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The demerits of teacher merit pay

Submitted by on Thursday, 9 October 2008 No Comment

In theory, merit pay for teachers has a lot going for it.

Reward the best. Truly inspiring classroom leaders such as Big Guy’s kindergarten teacher, who alternately inspires him with caterpillars and saves his life. Or my high-school journalism teacher, who was the first person to offer genuine encouragement for my flighty pursuit of writing.

At the same time, see that the slackers aren’t enriched. Folks like my junior-year English teacher, who gave spelling tests on challenging words such as “cat” to avoid cutting into her classroom nap time.

The problem with merit pay, though, is making it accomplish what taxpayers think it will when they hear candidates stump in favor of it. And both Barack Obama and John McCain are in favor of it.

I’m not aware of any school district that’s found a way to judge on the short-term something that the real results of won’t be known for decades down the road: whether children grow into productive, contributing adults.

Cincinnati tried, creating an intricate system of peer review, classroom observation and test scores that would have cost $6,000 a year per teacher to implement.

Denver is trying now, with its vaunted ProComp system that has union sign-off. It includes “market incentives” for hard-to-serve schools and hard-to-fill assignments but also features “student growth objectives.”

Yep. That’s test scores. The only study of the system so far, which looked at the first two years of data, shows students did fare marginally better if their teachers were enrolled in ProComp, but added that it’s too early to tell if the program was responsible for those small differences.

And administering the program costs $2 million a year.

New York City is venturing down that path, deciding last week to make test scores a part of teacher evaluation thought officials say the critiques won’t be used to determine pay.

I can’t find an example of where merit pay’s worked once it gets beyond the stage of being a fantasy in some politician’s head.

“You’re trying to put market ideas into a non-market systems,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, told Northwest Arkansas News.

Thank you, Dr. Teske. Therein lies the problem with most merit pay systems, be they for teachers or anyone else.

Market ideas work well for some professions. If you’re an ad rep or car salesman or Realtor, the goal is clear: sell, sell, sell.

But my kids are not used Yugos or foreclosed homes. They’re human beings, and there’s more to them than a one-day snapshot bubble test.

Besides, I’ve yet to see a merit system, public or private, that didn’t give administrators leeway to bust you down if they were having a bad day or artificially hold down a raise if that’s what the budget dictates.

Have you?

Standards are good. Expectations are admirable. But trying to paint teachers by numbers is a costly waste of time.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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