This is the second in a four part series. I have a lot of thoughts about education. A lot. The system is broken and this junk ain’t fixing it. Part one here.
It was the second day of testing. I brought in The Princess Bride to
watch critically view. (For real though, parents, admin we were looking for archetypes and how the movie subverts them. You don’t have to worry, always standards driven up in my classroom. Always rigorous and relevant.) I had properly shamed my students for never having seen the movie and truly shamed the kid who dared to ask me “are we really gonna watch some princess movie?” (Education starts at home people! I am in charge of the classic literature, you are going to have to be responsible for pop-culture classic film.)
My students were quietly
watching critically viewing the movie digital text, and I was putting in grades. (This may sound like a minor deal, but I need you to know that our grading program is web-based and the entire school has less bandwidth cable than your house.) From the part of my brain that was carefully monitoring the noise level in the room I heard this line, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT YOUR JOB IS ON THE LINE!”
Andre the Giant is pulling the entire party up the cliff, and the boss whose name I always forget, but the tiny bald guy played the dad of a friend on the Cosby show, he yells in frustration “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA THAT YOUR JOB IS ON THE LINE!” and it is funny, to the audience, because it is completely obvious that job or not Andre the Giant is already going just as fast he can.
Despite my students protests I pressed the back button and watched the scene again. It was the perfect metaphor for what is going on in education right now. This is the way that merit pay is being instituted. As teachers are strapping their classes to their backs and climbing up an impossible cliff just as fast as they can we are being yelled at that we better kick it up a notch, because our paycheck is on the line.
NEWSFLASH: People who are seriously motivated by the big bucks don’t become teachers. I am not going to gripe about my pay check. I knew how much I was going to make when I signed up for this gig. I signed up for this gig because I believe in education as a way to empower students to rise out of whatever circumstance they find themselves in and live a beautiful life.
Teachers want their students to succeed. We are already doing every single thing we can think of to get our students to succeed. Threatening us with a pay cut if we don’t do better is not going to help. Because we are already doing everything we can think of. Really. I promise. This threat is coming out in one two-word phrase: merit pay.
So let’s talk about what I mean when I say merit pay. Saying merit pay is like saying “enough cheese” my idea of enough cheese and my girls’ idea of enough cheese are vastly different and still both far, far greater than what the USDA says is enough cheese (whatever, those people don’t know anything).
At its base teacher merit pay just means that you get money for doing certain things. Sometimes people think of it like an end of the year bonus, and sometimes it is like that, but as more and more states move to merit pay to get more federal funding, bonus isn’t what it is shaking out to be.
So, when I tell you I have a problem with merit pay, I am not whining about not getting a bigger bonus at the end of the year. I am whining about having my paycheck potentially cut in half. (We will get to the losing my license and getting fired part tomorrow.) I am speaking up about the fact that potentially, it could be more lucrative for me to quit my job as a certified teacher, become a substitute teacher and never have to write my own lesson plans again.
Take for example, the state of Georgia. If I read the legislation correctly, (and please Jesus let me be wrong) in the 2014-15 school year fifty percent of my paycheck will be based on merit pay. Not fifty percent of my bonus, not fifty percent of my raise, fifty percent of what they already pay me. So, if I make $40,000 I am now only guaranteed $20,000 of that. The rest depends on my students test scores. Because, while merit pay theoretically can be based on far more than test scores, practically speaking it is almost always based solely on how your students do on one lousy test.
Merit pay doesn’t mean how much extra are you going to get, it means how much of your paycheck are they going to keep.
The standards are so impossible that I am beginning to suspect that the legislature saw a way to make massive, massive cuts to teacher pay and get away with it. As it currently stands, merit pay will be handed out based on two questions. Did your students make the raw score that means they have passed? and Did your students make improvements while in your classroom? (25% of your merit pay for each metric)
So, if I work with high needs students who are way less likely to make the cut, if I have a deep passion for English language learners, if I am really great at teaching special ed kids, if I long to make a difference in the lives of kids whose lives are being adversely affected by systemic poverty, I won’t get all of my paycheck. These kids are the least likely to make the raw score needed for a million complicated reasons, none of which are that their teachers are terrible.
Meanwhile, if I teach honors kids, if I am really great at taking a kid who is used to sitting back and raking in the A’s, if I know how to push them to write a better paper, solve a harder equation, and inspire them to do something truly remarkable, I will be punished too. While teaching honors classes means you are pretty much guaranteed to receive the piece of merit pay marked “raw score,” good luck getting your students to improve. If they come in with a 98%, you have to get them to 100% or you don’t get your improvement merit pay.
I work at a school that is regularly named in US News “top schools in the nation.” Never, not even one time has a students scored a 100% on any EOCT. Ever. Now, all the kids in your honors class will have to make a score that has never even happened once in order for you to earn all of your paycheck. Pardon me if I am beginning to suspect that merit pay is just a thinly veiled attempt at paying teachers less.
The most irritating thing about this whole merit pay business, is that really, when done holistically, teachers are generally for merit pay. There are lots of ways to do it well. My personal favorite is a points based system. The teachers choose from a list the ways that they will earn their merit pay. You earn ten points, you earn 100% of said pay. So, you are a class advisor, 2 points. You work at a high needs school, 4 points. You developed curriculum that the rest of the school now uses, 3 points. You took on the added responsibility of leading a program for your principal, 4 points. Test scores are just a portion of the points you can earn. Denver school systems use this system, and it works. It gives teachers the added benefit of being paid for the extra work that they do, and it still takes into account test scores. This system treats teachers like the holistic professionals they are and trusts them to do good work, while still paying them for it.
But, as we learned yesterday, teachers aren’t allowed to have opinions about how they should get paid. If they are the saint teacher they don’t care about making a living wage they will do this job no matter what! Only the lazy teachers are the ones whining about the pay and they don’t deserve the money anyway.
Teaching is complicated, merit-based-pay need to respect the complications and see the teacher as more than just a test score factories. Merit pay needs to be based on the idea that teachers are already doing the very best we can. Putting our paychecks on the line won’t kick anybody into a higher gear. We were already going as hard as we know how.