We need merit pay, take 2

I wrote about this once before in the NY Daily News, but it’s time for a second take. We need performance pay for teachers. Not to scare away the “bad ones.”  To keep the good ones.

It’s March and almost time for teachers to begin making plans for next year.  I know of many gifted, committed teachers in their 3rd, 4th, or 5th years who are getting ready to say goodbye to the classroom. It is truly painful, because our students need them, and instead will have to make due with a new crop of brand new, shell shocked first years.

A friend of mine who is currently a dean at a middle school, after six years of teaching, mentioned that he’s probably going to pursue an administration degree. Not because he deeply desires to be a principal, but because he’s “thirty-something years old and can’t keep making 60,000 a year.”  (I know in the USA $60,000 ain’t bad for a teacher, but remember we’re talking about NYC, land of ridiculously expensive everything.)  When I heard this, I felt a familiar disappointment.  I’ve heard it before and may be on my way to becoming jaded and complacent about all the leavers.  Not that he wouldn’t be good at administrating, but teaching and administrating are two different things, with different skills sets and different kinds of impact on students.  Truthfully, I have no idea whether he’d be good at it and am relatively uninterested.

But then he caught my attention.  “But if there was merit pay,” he said, “I’d be back in a flash.

“Really?” I said, with a surprised smile.

“Absolutely. Because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s teach. I’d teach my whole life if I could.”

Wow, I thought. There it is. This is the kind of teacher our children, especially in high poverty schools, desperately need.  I’m fairly certain that for many of my students, the kind of education they receive in middle school can mean life or death later on.  Not that any kid is doomed after middle school, but middle school teachers create a context for the very beginning of our students’ transition into adulthood. Adults have to deal with “the system” that governs much of their lives, and they must make choices for themselves and take responsibility within the system. For middle school students, school is that system and teachers are their guides. It’s tremendously complicated work and matters more than many of us care to think about sometimes.

My students cannot afford to lose the people closest to them at their schools–their strong teachers, the ones who prepare lessons and teach, and assess, and see that they learn, and STILL have energy leftover to get to know them, and partner with their parents, and actually change their schools to meet all of their students’ needs better.

No, my students can’t afford to lose these teachers, simply because the system won’t pay for them to be teachers anymore.  And no, the job I’ve just described is not something a first year teacher can do well, even the most gifted first year teacher working her heart out.  (I was a pretty good first year teacher, I might add.  But at year five, I’m still learning to do all of the parts of my job effectively.)

I was happy to hear Obama talk about paying teachers for their expertise and that he’s promised to work with teachers on the merit pay plan.  But I doubt I’ll be letting out a sigh of relief any time soon.  The details of the policy will matter a lot in whether or not we keep the experienced teachers our students need, but are slated to lose each year, like clockwork. Already, I’m hearing more talk about recruitment than retention, investing in charter school “pockets of excellence,” rather than confidently transforming the system our government is responsible for running… I hope President Obama and Secretary Duncan start talking to teachers, and soon.

[image credit: jenkintownparents.org/ revolvingdoor.jpg]