Friday, January 13, 2006

Merit Pay for Teachers - Asking for Trouble

A very busy week is over for the moment, so here is an article that caught my eye today. The Houston school district (7th largest in the country) will be giving teachers up to $3000 in merit pay that is linked solely to improvements in state and national test scores by their students. Sounds good, no? Think about this, though:

In my current position as a teacher, I would be thrilled and planning a vacation for when my teaching bonus arrived. In my case, 100% of my students exceed state and national science scores! Yes, give me my money! But, here is the thing. I teach advanced placement, calculus-based physics, meaning I get the cream of the crop in students. My students go off to the top colleges in the country, so life is good.

In my former position in a large city school, I'd have been lucky if 10% of my students ever exceeded state and national test scores. I would be bummed out, and would have to cancel that vacation because I would be hard-pressed to raise the test scores significantly for my former students. At that school, 75% of students had English as a second language, a good majority were from immigrant families and were coming in with reading and math skills that were years behind their age and grade level, and 95% came from low-income families. What would have been overlooked is the fact that most of those students increased their math skills by several grade levels and improved their problem-solving skills, and some percentage greatly improved their reading comprehension and reading speed from the time I spent with them before and after school (in many cases those skills were doubled from when they began). What would have been overlooked is the fact that after my first three semesters at that school physics enrollment went from 5 sections to 14 sections as word spread students really could enjoy and learn physics, which is always thought of as 'one of those hard classes' that won't be much fun. But because some standardized test scores that largely test how fast you can work rather than how well you know the material are the only thing that mattered, I would not have been considered to be a teacher that was worth a bonus check. And so much for being a runner-up for Illinois Teacher of the Year, that would not have mattered, either.

The point is, this is a foolish way of doling out merit pay. Having our public education system judged and assessed solely by test scores is a foolish path to take, which is essentially where we are at with No Child Left Behind. It overlooks what good work hundreds of thousands of good teachers are doing with their students, and all the extra time they spend with them that goes unrecognized. Houston teachers are being pushed and encouraged to teach solely to the test, where 'drill and kill' methodologies rule and the fun of and love for learning begins to be strangled. I'll be posting soon about gearing education towards 'mastering the standardized test' and why that is not the ideal systemic goal.

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