Sunday, January 31, 2010

merit pay... putting my own thoughts together

I've been mulling the concept of merit pay over in my head ever since Wednesday night trying to put together my thoughts for a post. I've been really curious to hear all of your thoughts- whether you commented on the blog, emailed me personally, or let me know via facebook.

Whenever merit pay comes up with Mr. Lipstick his first reaction is, "but you'd get more money and be rewarded for what you're already doing, so that's a good thing, right?"
And a few teachers told me they felt this way too- that if merit pay was implemented, they would be rewarded without having to change anything they are doing. I have trouble believing that's what would happen though. I'm glad Mr. Lipstick has so much faith in me & in the system, but I am not convinced that I would benefit from the merit pay. I suppose, though, it would all come down to how we define merit pay.

Someone commented on facebook that about six years ago our whole school was rewarded for making progress. Every teacher in the school was given a $2,000 bonus. It was incredible. There were 3 schools in our county given this award, and it certainly made us all proud that we'd accomplished so much. The trick was, with that sort of merit-based bonus, we were all in it together.
Did it work? The school I'd worked at the year before coming to the think-tank also won the same award. The teachers there had been determined to get that bonus, and we focused in our instruction and made significant changes in our teaching. It was motivated by money, and it worked. The aspect that is different there than in merit pay is that as a school we were in it together. We planned together, we developed assessments together, as analyzed records together.

But what if we hadn't been after a whole-school reward? What if we knew only 1 teacher on each grade would be rewarded the money? What would happen to collaboration? We are better teachers when we work together- but if only one of us will be rewarded would we hoard our lesson plans? Refuse to share our trade secrets? Not given advice, or given wrong advice?

And who would volunteer to have the inclusion classroom? What would happen to the children with special needs? No teacher would want them- they'd only hurt their bottom line. The year a teacher took the inclusion class would be the year a teacher knew she wouldn't get a pay raise. What sort of hostile environment would that create for our children with special needs?

Last year Jenny and I had a little one who was performing like an average first grader until her entire world crashed at her feet. Her academics slid backwards as she coped with her post traumatic stress. What about those little ones? Instead of loving her, would Jenny and I have been secretly annoyed that despite our best efforts her sudden loss of progress would have hurt our chances at a pay raise?

Usually we assume merit pay would be based on test scores, however, an old roommate of mine worked in a charter school where you negotiated your salary every year, essentially creating a merit-pay situation. However, because these were salary negotiations, the teachers who were rewarded were the ones with the best negotiating skills and not the best teachers (and sadly, meant that the young, inexperienced white teachers were quickly earning more than the older African-American teachers with more experience. Now think about the effect that has on a school community. It also sounds like this lead to some cheating on the standardized tests...)

I think what I come back to the most though is that I just don't see merit pay inspiriting me to work harder or change my practices. I've been trying to think of what I'd change if my pay was based on the test scores. A lot of you have mentioned that you would change your instruction in the way that you would teach to the test more.
I don't even know if that's what we'd change at the think-tank. As a school who has not made AYP in 2 years we spend a lot of time looking at assessment and the progress of our students. We analyze where they are and decide how to get them where we want them. We do a lot of good teaching that incorporates both how to take a test as well as good instruction. Every classroom has a team of at least two teachers, if not three or more, that is working together to help those children.
How would merit pay change our collaborative efforts? Would every teacher who worked in that classroom be rewarded?

What could I change? I already plan lessons with data-driven instruction. In my morning reading group I start the day with sample test questions before we dive into our reading. In the back of my head, at all times, is how my children would perform right now on any given assessment, and what I can do to improve that score.
Would I go to their houses and tutor them there?
Would I quit coaching the jump-rope team (which I do for free) so that I'd have time to tutor after school?
Would all the extra time with the students pay off on their test scores, or would it make me a grumpier, over-worked teacher?
I already tutor before school (which I do get paid for).

Like splatypus put it in the comments, merit pay is just insulting because it is assuming we're not doing our best job right now and that we'll work harder for more money. Like giving a child a piece of candy for being good. Grant it, we wont say no to more money, but that doesn't mean we don't deserve more money right now, doing what we're doing.

I just don't see it working in any positive way. I don't see it creating better schools or more educated students, although it may work to raise test scores for a year or two. I'm still curious to hear your thoughts though.
Would merit pay change your teaching in a positive direction or a negative direction?
Would merit pay inspire the teachers you work with to become more dedicated to their children, or would it drive a wedge in your school community?


Little Chef On The Prairie said...

I work for a very large school district. I know what would end up coming down the pike would be that each principal could award "X" number of merit pay increases. My principal has worked extremely hard to clean house of teachers who were just punching in and out, and recruited many teachers with awesome resumes who can turn around and really perform each day in the classroom.

What about "S" who just came out of 1.5 years of homelessness in January? What about *J* who goes to 2 hours of therapy 4 days a week for mental issues? We have a lot we are working against as well. I've never worked harder than at the school I am currently at.

I know I would be one of the teachers like yourself who would "deserve" merit pay, but when the rubber meets the road, I'm not sure that we would actually see it in our banking accounts.

Hope this didn't come off too negative.

Madeleine said...

I don't think merit pay is going to happen. Unions generally want to keep things level across the board.

Administrators might be temporarily dazzled by the positive pr that would come from announcing what great educator/s got a bonus, but as things stand now (you mentioned most of the arguments that I can think of) - it just isn't going to happen. A lack of long-term funding, the unions, and administrators who can't make good decisions all stand in the way.