A lot of debate about teacher accountability and pay has been going on, especially since the big Atlanta test score scandal hit the national news.
One of the proposed solutions to fixing the problem is merit pay, which basically equates to paying teachers more for their students' having higher test scores.
This would seem to be a pretty basic and reasonable solution for some much needed education reform, except for one problem:
For a variety of reasons, it would work about as well as a fish riding a bicycle.
Reason #0.5: This looks ridiculous
Reason #1: Different communities impact school test scores in VERY different ways.
Let's say that we use the concept of merit pay in regards to our police.
Pictured below are the crime rates from 2 different cities in 2006 (the year that had the best comparative graph I could find).
One city is Mount Pleasant, a moderately populated, affluent suburb of Charleston, South Carolina. The other city is North Charleston, a much more densely populated and low income area right next to the city of Charleston.
As you can see, the crime rate in Mount Pleasant is much lower than the crime rate in North Charleston. This holds true even when you break it down by percentage to account for North Charleston's higher population.
This evidence clearly indicate that the police in Mount Pleasant are doing a much better job than those in North Charleston. Therefore, logic would dictate they should be paid more, right?
LOGIC: Catch the Fever!!!
If you are smart enough to realize how utterly stupid that line of reasoning is, then perhaps you are beginning to see why merit pay for some jobs doesn't work. Plenty of community variables and factors besides the actual police officers and their efforts influence their city's crime rates.
And before anyone tries to turn this into "rich people are better than poor people" argument, let's bring up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is pictured below.
As you can see, the behavior of kids and their families can be greatly influenced by where their primary concerns are held. There is a huge quality of life difference (especially for children) if a family's primary concern for an evening is who will win Dancing with the Stars, or where their next meal will come from.
In low income areas, you have many students that may be coming to school hungry, tired, or concerned with issues of survival rather than multiplication tables and how plants process sunlight. As you can imagine, this can greatly affect the learning process and the classroom environment.
Nobody ever cares about the plants
These kids deserve a shot at an education just like everyone else. Unfortunately, merit pay would make it so that teachers wouldn't want to teach in these areas, and who could blame them?
It would be much easier to attain high test scores in more affluent areas where the majority of students are coming to school well fed, secure, and from families that can devote more time to their children's school performance instead of basic survival needs like getting food on the table.
"So why not reward improvement?" you may ask. Well, then the teachers from areas where the students are already near the top (or who's teachers have gotten their students to that point) would be unfairly judged.
Success would become a finite cycle that once achieved, would mean earning less pay than when your students started out at a lower level.
Though still not as depressing as the infamous 'F.E.M.A. disaster cycle.'
It also can lead to my next point:
Reason #2: High stakes testing and it's subsequent bonus pay leads to cheating...by the grown ups.
From 2002-2009, Atlanta Public Schools showed amazing improvement in student test scores.
In fact, it was so incredible, that the district's superintendent, Beverly Hall, was named the national 2009 Superintendent of the Year...along with a healthy $580,000 in bonuses for all her great work.
Too bad that she was presiding over the largest teacher and principal cheating/test score altering scandal in history.
This may seem shocking, but this culture of cheating by the educators and administrators didn't just come out of nowhere.
Our current public education system under No Child Left Behind (or N.C.L.B) rewards schools that do well on test scores with extra funding. The ones that do not do well end up getting less funding and people lose their jobs.
A very simple graph of this ingenious system can be seen below.
A bit like this, only much more depressing
You have now placed teachers and administrators in an interesting predicament. You can open...
Door #1.) Have your students do well on their test scores, which lets you keep your job, maybe even get bonus money, and get more funding for your school.
Door #2.) If your students don't do well: You could lose your job completely, have the fact that you lost your job because of low test scores on your employment record, and even if you keep your job, your school loses funding.
Door 3 has a rabid tiger that hasn't eaten
in a week; let's just skip that one.
in a week; let's just skip that one.
As you can imagine, when faced with the options of gainful employment/bonus pay/school funding vs losing their job/becoming difficult to hire/school being shut down, many in the Atlanta Public Schools (44 out of 56 schools in the district) chose Door #1.
And they didn't just choose that option; they went through it with a battering ram.
Teachers were ordered and even threatened by their principals to change student test scores to artificially raise them.
Some teachers even had test changing parties at their homes.
If you ain't got morals or ethics,
put those hands in the air!!!
Whistle blowers that tried to report that this was going on were harassed into silence or fired.
Eventually, all of this was uncovered and people were utterly shocked.
How could public school teachers and administrators ever cheat in the name of keeping their own jobs or making more money?
I mean, it's not like other professions or industries are ever dishonest about their results or quarterly numbers for the sake of increased profit margins and/or to save their own butts, right?
Reason #3: The 'Untestable' Subjects
This one is near and dear to my heart because I am a band director.
Let's get the first part out of the way: Yes arts education in school is important, but not just because of the oft cited studies about music helping test scores in other subject areas.
We are not simply a supplement.
Classes like orchestra, chorus, or band are places where students aren't just memorizing and regurgitating information; they are synthesizing knowledge that they have obtained into a product that they have created.
Pictured: Not the type of synthesizing I
was talking about...but still totally awesome.
Combine that with the fact that groups of students from different backgrounds, cliques, and levels of intelligence must work together to make one product, and you're looking at students that are getting a huge leg up on managing/working in an office environment rather than their peers that are taking notes at a desk.
All that being said...how do you test these subjects on a standardized scale? Which ideas of 'good' or 'excellent' become the accepted norm on which judge how good of a job the teacher is doing (and how much pay he or she should receive)?
Never mind that most states use different standardized tests from one another.
The really wacky thing is that according to current federal guidelines, by 2014, 100% of American students should be rated 'proficient' on their states' AYP test.
After the test, everyone will ride home on one of these!
As you can see, this makes the idea of merit pay a bit of a moot point, since we apparently are supposed to have it all figured out by then.
Merit pay for teachers is a good idea in theory; paying people more that work harder and succeed more is a wonderful idea.
The problem is that many of the people that are advocating this haven't thought it through. They have yet to consider the multiple variables and logistical problems that crop up when you try to apply this concept across the board in regards to teaching.
But then again, I'm in a subject that never does any of those end of the year standardized tests, anyway.
I just get kids to learn another language (music), do a little 'differentiation of instruction' when I can (14 different instruments in one class), and my assessments take place in front of live audiences and judges (concerts and competitions).
What the heck do I know?
And I still think that the 'keytar' is awesome.