I have been following the debate on teacher Merit Pay issue for a few years now. Which means I have followed it as a teacher and as a non-teacher. So this morning I did what most everyone does sooner or later I Googled it (yes – I know there are other search engines) and came up with over 380,000 hits on Merit Pay for teachers, I read the first two pages and came away more confused and had more questions than when I started.
Why do I care about Merit Pay? For pretty selfish reasons mostly, it could affect how I will be paid in the future and that could impact how much money I have in my pocket. It is not my over-riding “thing”, but how much I am paid for what I do is important and does impact my job choices to a certain extent. Then there is the fact that the President of the United States favors merit pay and so do many people who are in positions of educational AND political leadership, so that means there is some fire, not just smoke around this issue. It also does mean that it will probably happen in some form in the near future.
There appear to be some many pros and cons to the merit pay issue – but one con really jumps out at me.
Most of the merit pay proposals that I have read about are in some way tied to standardized testing. Now if you have read my blogs for any length of time, you will know that I am not a fan of the over-reliance on standardized testing and in the manner many in leadership are using it for, since the passage of NCLB. I am also realistic enough to know that standardized testing and how it being used for measurement purposes is not going to go away anytime soon, but that is a whole different post.
I am going to relate this blog entry more towards Special Education, but I believe it might apply to all students and teachers. Historically, our special education students don’t show their progress on standardized tests. Most of our students are at the bottom of the scales and show little to no growth from year to year. Once in a while we hit things just right and there is a huge jump either due to a sudden maturation, things are different at home, a medication change, etc., not because suddenly a “super” teacher came into that classroom. Usually it is because of something beyond the teacher or the school’s control.
Often a special education student’s progress is made in non-quantifiable or things that are not academically related (i.e. “Johnny has only been suspended for fighting 3 times this year instead of 10, Sam was able to feed himself for the first time or Sally has made it to school every day for 3 weeks in a row, whereas before she only came 3 days a week”). That kind of progress which is huge to the student, their family and the teacher, but is not measured on standardized testing and is not normally tracked as part of a teacher’s evaluation. It is more the true measure of a successful Special Education Teacher than a score on a standardized test.
Tying a Special Education teacher’s possible merit pay to how their student’s perform on a standardized test would penalize this category of teachers considerably more in contrast to our peers and would not be a true representation of our effectiveness (which I don’t believe standardized testing would for any teacher).
It would be like politicians being paid based upon their percentage ratings in multiple polls, but someone else gets to pick which poll will be used. Politicians can attempt to influence their numbers by working on the individuals being polled, but they do not have any input regarding the questions that will be asked or how those would be scored, they would just get to see the final outcome.
Then linking those results to a base amount and making them eligible if funds are available for merit increases and not having their seniority or other things they do well enter into how they are compensated for the services they provide. There would be a great amount of hugh and cry from those politico’s who would be affected by that change. Yet they wonder why educators are not jumping on the merit pay bandwagon.
That is how I feel about the tying merit pay to standardized testing – not very comfortable. I can cajole, push, motivate and all those other things we do in the classroom to try to get our students to learn, but when it comes to the day of the test, I have no way to ensure that that student will attempt to do their best, if they will even try or if they will even show up. No number of after test pizza parties or words of encouragement will motivate a student who doesn’t want to be motivated.
There has to be a way to combine good performance in the classroom with seniority as well. I know that I will be a better teacher in 2-3 years than I am today and that increase in ability should be considered also when it comes to computing my pay.
Is merit pay coming to the teaching profession? I believe so, there are too many powerful people who support it. How they implement it will be the question that I am worried about. Will it be implemented fairly using actual measurements that show what is expected of a “superior” teacher or will they take the “easy” way out an tie a teacher’s ability to earn that merit pay to standardized test scores? Right now if I had to bet, it looks like those in power will take the easy way out, which is unfair to all teachers.
What are your opinions on merit pay? Is it a good thing? Am I way off base when it comes to merit pay and special education? Should we tie our pay to standardized testing? To me my research on merit pay simply raises more questions than I can find answers to.
Merit pay is not a bad thing that some make it out to be and not the salvation of education as other make it out to be, but like anything else, it will be how it will be designed and implemented, that will determine if it is a good thing or not. That is what concerns me — the possible designs that are being considered.
Put very simply put it’s all about the money – who gets it and who doesn’t.

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