There have been a lot of conflicting feelings about merit pay—linking pay for teachers to standardized test scores and their evaluations. Some feel giving teachers a financial incentive to work harder will increase their effectiveness and reward those who are already doing great work, thereby raising student achievement. Others feel that merit pay will give raises to teachers who the principal likes and who scratch and claw and arm wrestle to get Advanced Placement classes.
Recently in Colorado, a school is under investigation because its principal rated 70% of teachers as highly effective, which earns them more money on the merit pay system. This is much higher than the national average. When I looked a little closer, the article says that 90% of the students at their school are proficient or advanced. That’s a really high number. My guess was that the school is located in an affluent area, a fact confirmed when I researched and found that only 1.2% of families’ incomes were below the poverty line in this school district.
Beyond having a “highly effective” teacher, parents’ income-level is a better predictor of proficiency level than any other factor. Why? If the parents earn more, it means they’re educated, most likely went to college themselves, and provide more educational exposure to the child: trips to the zoo, aquarium, museums, and/or various other activities that provide background knowledge when they study at school.
At the university I attended in Colorado, there was a huge teaching job fair in the spring. Teaching candidates would arrive two hours before it opened to stand in line to get an interview at Cherry Creek school district, an affluent area in Denver. The school district would only interview for a few hours and then once they’d filled their positions, they’d turn the rest of the hopeful prospects away. They had few openings because teachers loved to stay there. Why? The parents were involved. Before they entered kindergarten, many students knew how to write their names, knew the alphabet and their numbers, and a few might even know how to read. If the teacher needed resources, the parents either bought the materials for the teacher or asked the PTA for money.
Now, I know there are downsides to over-involved parents, but if you’re interested in a wage increase from merit pay, where would you rather work? A place where the students come knowing the basics and you can build from there or a place where students often struggle to read, write, and/or speak English? A place where most of the parents have graduated from college or a school where most of the parents haven’t completed 7th grade?
I’m sure the teachers cited in the article do a great job with the population they teach. However, I always wonder how well this same teacher would do in a school which is economically challenged, has a majority of non-native English speakers, and has little to no parent support. Would this same teacher fair as well?
And, in my case, I’m given the students who struggle the most because that’s whom I work well with. Once the student makes gains in learning English, they move out of my class. But if my pay were linked to standardized tests—where very few, if any of my students make proficiency—I don’t believe it has as much to do with me as with the fact that either they themselves or their families are immigrants from a country which gave them little to no educational opportunity: a fact I can’t fix no matter what I do.
It seems to me that many of the highly effective teachers earning merit pay will be those who have little diversity (socio-economically and/or culturally) in their classrooms and those who were lucky enough (and early enough) at that long line during the teaching fair to get a position at that highly sought after school.
Is merit pay really rewarding effective teaching? Or is it rewarding the teachers who work with the kids most likely to be proficient regardless of who teaches them?