Sunday, May 15, 2011

Show Me The Money

One of the hottest discussion topics about, but not so much within, education is merit pay.  The standard line is politicians are pushing the idea, teacher's unions oppose it.  A closer look, as it usually does, reveals that things are rarely that simple but in the hopes of generating discussion I will, as one teacher, share some thoughts and invite response.
Generally the topic of merit pay is part of a larger discussion that features one of more of the following additives; lower pay overall, with some few teachers getting the higher pay for better performance and or doing away with the idea of due process so that teachers, and it's always stressed that we're talking about "bad teachers" can be fired more easily.
Let's address those ideas first - compared with other professions that require a similar amount of education before beginning and then continuing as long as you're in the profession teaching is already floating somewhere about the bottom of the list.  After completing certification courses teachers must continue to take graduate level coursework to maintain certification, it's an ever changing profession that requires constant work to keep up with new curriculum and practices.  Teachers also spend a great deal of money on materials for their classrooms not to mention all the time outside of the work day spent on creating materials to be used in the classrooms.  Those who remember the days of textbooks and assignments like "Read chapter 12 and complete the essay questions" should spend sometime in a modern day classroom.  Musty old textbooks are gone and replaced primarily by teacher created and updated materials.
In any of the school districts where I have worked over the last 15 years, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Colorado teachers can be fired for a variety of reasons.  If a principal wants a teacher out there a many ways to get rid of them.  Once  a teacher has put in a sufficient number of years (this is usually between three and five) of good reviews then they're afforded due process before losing a job.  In other words a principal needs to spend some time evaluating the teacher in the classroom and documenting what the problems are, and steps to correct them.  If a teacher fails to correct the issues at hand they can be let go.  What is not in place in most school districts is the opportunity for a principal to fire a teacher without any evidence of wrong doing or poor performance. Remember, that principals are human too, they are not completely impartial observers.   How many people would like to work in a field where you could fired for no particular reason with no recourse?  I would assume that anyone arguing against "tenure" is also willing to have their job taken away at a moment's notice for no reason, if not then they're being quite hypocritical.
Paying teachers more for excellent work has a logical ring to it.  I would love to see teachers who have put extra effort into their work being rewarded.  In most districts teachers who put in longer hours, mentoring other teachers, or offering classes for the community are able to earn more money for the extra time but as yet there's not really any system in place (aside from various awards from various non-profits or corporations) that rewards the teacher who is just better than their colleagues.  And so, why not?
The first question would be how to determine just who these star teachers are.  What would you use? Test scores will reward primarily teachers who work in affluent districts.  I have worked in super affluent districts and extremely poor neighborhoods and had test scores that were quite different although my teaching skills were the same, so what would I have been rewarded or punished for?  A student who comes to school from a background where there was little or no literate behavior is at a severe disadvantage.  We know that reading with your children from birth continuing through childhood is essential.  Doctors tell us that children should not be exposed to television and computers before two or three years of age.  Studies also show that more than about an hour of screen time a day is harmful and that children should be exposed to literate discussions and thinking in the home.  A student coming to school without that background is like a person who smokes several packs of cigarettes a day coming to the doctor to complain of chest pains and difficulty breathing.  How may doctors would be willing to be paid based on how healthy their patients were, or would the dentist accept less money if their patients had too many cavities?
Some have said that we could deal with this situation by comparing the test scores from the beginning of a school year to the end of the year.  That leans in the right direction, but again, what to do about the student who has no support system at home and is not progressing?  What about parents who say "I'm not really concerned with test scores, I'm sure they're doing fine"?  I've heard that exact statement from parents of a child who rarely if ever completed any work.  Would it be fair to have my pay based on the results of that child?
One of the important concepts in education is that of "scaffolding" or building on knowledge that has already been gained to develop new ideas.  It's important for teachers to assess what a student knows to find the connections that will allow a student to progress, for example, from addition to multiplication in math.  The teaching practice is all about scaffolding in terms of instruction and it's a fair term to describe how one teacher adds his or her own contributions to a students learning.  Something that a first grade teacher teaches a student may not really bear fruit until two or three years later.  Having often taught in the upper elementary grades I find that students are always having "ah-ha moments" where something we're learning connects to something they studied several years before.  So who gets rewarded for that piece of learning?  Myself? I'm building on what has been taught before.  Do I share it with all the other teachers who came before? Well, isn't that the basis behind the idea of paying teachers a fair salary and not singling out individuals?
So far I've not heard any viable ideas for merit pay that takes into account the complex nature of teaching but would glad to hear about any that are floating around out there.
Perhaps someone reading this may come up with a brilliant way to implement the idea.

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