Friday, February 25, 2011

On Teacher Merit Pay

August 22, 2009

Merit pay for teachers sounds great, except that, unlike with, say, my job as an engineer, teachers don't really work on a level playing field. My wife, a 3rd grade teacher, is a perfect example. She's an excellent teacher; she is amazing in the classroom, and it's doubtful she'd suffer under any kind of merit pay system. She specializes in turning around low achievers, especially in math, and dealing with behavior problems and er, "challenging" parents who contribute little but complaints and think their little Johnny is only disruptive and disrespectful because he's a budding Einstein who isn't "challenged enough." So guess what students get placed in her class every year? Bingo. On the other hand, some teachers tend to get more high achievers and parents who are understanding and great helpers. (Kids in grade school are placed in their next class by their current teacher, subject to approval by the principal, and yes, politics and popularity contests enter into it, as does pressure from parents who go only by neighborhood gossip and superficial popularity and not the need to balance teachers' workload and match students to teachers based on several areas of compatibility).

Regarding using test data to evaluate teachers, my wife does very well with the challenges she's given and is known for her excellent test scores, but she has colleagues who get more of the high-achieving scorers in the first place, and as I mentioned, the process is not objective. But, while the current system of placing students would be unfair in a merit pay system, when it functions correctly (and not as a popularity contest), it accounts for different teacher strengths and teaching and discipline styles and the unique individual needs of students. Guaranteeing an equal distribution of high and low scoring students across classrooms, while ensuring fairness for teachers in a merit pay system, would not accomplish this.

Finally, and this is so self-evident it shouldn't even bear mentioning here, the teacher is just one link in the chain that comprises a student's education, albeit a vital one. A good teacher can overcome a lot in the way of student attitudes and abusive, neglectful, apathetic, self-absorbed, narcissistic parents (ask my wife about the time that the police arrested an abusive father outside the door to her kindergarten class), but they aren't always miracle workers.

I'm not saying pay shouldn't be based on merit, of course, but I'm not very confident that, given the government's usual ham-fisted way of accomplishing things, their version of merit pay would account for the complexities of the issue.

My wife has worked in union and non-union schools and is not a fan of the NEA or CTA, but this is one area in which many of my fellow conservatives could use some education of their own.

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