The truth about teacher merit pay plans

As I explained more than once, I’m a firm believer that the way we pay teachers has got to change.  Our “give ‘em the same paycheck no matter who they are or where they are working” approach is simply ridiculous.

But please understand that my support for changing the way we pay teachers doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of the ridiculously simple “pay ‘em for test scores” plans that Bam, Arne, Bill and Michelle believe in.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that teacher merit pay plans built around standardized test results are the WORST #edpolicies that we’ve seen in my 18 years of teaching—and that includes anything that Curious George dreamed up between starting wars and clinking scotch glasses at Haliburton shindigs.

Here’s why:

Less than 50% of teachers are working in tested subjects.

I’m constantly amazed by merit pay plans built around standardized test scores simply because so few educators are working in tested subjects.

In my North Carolina middle school, for example, kids are tested in language arts, math and eighth grade science.

There’s no tests for ANYONE else.

How exactly would a merit pay plan built around standardized test scores work in our school?

Would teachers working in social studies, drama, band, PE, foreign language, and the computer labs be ineligible for any kind of bonuses?

If so, how would that impact their levels of commitment to advancing the work of our school and to improving the academic performance of our students?

Or—worse yet—would bonuses for teachers in those untested positions be determined based on the observations and evaluations of principals?

Think about the consequences of evaluating and rewarding teachers differently for a minute.

If I’m judged by nothing other than the numbers generated on multiple choice tests that cover less than 1/3 of the curriculum while my peers are judged by actual observations of students in action, I’m going to be more than a little hacked off.

As a guy who knows first-hand just how bad the standardized tests are that we give to students, I’d rather be evaluated based on observations any day.

I know what my kids can do in action—and I know that for a variety of reasons, their scores on multiple choice tests aren’t always indicative of their actual abilities.

I also know that when my principals come into my classroom to observe, they pick up all kinds of additional evidence of what my students are learning.

They can ask probing questions when kids give wrong answers.  They can look at additional student work samples connected to the content that we’re studying.  They can see me in action and make judgments about the content and skills that I’m teaching.

Lesson for policymakers:  When you tie cash to evaluation systems, you’d better have a system of evaluations that treats everyone equally.

Otherwise, no matter what choices you make, you’ll have more dissent and open resentment in the schoolhouse than you know what to do with!

Learning results for individual students—especially in middle and high schools—are dependent on teams of teachers.

I’m also amazed by merit pay plans built around standardized test scores simply because they suggest that the learning gains of individual students are the result of teachers working alone.

That’s just not true.

Take my learning team for example.  I’m a highly skilled language arts teacher who has spent the better part of my career showing students how to be better readers and writers.

I’m teaching science this year, though—and I’m successfully incorporating TONS of nonfiction reading and writing lessons into my work with students.

Now, what are the chances that these efforts are going to help my students on their language arts exams this year?

Right.  The odds are pretty high that at least a few of my students will do better on their reading exams because of me.

But under merit pay plans built around standardized test scores, the credit for that work will go to the language arts teacher on our team.

That presents a ton of problems for merit pay proponents:

  1. I now have no real motivation to integrate reading and language arts skills into my classroom instruction.
  2. My school will have a flawed picture of just how successful my language arts colleague really is because her scores will be supported by my work.
  3. Other language arts teachers will be at a competitive disadvantage only because their science teachers haven’t got the same experiences and skills with language arts as I do.

Suggesting that the scores of individual students—especially in middle and high school—are dependent on JUST the work of the teachers in tested subjects in foolish, y’all.

We’ll never be able to financially sustain meaningful merit pay programs.

As a taxpayer, merit pay plans make me laugh simply because there’s NO chance that we’ll be able to support higher salaries for long.

Y’all do realize that we’re in the middle of some seriously tight budget times, right?

Given those circumstances, how in the world are we supposed to sustain programs that pay teachers substantially more for helping students to earn higher scores on tests.

Right.  We can’t.

And as pretty much every expert on incentives has ever written, if you can’t sustain an incentive program, you’ll do more harm than you do good.

There are cheaper incentives that matter more to teachers.

What frustrates me even more as a taxpayer is that there are cheaper ways to motivate teachers than merit pay programs built around test scores.

As my friend Dave Orphal points out in this hilariously sarcastic comment, while everyone wants to be paid a fair salary for the work that they’re doing, few people actually enter teaching because they’re driven by cash.

Look carefully at the kinds of incentives that the National Board Certified teachers here in North Carolina are motivated by and you’ll see that cash bonuses are not a priority for us.

Instead, we want to work for accomplished principals.  We want to work with accomplished peers.  We’d like additional credits towards retirement.  We’d like stipends for our children to attend public universities for a reduced cost.

None of these incentives aligns with the incentive programs that policymakers keep dreaming up.

And none of them would cost nearly as much to implement and to sustain.

In the end, I find merit pay plans built around standardized test scores to be insulting as both a teacher and a taxpayer.

Not only do they suggest that teachers aren’t working as hard as they could be, they are evidence of a flawed understanding of what teachers really care about AND of how schools really  produce gains in student achievement.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by such miserably planned policies.  After all, no one making decisions spends any time consulting the people who are on the receiving end of those decisions.

#failure

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Related Radical Reads:

Merit Pay Plans for Teachers a Poor Idea

Why Performance Pay Will Kill Our Schools

More on Performance Pay

Evaluating White Space Educators

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