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Why Merit Pay for Teachers is a Bad Idea

My wife has been a teacher for about 30 years. She is devoted and dedicated and works primarily with the learning disabled.  There are two primary reasons that merit pay for teachers is a bad idea and will backfire: parental responsibility (or irresponsibility) is not part of the evaluation; it will cause persecution and resentment towards slower students and the learning disabled by teachers who are threatened with bad evaluations for low class scores.

Homework , the Role of Parents, Administration Support,
and the Criteria for Merit Pay

Yes, there are bad teachers out there. Some are lazy, some are incompetent, and some just don’t care. Yes, education suffers under these circumstances, and there ought to be a way of identifying and getting rid of bad teachers, but how can you hold good teachers responsible for things beyond their control? A straight line merit pay system for good test results overlooks key factors in the child’s education.  Here are a few quotes from parents heard by my wife more than once over the years:

“I shouldn’t have to do homework with my children, that’s your job.”
“We were too busy to do homework last night. We were at cheerleading… (or the game, or visiting friends, or at the bar, or at work)”
“Oh, we went to Disneyland last week, and we didn’t want the children to have to worry about homework…” unexcused absence.
“Stop sending homework, it takes too long (or it is too hard for him)…”
“My son won’t do homework, and I can’t make him. All he wants to do is play video games.”
“I told him to do his homework every night, and he say he doesn’t have any (or he did it already)…” from the child who never brings in any homework.

These are some actual quotes from parents. While many parents are  responsible and active in their children’s lives, some are more like children themselves,  raising children. They take no responsibility nor are they interested in helping their children succeed.  Now, if you are a teacher, and you are being judged on your performance based upon test results for these children, how would you feel? Would you want those kids in your class, knowing they will lower your pay or get you fired?  Where is the evaluation of the parent’s role in the education process?

And what of the children who, through no fault of their own, have a terrible home life? What of the child who doesn’t know where he is sleeping from night to night; or whose mother works in a bar and the child comes with her because she cannot afford a sitter; or whose parents are drug dealers; or whose parents who believe education is not important because welfare is the preferred way of life? What of the child who is physically or sexually abused, but Children and Youth Services are so over extended and the judges so lenient that the children are left in the homes? And what of truancy? There are children who miss  40 days of school a year and nothing is done to enforce their attendance. How can you hold a teacher responsible for  THAT? Can the teacher be held responsible for not being able to instill values and ambition in a child who gets no encouragement or reinforcement of them at home?

What I’m saying is that we are witnessing a breakdown of society at the macro level, and while we can focus on test scores and ‘no child left behind,’ it is unrealistic to put the entire burden of success on the shoulders of the teachers who are doing the best they can under less than ideal circumstances. The question I’d ask is “Whose merit? The teachers? or the parents?”  Without solving that question, merit pay is a scapegoat.

All these circumstances say nothing of children with learning disabilities, where the problems above are only compounded by their greater obstacles.

Resentment Against Slow Learners, the Mentally Retarded,
and the Learning Disabled Fostered by Merit Pay.

My wife has dealt with discrimination against her special students by other teachers from time to time. First of all, often the learning disabled have very high IQ’s but they may have a physical limitation of some sort, like dyslexia or an auditory processing problem. They are not stupid but may be slow learners because of these issues. None-the-less, teachers will often fight with the administration over how many special ed students will be in their classrooms, and fight with each other over who is having an unfair advantage.  Can you imagine what will happen to those teachers and to those students who are perceived to be a drain on the rest of the class and who are lowering the overall test scores?  Can you understand why a teacher might feel threatened in her livelihood by the learning disabled if she were being evaluated by a merit pay system of rewards and punishments?  Could you blame her?

Merit pay would lead to a system of unconscious, if not overt, discrimination against all those children deemed to be responsible for lowering overall class performance and reducing test scores. Mere resentment would turn into all out warfare against administrators and between teachers. The social environment of the school would become hostile and morale would be shattered. Forget cooperation between teachers and pity the poor slow learner, the mentally retarded, or the socially disadvantaged.

If you want a recipe for ruining the school system, introduce merit pay and punishment.

Politics and Evaluations – a Bad Mix

Finally, and this is a bit cynical, but unfortunately true.  If merit pay is based upon popularity of teachers with parents and the administration, you will further weaken the hand of the disciplined and dedicated teachers. There are teachers who know how to play the game, who play politics. They are popular with parents because they flirt with mothers or fathers, or they are coy and adoring of administrators. They are popular with the kids because they give extra long recesses or play a lot of movies, and so they report to their parents how nice their teachers are.

But pity the teacher who holds the administration responsible for enforcing IEPs (Individualized Education Program – required for all special education students, a violation of which allows either a teacher or school district to be sued, or both). Guess who is resented for calling administrators to account on behalf of her students?  Who is likely to be recommended for merit pay: the blonde who bats her eyes and laughs at all the principal’s jokes, or the thorn in his side?

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2 comments on “Why Merit Pay for Teachers is a Bad Idea

  1. Merit pay for everyone then? Firepersons? Police? Surgeons?

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