I wrote the following for the May 2000 issue of my union newsletter, but given Governor Schwarzenegger's recent comments it's rather timely.
We've all heard about the concept of merit pay. In fact, there are some pretty strong voices on either side of the "do we or don't we" debate. What's wrong with the idea? Well, there's not as much wrong with it as some would have you believe.
On its face merit pay seems like a good idea--reward good teachers. Look a little deeper and you might get concerned. You might even hear some of the arguments against merit pay: present teachers can't control what students have or have not learned in the past, students should not be able to dictate a teacher's pay, etc. Look even deeper and you may find something sinister, and for these ideas I borrow from the CTA President's column in the December 1999 California Educator magazine: "it insults teachers and ignores the real causes for students' difficulties in measuring up," "it will deflect pressure for a real increase in teacher salaries," it would cause teachers "to refuse basic math and special education classes," and it "will hurt teacher morale and promote subservience to administration." In fact, the CTA President even goes on to say, "I hope not one teacher or one association in California will even contemplate any merit pay proposal."
I grant that certain simple ideas of merit pay have irreparable flaws. Merit pay based solely on administrators' recommendations is not a good idea. Merit pay based solely on student performance on standardized tests is not a good idea--in fact, it's illegal. But isn't there some way we could objectively identify those outstanding teachers who are working wonders for students, and reward those teachers? Just as a starting point for discussion, what if we looked at student improvement over the course of a school year instead of just student grade-level performance?
I'm concerned that as professionals we seem to feel we cannot be objectively evaluated. Additionally, I worry that we seem to feel that we're not at all responsible for student learning. If we have no impact at all, then perhaps we truly do deserve the slings and arrows that have come our way of late. But if we do have an impact, then let's work together to find out how to identify the best among us, learn from these people, and ensure they're rewarded for their work!
Again I quote the CTA President: "Does anyone really believe that any single classroom teacher is actually responsible for how well or poorly these children do on a standardized test?" Such cynicism is not worthy of the $53 a month we pay to CTA. We deserve better.
Joanne has more on merit pay on her blog at http://www.joannejacobs.com/mtarchives/014790.html