MNPS Teacher Molly Handler offers her thoughts on merit pay:
When I first began teaching 9 years ago in MNPS, Vanderbilt was beginning a pay for performance study in Nashville middle school mathematics classrooms. This was the first scientific study of its kind in the US, and it sought to answer if merit pay alone, independent of other resources and support, increased student achievement as measured by test scores. Teachers in my middle school were eligible to be part of this study; I declined to participate, and explained extensively in the questionnaire the ideological reasons for this. The results of this study suggest that performance pay alone did not improve student outcomes.
A few years later, the same school in which I was working was eligible for the TIF grant which, “supports efforts to develop and implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools.” Eligibility for performance awards is based on student achievement growth, educator effectiveness and professional growth. If you examine the matrix used by my district to determine these performance awards, there is one lone area in which a teacher may earn incentive pay that is not directly tied to standardized test scores. This was not something I could opt out of, as I had the Vanderbilt study so I vowed that if I ever received money from this grant that I would not be able to keep it.
My third year of working at a TIF eligible school (2013-2014) I received $1,000 via the grant. When I first found out I would receive this money I began to think about the organizations to which I would donate it, and was excited that I could represent an ideology in which I had strongly believed since my first year of teaching. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my thought process strayed from this for a while, and I strongly considered keeping the money. It’s no secret that teachers don’t make great money, and I had some bills I could put it toward. I told myself I deserved this money that it would be a small token for the overwork and underpay scenario in which I had been living for my entire teaching career. While it did not incentivize me to do anything differently than I would otherwise, it was a small portion of the money I was owed. During this time I also heard Diane Ravitch speak at Vanderbilt, and one thing she discussed was how merit-based pay systems have never worked in the teaching profession. She called them a ‘zombie idea,’ something that fails over and over yet just won’t die. This made me realize I could not abandon this ideology that I held before I ever even began teaching, before I knew significantly less than I do now about the realities of this profession. I decided to give this money (which ended up being about $600 after taxes and other deductions) to the Metropolitan Nashville Education Fund (affiliated with Metro Nashville Education Association) and the Johnella H Martin Scholarship fund. This scholarship is awarded to an MNPS graduate who plans to study teaching and learning, and is awarded for all 4 years of college. The following outlines my ideologies of why I oppose merit-based pay, and why the cause to which I gave this money represents the complete opposite of what merit-based pay (and privatization of public schools) suggest.
- Our profession deserves to be compensated, not individuals within the profession whose students score well on tests. Money should support increasing pay for all teachers, rather than only given to some. I’m not suggesting that every teacher should make the exact same money; I believe that differences in pay should be reflected by experience, commitment to the profession, and education. When merit pay is given only to some and based on a flawed accountability system we are being forced into the competitive free market mentality on which privatization is dependent. Differences in pay should not be inconsistent and retroactive as they are when based on test scores, and they should represent equitable choices that all professionals in the field may access if they desire rather than based on the whim of a single score. The field of teaching is the most successful and best advanced when teachers work in collaboration not competition.
- Rather than awarding some people extra money for test scores, that money would be better spent on services that actually serve the needs of students and families. Schools need resources…not always physical resources, but resources to help support the failures of our society that seem to fall squarely on the shoulders of our public schools (health care, a living wage, affordable housing, hunger, etc.). Receiving the actual social services that are needed in schools and classrooms is more valuable, useful, and rewarding to teachers than possible incentive pay. It is certainly more valuable to the neediest students and families. I believe all teachers would choose support services for their students and classrooms as a job ‘incentive’ rather than merit-based pay.
- The field of teaching is being de-professionalized, and merit-based pay is one of many vehicles for such de-professionalization. Giving this money in support of MNEA suggests that the teacher voice should be the one guiding the field of education, not the bureaucratic one. Decision makers in our field have become people with little to no teaching experience, and this dynamic has run rampant. Returning decision-making (not to be confused with power and authority) to the collective teacher voice is vital.
- The Johnella H Martin Scholarship fund supports students of the school system in which I work who want to make a commitment to become career teachers. We need young people to study and commit to this field and profession, rather than filling our classrooms with teachers from programs like Teach For America.
- The testing and accountability movement is the foundation on which the privatization movement is based. Its use to credit or discredit individual students, teachers, schools, or school systems, is ill willed, and flawed. Tests are important and useful, but they are simply indicators that should be used as such. Teachers should use them in the classroom to guide specific aspects and topics of instruction, and systemically they might provide the ability to generalize information over a longer period of time. Interpreting and using them narrowly and then attaching a high stakes institutionalized practice to them, which is used to make sweeping generalizations and important decisions that affect peoples’ lives, for example, how much income they bring home is misuse, ill informed, and morally reprehensible.
- What I witnessed on the ground level, during the implementation of these various plans, at various schools, amongst various staff, is that they did nothing to change the actual practices of teacher pedagogy and student learning for better or worse. Despite the fact that matrices laid out the desired input a teacher must achieve in order to earn merit-based pay, such understanding of teaching practice is problematic and ignorant both pedagogically and logistically. I watched as extra money was awarded or not awarded to people who taught subjects never tested, to people who far exceeded the number of absences within the matrix, to teachers who actively improved their practice, to people who did not intend to be career teachers, to people who showed strong compassion for students, to teachers who worked in isolation or collaboration, and to teachers who did or did not focus exclusively on teaching to the test. My point is, that if the goal of such a system is to change the practice of teaching and learning in a consistent way for the better, there seemed to be no correlation between earning merit-based pay with such an outcome. The idea that matrices will somehow allow teachers to understand exactly what they need to do in order to get higher test scores amazes me to this day, as if teaching and learning is like a function table, and all we must do is understand the right input in order to get the desired output. Then, we must be rewarded for such output because otherwise we aren’t incentivized to implement the input in the first place. The over simplicity of such a system is linear in thought and organization, as compared to the cyclical complexities of classroom teaching. This juxtaposition speaks strongly to the alienation and true motives of those trying to implement merit-based pay in the first place.
It seems we, as teachers, are powerless over many of these changes that seek to devalue our profession both monetarily and pedagogically. Even if law imposes TIF-like plans on us, it is our money and we may do with it what we like. Much in the same way that sick banks are established in large group health insurance plans, teachers might find a way to establish group plans that seek to redistribute merit-based pay that recognizes the entirety of the profession rather than the narrow measures of the few. Such a system could interpret this redistribution in any way deemed fit, as it could be divided up equally amongst its members, donated to a valuable cause, or used to purchase additional supports and services that go unfunded but that its members felt were vital to their work and for their students. Most importantly, however, it might empower us to reclaim that the true nature of our profession is to work collaboratively in service of our students and our field, rather than to compete with one another for individualized monetary benefit that is awarded via a single measure.
Allowing our field to be stratified and quantified based on attaching payment to test scores dehumanizes the realities of our day-to-day work. This alienation robs us of our humanity. I feel this dehumanization seeping into my profession and the lives of my students and myself more and more each day, as data and test scores supersede true learning, service, and compassion. We accept practices and ideologies with which we do not agree, that our training and experience contradict, as we are fearful for our livelihoods and our profession. As a teacher, I needed something to reassert myself and the humanity of my career. For me, accepting this money would have further forfeited my ability to define the relationships, actions, and knowledge that have become part of my identity and the profession of teaching. Teaching is an art, talent, service, belief, career, and skill set, and I cannot trade those things for a practice that suggests otherwise, even if such a practice involves a thousand dollars.
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