Guest Column: Merit pay for teachers not as good as it sounds

Amy Orvis

By Amy Orvis

Merit pay for teachers — sounds good, doesn’t it? Monetary reward for a job well done!? After all, shouldn’t those who give it their all, making huge educational impacts on their students, receive more money than the disinterested or lackadaisical teacher whose primary educational goal is to survive intact until Friday’s dismissal bell? Or even more than the once-dynamic teacher whose passion wore off before retirement was attained?

Sounds reasonable. So, where’s the rub? Why aren’t all of us teachers lining up in full support, especially the ones who deserve the extra pay? Ahh … there’s part of the reason: “deserve.” How is a determination made as to who the “deserving” even are?

But, we’ll continue with that later. Of more immediacy to me is the triple insinuation that: a) my motivation for teaching is primarily financial gain, b) I am not already giving 100 percent to my students, and c) I believe that any part of my teaching could be improved by changing my goal from educating the whole child and helping to ignite/promote compassionate global citizens, creative problem solvers, critical thinkers, life long learners, and future leaders, to that of the short-term goal of readying a group of students to score highly on a set of corporately-designed standardized tests (see below).

So, as for point a) motivation (please pick up a copy of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive) — I’m not a carrot and sticks (i.e., merit pay) worker. To me, teaching is a passion and an art. I am driven by deep intrinsic motivation because I love what I do, I love my students, I love to learn and I am enamored by creative endeavors.

I teach because I dash around the house on Saturdays collecting objects that have the root “mot” or “graph” in their names to fill in our “Realia” museum, or lay awake at night visualizing how I’ll display all the “tion” words my students race in with each day.

I teach because I spring out of bed at 3 a.m. with a dance idea to help students remember the difference between perimeter and area, and because I am in love with words, energized by my students, and get excited over professional books.

I teach because I have found the career that fits me to a T, truly want my students to thrive under the time I am blessed to have them (and thus, point b) — do give them 100 percent. I am not suggesting that I can afford to teach for free, or that I don’t believe that teaching is of enough value to our society to warrant a respectable salary. But to have someone honestly believe that I would “perform” better with a monetary bonus dangled in front of my nose if 72 percent of the class regurgitated items 79-89 correctly as opposed to 71 percent (point c)?

Listen to Theresa Amabile, professor at Harvard University, “The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences or businesses” (and certainly education).

Daniel Pink cites numerous studies that show that the “goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy,” but conversely, goals set by others … standardized tests and so on — can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”

Such as? Mr. Pink suggests the following list (and I certainly concur), “Carrots and Sticks: The Seven Deadly Flaws”:

1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation;

2. They can diminish performance;

3. They can crush creativity;

4. They can crowd out good behavior;

5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior;

6. They can become addictive; and

7. They can encourage short-term thinking.

Further, as Edward Deci, author of Intrinsic Motivation, opines, “when organizations use rewards like money to motivate staff, that’s where they’re most de-motivating.”

Frankly, the whole idea of objectifying the ART of teaching as if our children are products or robots, makes me ill.

The question still seems to beg, then — leaving the carrot sticks in the refrigerator drawer, how about rewarding those who do go the extra mile for the thrill of a job well-loved and also well-done? In a perfect world, perhaps. But instead, we loop back around to the previous question: “How is it determined who “deserves” this pay? Test scores? Peer reviews? Administrative evaluations? Parental recommendations? Student surveys? Some conglomeration of all of the above?

Shall I respond to each of these individually, or can I perhaps lump some of them together? Parental, student and peer input? The word subjective comes quickly to mind and topples those creative towers (perhaps Dad doesn’t like teacher’s homework policy, Student A got a D in math, Student Z enjoys teacher’s quirky sense of humor, Teacher A and Teacher B are in a church group together …).

Well, principal evaluations ought to be a valid measurement. The evidence-based Charlotte Danielson model is truly a valuable tool for both teachers and principals to encourage self-reflection as a route to excellence. So, through principal observation … oh, wait … although all of the principals I have worked with consider classroom observations to be one of their favorite duties, and partake in them every chance they get, there are also stacks of bus referrals begging to be attended to, communication with hundreds of parents, cafeterias that need monitoring, principal meetings to attend, bullying to confront … how to be present enough to truly get an accurate and consistent picture? Perhaps if we hire multitudes more principals (yeah, right). And, although I am fortunate enough to have always worked with the best of the best in my career, I do know of cases where nepotism, or prejudice, or simply personality conflicts do exist; and even if not intentional, subjectivity is, once again, bound to rear its ugly head.

This brings us to test scores: objectivity at its prime. Can we say “cultural/regional bias”? How about the “Pineapple test question”? (Google it.) Let’s not even mention the whole narrowing of the curriculum piece. Better yet, let’s mention it, “Put away that science experiment, Mr. Smith, and permanently shelve that brain research discussion, Mrs. Johnson. Those topics are not on the test!” Neither are the appreciation of art, literature, music. Neither are love, respect, giving, prudence, critical thinking, perseverance (except in the case of the Hare versus the Pineapple). Oh, and do the tests accommodate those with other learning styles, those who are not good written test-takers, those who come from a variety of backgrounds, those whose larger worries are the threats of a bully or of an abusive uncle? How about those whose gifts lie outside the test parameters?

Merit pay? Hmm … I suppose it is intended to get and keep quality teachers. Well, perhaps to that end we might have more rigorous requirements to obtain a professional teaching certificate, a salary to reflect that, a reliance on professional educators for making educational decisions, and creative autonomy for these professionals (many outstanding teachers have left the profession for lack thereof. I know that a couple years ago, I could have lost my job if my superintendent knew we were making a Latin roots display and planning a poetry coffeehouse night instead of “learning” roots and poetry from the mandated Pearson series — same company that writes pineapple questions no one can answer, creates test prep to prepare for their test questions, bribes superintendents to purchase their wares, and now wants to rob our schools even further by selling teacher evaluation kits to see how well we are “teaching” their products). Let’s follow Finland’s example.

Merit pay? You won’t find me in that line. I’m too busy doing what I really love.

Amy Orvis is a national board-certified Rockford Public School District 205 teacher.

From the June 27-July 3, 2012, issue

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