Guest Column: The demerits of an unmerited teacher pay system

July 11, 2012

By Tim Hughes

After reading Amy Orvis’ June 27 guest column, I have no doubt she’s a dedicated teacher and a blessing to her students. Her passion shows through her writing, but when she dances to the music the education establishment uses to muddy the waters of accountability, I take issue with her.

She decries the apparent evils merit pay would create and cites one of the education establishment’s favorite targets: “teaching to the test.” Consider that alleged evil as it applies to a classic example of “teaching to the test,” one with which we are all familiar — the state driver’s license exam. That’s certainly teaching to the test, and how many adolescents flunk that one? Orvis claims teaching to the test “crushes innate creativity”; just how, she doesn’t explain. Are we to believe a driver-eligible teen will say, “Gee, I’d like to get my driver’s license so I can hang with my friends, but that state driver’s license manual sure teaches to the test and might crush my creativity. Guess I better walk or take a bus.”

And isn’t that teen victimized by Orvis’ hypothetical abusive uncle, instead of being traumatized to the point of paralysis by the experience, going to let teaching to the test get in the way of a driver’s license that might make him independent of that uncle? What is worth learning is worth testing, and if we had more of the latter, we might not have so many functional illiterates crossing the stage to receive their diploma.

Orvis throws up rhetorically inflated questions as obstacles to using testing to determine teacher eligibility for merit pay, questions such as “Can we say cultural and regional identity?” Can I say, “Oh, please!”? The former is code for, “We teachers know your bell bottoms and name-brand sports gear is more important to you than a diploma,” and the latter says, “Rather than damage your fragile self-esteem by correcting non-standard regional colloquialisms, y’all can keep on using them.”

Orvis no doubt loves her students, but I wonder if that love extends to faith in their ability to meet a challenge; perhaps not, considering the minor obstacles she envisions in the examples she gives.

Orvis asks how can we possibly know who should get merit pay? Does she really have to ask, or has she not heard of the Golden Apple Awards with their agreed-upon standard for selecting its winners? I once attended a Those Who Excel banquet where winning teachers actually had cheerleading sections in attendance. If we can figure out who gets Golden Apple or Those Who Excel honors, we can use the same criteria for merit pay, or those awards are nothing but a sham with nothing to cheer about.

Orvis adds nepotism and subjectivity to her list of merit pay crimes. Listen. District 205 drips with union nepotism. I knew of one situation where a union-approved “honors” teacher turned in a semester’s worth of lesson plans consisting of 16 words! An objective system of merit pay would end such abuses.

Above all, I submit the greatest case for merit pay would be the elimination of the current system of merit pay, one which all teachers with seniority receive, whether they deserve it or not, and which is often funded at the expense of teachers just as dedicated and passionate about teaching as Orvis, but who have little or no seniority. The education establishment ballyhoos that merit pay pits teacher against teacher, but that happens whenever good teachers lose their jobs in order to pay teachers good or bad annual seniority pay increases. It leads to bitterness and heartbreak and has been a real problem for District 205 efforts to recruit minority teachers, since minority students in colleges and universities across the nation have been warned of Rockford’s notorious reputation for firing new and beginning teachers without seniority. Orvis may think that merit pay isn’t as good as it sounds, but when you consider the devastation left in the wake of seniority rights coming first, especially where minority teachers are concerned, I submit that it sounds a clarion call to reform!

So if passion and dedication are Orvis’ sole objectives, and she, like others like her don’t want that passion tainted by grubby merit pay money, why not donate their merit pay earnings to the general fund of the schools in which they teach? That would give each merit pay recipient an added dimension to their passion for learning and dedication to students.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the July 11-17, 2012, issue

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