure and budget worship. How confident can teachers really be about the ability of these leaders to make difficult calls about allocating limited resources fairly and in a way that truly rewards merit?

2. What Measurements Get Used? If test scores are a part of the measurement process (and I assume they must be), they must be recognized as inherently imperfect. Because my wife is particularly good, she routinely takes on difficult kids and/or difficult parents. She also takes on kids (or groups of kids) with special needs (an ESL pod, for example). Doing so impacts “her” test scores. If those scores impacted her pay, why would she take on such challenges? Measuring improvement percentages rather than raw scores would be a help here, but still has problems. Some teachers cheat (giving hints, for example) to improve their scores even with no money on the line. More fundamentally, teachers can’t generate real change without parental cooperation and support. Without it, teachers are doomed to fail in the vast majority of cases, and merit pay won’t motivate parents. Moreover, character development is absolutely crucial to long-term success. But it is particularly dependent upon parental support and particularly difficult to quantify and measure.

3. What Price Collegiality? A good school is driven, in large measure, by collegiality – peers helping and supporting each other for the good of their students. If they become competitors for (increasingly) scarce resources, that collegiality will be threatened.

4. The Tenure Trade-Off. Teachers knowingly trade better pay for job security. Too many teachers, surely, are rewarded with tenure. But good teachers need it desperately in a world where parents increasingly denigrate the teacher’s role and expertise and believe that little Johnny or Judy can do no wrong, or need a different challenge, or less work, or, or, or. Oh the stories I could tell….

5. The Bigger Problem. Dana Goldstein makes a good point about what motivates good teachers. But there’s also a point to be made about what “demotivates” good teachers. My wife has noticed a decided lessening of respect for teachers and the job they do over the past decade, particularly among parents. Parents increasingly assume (and demand) that teachers work for them and must do their bidding.

A good parent’s insight can be extremely helpful to a teacher, but the teacher’s expertise, training and experience are often seen as meaning nothing in comparison to the parents’ certainty about what their oh-so-gifted children need. Good teachers cause friction and ignite criticism by doing what their expertise tells them is best for students; weaker teachers go along to get along. But the bottom line here is that teachers can’t successfully care more than the parents allow them to care about their children.

School districts are guilty too. With less and less money, teachers are always expected to take up the slack (which today includes janitorial work, little or no prep time, excessive duty, etc.). And, because they want the children to succeed, teachers typically do what’s asked, without complaint. But this lack of respect – more than money – gnaws at teachers and causes good ones, like my wife, to consider doing something else.

6. What’s Best for Students? I don’t know the answer to this question as it relates to merit pay. But I am sure that it’s the appropriate question. We shouldn’t be asking what’s best for bureaucrats, administrators, parents or even teachers. I’m also sure that good teachers will agree on this point, at least.

On the other side of the divide, Will at Ordinary Gentlemen makes the case for merit pay, and DiA suggests rewarding good schools rather than just good teachers.