May 31, 2011

Letter From The Teacher #3: The Merits of Merit Pay

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Ms. Rodriguez
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Answers to Your Questions

Dear Ms. Rodriguez:

Thanks for your e-mail. Alex is doing just fine. After we worked on the rough draft of his research paper last week, his final draft was much improved and his final score was 96%. Alex is a great kid, but he could stand to spend a little more time on his writing.

I was also intrigued by your question about merit pay. I donít believe our district is currently considering it, but it does come up from time to time, so Iíll take this opportunity to explain it. Please let me know if you need any additional information.

A recurring issue in education is that teacher pay is determined primarily by two factors: longevity and formal education (degrees). For instance, in our state, one cannot be a teacher without at least a bachelorís degree, and pay scales are based on that minimum level of education. If I have a masterís degree, in our school district, I earn only an additional $1500 per year. Thatís an extra $125.00 per month before taxes. If I have a doctorate, I make $3000.00 more per year than a teacher with the same number of years of service and a bachelorís degree. Thatís an extra $250.00 per month before taxes.

That amount of money sounds pretty good, and $250.00 is certainly quite a bit of money for me, but the problem is that graduate credits are very expensive. Earning a masterís commonly takes two years, and a doctorate, at least another two. Tuition costs for a masterís can easily run $20,000.00, and at least that much for a doctorate. With a masterís degree or a doctorate, it would take me more than 13 years to break even on tuition costs, and Iím not including all of the incidental costs of college in time, fuel, computers, books, etc. Economically, at least, any teacher would be far better off with a part-time business or with working during the summer when possible. If a teacher earned a masterís or doctorate after working for five or more years, theyíd probably never break even.

Something that many people donít realize is that few teachers have three months off in the summer. Not only that, theyíre not actually paid for 12 months of work, but only for the part of the year that they actually work. Their paychecks are spread out over the entire year, just like normal people. For example, Iím not done with school until the second week of June, and I have to be back the third week of August. All teachers have continuing education requirements. They must continually go to school and be able to document it in order to periodically renew their teaching credentials. Much, if not all, of that continuing education must be done on their own time and with their own money. That leaves the summer. Itís a rare year that I donít spend at least two weeks of my ever-shortening summer in classes.

Many teachers are like me; they enjoy learning new things and like to further their educations so that they can be more effective teachers. I have nearly enough credits for a masterís degree, and I suppose Iíll get around to finishing one some day, but there is really no financial incentive for me to do that.

In fact, the only way to really make any money in education is to go into administration. Principals commonly make double the salary of well-paid teachers and superintendents can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The problem is that really good teachers usually donít want to be administratorsóthey want to teachóso there is no way for them to make more money in education except for their yearly step increases and whatever raises their school boards are able to provide, which these days, will likely be few and far between.

Many well-meaning peopleóand some not-so-well-meaning peopleówould like to see merit pay for teachers. Iím not reflexively opposed to this concept, but the devil is very much in the details. Those who mean well recognize that the finest, hardest working teachers are paid no better than the teachers who do only enough to meet basic standards of performance. As one of those hard-working teachers, Iím certainly sympathetic to that concept, and if my evaluations are to be believed--if my supervisors aren't incompetent or playing some sort of ironic joke--Iím a very good teacher too (that, accompanied by a dollar, will buy coffee at any McDonaldís in the nation). On the other hand, some want merit pay as a means of promoting even more reliance on big government in the form of mandatory, high stakes tests (MHSTs). They want merit pay to be mostly, or entirely, tied to MHST scores. Letís examine the second group first.

Once a government bureaucracy is established, it tends to do everything possible to increase its size and power so that it will become politically difficult, even impossible, for it to ever be shut down. Ronald Reagan said that the nearest thing to eternal life weíll ever see is a government bureaucracy, and he was right. The bureaucracy that supports MHSTs is very large and powerful and many billions of dollars are involved.

It youíre part of a MHST bureaucracy, you would certainly want teacherís pay to be based on how well their students scored on your MHSTs. This is so because:

(1) It would force teachers to spend most, if not all, of their time teaching to that test to maximize their income.

(2) It would create an enormous, additional market for supplementary materials to help kids pass the tests, greatly benefiting the manufacturers of the tests, whose campaign contributions will help to keep in office the politicians who make your bureaucracy eternal.

(3) If theyíre spending all of their time scrabbling for dollars, teachers, school administrators and school boards wonít be coming after you for your poorly written tests, and questionable policies and decisions, and theyíll tend to be on your side in any battles with parents.

(4) All of this maximizes your power because youíll have near-total control over the schools and everyone associated with them.

(5) Your attempts to raise your own salaries will meet with little or no opposition from below.

On the school level, the problems are even worse. Letís put aside the fact that schools would become nothing more than test-prep and test-taking factories with athletic teams, and look at some of the real problems involved. How do we evaluate teachers who teach subjects that arenít tested? At the moment, most states test only math, English, social studies and science. Educrats would ďsolveĒ that problem by mandating tests for everything imaginable, thus spending even more money. Is that really most, or all, of what we want schooling to be: preparing for and taking MHSTs?

The biggest problem is that test results donít accurately reflect a teacherís work. They simply canít. You see, the only thing any teacher can do, the only thing the best teacher in the world can do, is to provide an opportunity for learning. It is up to the students, and their parents, to take advantage of that opportunity. Many kids donít take full advantage of that opportunity. Some more or less ignore it.

Iím always amazed when teachers are outraged and offended because teenagers behave like teenagers. Didnít anyone tell them that was likely to happen? I expect and delight in itóitís part of the great fun of teaching high school kidsóbut my basic ruleóyou donít get to behave rudely or stupidlyóstands. The point is that some teenagers simply arenít going to recognize the value of taking advantage of their educational opportunities. Theyíre not going to do reading assignments. Theyíre not going to complete and hand in their work. Homework? You must be kidding! Most will do just enough of any kind of schoolwork necessary to avoid failure. Some wonít do even that much, and their parents wonít make them.

The problem is not that contemporary kids are stupidótheyíre certainly not. Many people would be amazed at the kinds of things, and their difficulty, kids are expected to learn. I grew up in a world without computers. Merely grasping that technology and all it entails puts todayís kids far beyond past generations in significant ways. Yet, school is about far more than the accumulation of mere knowledge as evidenced by the ability to regurgitate it in specific ways on specific tests.

I live by a simple aphorism: never underestimate their intelligence, but donít overestimate their information. Teenagers are very inexperienced in many ways. Despite having at their fingertips access to a body of knowledge unprecedented in history, they simply donít know what educated adults know. Many know that The Beatles were a band, but beyond that know nothing of their significance. They know that man has walked on the Moon, but many think the first man to set foot on the Moon was Lance Armstrong. In other words, teenagers are simply teenagers. If it hasnít happened in the last two years it may as well have happened two thousand years ago. Kids tend to live in the moment. Many donít know the definitions of common words, and most canít tell you the difference between Conservative and Liberal political philosophy, or have any real idea why they should care.

But we must hold teachers accountable! Sure, and Iím absolutely accountable. If I donít show up on time often enough, Iím in big trouble. If I donít prepare, if I donít teach properly, if I fail in any one of a hundred ways, I have no doubt that someone else will be glad to take my place and will be given that opportunity. This is an understanding I share with my principal. What I cannot do is guarantee that any given student will produce a given score on a MHST. Yes, I can be reasonably certain of the scores of most of my kids, but every year, truly exceptional students do poorly and truly poor students do exceptionally. Iíd like to take credit for that sort of thingóI thinkóbut itís irrational to think that I can or should. Please understand, the MHST scores of my students are so consistently high that Iíd likely benefit if my pay was mostly or wholly based on that criteria, but Iím still ambivalent about it.

Hereís a true story: A number of years ago, my school handed out ďTeacher of the QuarterĒ awards. Periodically, one teacher would be given a nice little trophy as the teacher of the quarter. I noticed that none of those receiving the ďhonorĒ were being rewarded for actual teaching, but only for high profile things like organizing a prom, a dance, some extra-curricular event or something similar. It was with considerable amazement that I was, out of the blue, given one of the awards. I spoke with an assistant principal and asked why I was so honored. I was surprised to learn that he recommended me for good teaching, and they had never before thought to give the award for good teaching! Donít get me wrong, these were all good administrators in a good school, but it had never occurred to them to actually reward exceptional teaching with a ďTeacher of the QuarterĒ award! Not long thereafter, they stopped giving them out altogether. It seems that people were getting too jealous and nasty about it when they didnít get one and the principals were tired of taking the flak.

Do you base merit pay on the number of students who pass a teacherís classes? If so, wonít you be ensuring that kids who should not pass, pass? Do you base it on teacher evaluations? If so, wonít you be encouraging cronyism and favoritism by principals who will tend to want to reward those who make their jobs easier rather than those who actually excel and are, as a result, more demanding? Will a teacherís pay change from year to year based on whatever criteria are involved? If so, it might take only one bad group of kidsóand believe me, teachers get those from time to timeóto cause many a teacher to default on their mortgage.

Iím sure you know people in your line of work who are ruthless, unprincipled self-promoters. We have them in education too, and those are exactly the kinds of people who mediocre administrators tend to support and praise. When you reward the wrong people, the right people notice and tend to do less. When you reward those who truly deserve it, good administrators can use that example to motivate others. But all too often, human nature interferes with the best intentions, and people who donít deserve it end up with the benefits.

So as I said, Iím not absolutely against merit pay, but it must be based in reality, a solid understanding of human nature, and not designed to build bureaucracies. Sadly, Iíve never seen a merit pay system that meets these simple criteria. If I cannot directly earn such benefits through my own efforts, what good is it? If, under such a system, I can work harder than anyone else, and my excellence is reflected in year after year of evaluations, yet I earn not a penny more, whatóother than self-motivation--is my incentive to keep producing at that level? By the same token, if a mediocre teacher is rewarded for their level of effort, whatís their incentive to improve? Will they even be capable of recognizing that theyíre anything but mediocre?

Well, Iíve rattled on long enough. I hope Iíve at least raised some of the most pertinent issues. As always, please let me know if there is anything else I can do to be helpful.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at May 31, 2011 01:06 AM

Really wish there was a way to share this with my friends on facebook and elsewhere. Everyone who deals with education needs to read this...

Posted by: Lweson at May 31, 2011 08:10 AM

I am not so much concerned with which exact method is used so much as long as it is some method that rewards teachers who do good work and eliminates teachers who deserve to be let go. When you hear of teachers being put into some sort of Limbo when they are accused of something - true or not - for years, in some cases, it seems that neither the administration of such a district nor the teachers' union is interested in what is best for the students but merely keeping their liability low (in the administration's case) or preserving the teacher's job (in the union's.)

Posted by: NevadaSteve at May 31, 2011 11:07 AM

You collectively made your bed, and now you're complaining about having to lie in it.

Institutionalized testing and merit pay and a good number of these other proposals/programs are in play precisely because the teachers associations have made it so hard to get rid of bad/ineffective teachers.

It's because we (the parents) can't trust the teachers to teach our kids what we want them to learn and because we can't trust the principals to get rid of those teachers and because we can't trust administrators to get rid of those principals that we push for testing programs and vouchers and charter schools. It's because you (as a group) demand that bad teachers get roughly the same base pay as good teachers that we push for merit pay, as the only way to reward the teachers we deem worthy.

If you were to start demanding that your union focus less on protecting the masses and their own perks and more on teaching our kids and getting rid of anyone who isn't doing that then we the parents won't need or want to come up with convoluted schemes to work around your (again, collective) obstructionism. It isn't enough to proclaim your own dedication in posts such as this, you need to start speaking up against your so-called brothers and sisters who don't cut it (did you condemn the Wisconsin teachers who called in sick rather than do their jobs? Or were you cheering them on?). Until you do, you just aren't that committed to the kids.

Posted by: steve at May 31, 2011 07:52 PM


..... Oh, forget it . . .

Posted by: jimbo at May 31, 2011 10:06 PM


Ya missed the point...... hehehehehe! Hey ahh never mind....

Posted by: Orion at May 31, 2011 10:37 PM

Steve, do you like what President Obama is doing? After all, he is your President? (I am assuming you are an American citizen...) How about your Senators, your representative, your governor? Do you like the job they are doing? Sometimes, because we vote on such things, we don't get the one we want for a time...or ever.

Yes, PEU's have too much power. So it needs to be curtailed. It is getting done, slowly, but it is still getting done. When crap happens fast we get the mess that O-care, the Patriot Act and California are.

Posted by: MunDane at June 1, 2011 11:34 PM