Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Merit Pay for Teachers?

I spent some time this morning listening to our local public radio station's call in program. The topic was upcoming Ballot Measure 60 which seeks to eliminate seniority-based pay for teachers and instead base teacher pay on classroom performance. Here in Oregon we've already defeated a similar measure but good old Bill Sizemore just won't give up in his fight against the greedy, incompetent teachers bringing down the public schools.

As one of those teachers, I have no problem with accountability. I don't get to make it up as I go along (though some nights it sure feels like that). I need to follow the standards set by our state department of education. But let's be clear. When they talk about basing my pay on "classroom performance", there won't be thoughtful, individualized, ongoing assessment. They're talking about standardized testing which works out to a brief snapshot of how a student takes a test on a given day.

My students are not exactly what every public school teacher dreams of. They are almost exclusively poor, most have little formal education, and, oh yeah, they don't speak English. Many of them are not only supporting themselves, but sending money back home as well. These young people have little in common with the overachieving students in affluent schools and they work a whole lot harder. With all the demands on their time and attention they aren't usually academic superstars. Their progress is often so slow it's all but invisible to anyone but the teacher who spends 3 hours a night with them. And has done so for the last 12 years. It's not going to show on some stupid test written by some overpaid educrat in an office somewhere.

The problem with merit pay is that it will reinforce much of what's already wrong in the public schools. Those teachers in more affluent neighbors whose students come from well-educated families always show better test results. They'll get the bonuses based on a lot of factors that have nothing whatsoever to so with their teaching. Meanwhile the teachers who work with the less advantaged students will rarely see the kinds of test scores that will earn bonuses, thus punishing them for factors that have nothing to do with their teaching. And the gap between "good" schools and struggling schools widens.

I started a new term last night with a lovely group of eager, delightful students. This term is notable in our program because the administration has decided that our English program will now include 2 hours a week of math. That's right, I am now teaching math. Never mind that apart form working with my homeschooled children I have no experience teaching math whatsoever. Never mind that I have no training in teaching math whatsoever. This is the order that came down and I am expected to fumble along and do my best. Orders from on high are not that unusual and, given that I have no training and no support, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be earning any merit-based bonuses for my teaching this year no matter how much extra time and effort I put in trying to figure out how to teach math to ESL students.

I'm most definitely not in this for the money but I also don't think I should be punished for the type of students I work with and for the decisions of my superiors. I hope those of you reading this in Oregon will take a look at Measure 60 and then vote against it.

1 comment:

ElizO said...

Amen! Well said.