Posted in Commentary, Lessons Learned, Politics

The myth of merit pay

Our largest local school district handed out 600 pink slips to untenured teachers and support staff last Friday in anticipation of an enormous budget shortfall projected in the state of Arizona. Our new governor, a Republican who stepped into the role after Obama poached our Democratic governor to serve as his Secretary of Homeland Security (a department whose name still gives me the creeps), has informed districts across the state that they’ll have to make cuts, because the money is just not going to be there.

Part of the layoffs is preemptive, I think, and part theatrical. Such a drastic gesture is meant to scare the public into agitating against the cuts, or eventually passing a bond or budget override to make up the difference. An elementary school I drive past every day on the way to and from work has engaged in further dramatics and created “tombstones” mentioning various staff positions that are expected to be cut under a bold “R.I.P.” The reality is that even as they’re sending out pink slips, they are talking about rehiring many of those affected before the school year ends.

I commented to Scott that it’d be a good time to cull the chaff from the wheat, and only hire back the good ones. But that isn’t how it will happen; rehiring decisions will be made on the basis of seniority and credentials, and probably in that order.

There are a lot of folks who believe that this is wrong, and they blame the teacher unions. I don’t necessarily disagree about the wrongness, although I do have some qualms about laying the blame at the door of the unions. This is generally how it happens when people get laid off: last hired, first fired. Also, Arizona is a right-to-work state, where all employment is at-will. The teacher unions exist, of course, but they don’t have the power teacher unions did when I worked in Minnesota, and serve, at best, as advisory boards to the school boards who may feel free to disregard their input when it comes to such things as budget and salaries. Job actions generally do not receive popular support, and teachers who dare to demonstrate or complain (even off-hours) are subject to abuse in person and in the press. There are some individual districts where union membership is strong, and the teachers as a body have more political power than at others. But my experience as a public school teacher here was that the union was a non-entity. It had no power at my district, so no one joined, so of course it had no power. And the result was that the salary schedule was a farce and largely ignored, and teachers were expected to be grateful if they received a 1% cost-of-living increase each year.

In any case, with this history as a backdrop, there has been a lot of talk about “performance” or “merit” pay for teachers, and the idea that the way we improve education is by tying teachers’ paychecks (somehow, it’s never teachers’ AND administrators’ paychecks) directly to student performance, as demonstrated on standardized tests. President Obama is making the same noise on this point as previous presidents. The idea is if we raise the stakes, we’ll raise the children, or something like that, as if the spectre of raising a generation of dependent, functionally illiterate and innumerate pseudoadults wasn’t high enough stakes for some. (Certainly, it always was for me.) Traditionally, teachers (and their unions) balk at the notion, and I think the public reading of this reluctance is that it’s because those teachers know they suck, and are afraid to be held accountable because they know they will fail.

I have no doubt that that may well be true for some, and if that’s the case, we are all best served by their exiting the profession entirely. However, what people seem not to understand is that the reluctance stems more from a deep and somewhat discouraging understanding of the kids they’re working with, and the resources (or lack thereof) they have at their disposal to get the job done.

I was a good teacher. I know this because I frequently received praise from the teachers the kids had after they had me about how well prepared they were for the next level. I know this because parents of my former students would see me on the street and hug me and tell me how their kids tested out of the first year or two of high school Spanish upon leaving my middle school classes. I know this because my sophomores read, understood and were engaged in Pride and Prejudice, despite my colleagues mocking me for even attempting to do the book with them. I know this because I cared, and I busted my ass to be a good teacher. And when I felt like I couldn’t do it at that level anymore, I left.

There are, unquestionably, poor teachers out there who have no business being in a classroom. Of course, there are poor performers in every single profession, and the mechanism for dealing with that is clear: You fire them and replace them with better folks.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Naturally, I am accountable for my work. This was as true when I was checking groceries as it was when I was teaching as it is in my job now. It wasn’t fear that made me reluctant to buy into these particular accountability measures.

I didn’t leave any child behind. However, there were many over the years who stubbornly or apathetically lay down in the road as the rest of us moved on. There was the girl who skipped at least half of the days our class met. There was the boy who slept through my class every day, despite my constantly waking him up and occasionally asking him why he showed up at all if he was just going to sleep the whole time. (He never had an answer; just a shrug.) There was the girl who frequently missed my class for court dates; she’s the one who wanted to be an assassin when she grew up and those court dates were when she violated her probation by playing with guns.

And then there are those who just can’t keep up, and can’t get the support they need to even make the attempt.  There was the sweet kid who was clearly developmentally disabled, or what we would have, in a previous age, called “slow,” whom no one was willing to help, even though he clearly needed special education assistance.  When I spoke to the school counselor about his case, he said that there were no options for him other than his continued frustration and failure.  There were the kids that hadn’t gained the basic skills they needed all along the way who arrived in my sophomore English classes with a 4th-grade reading level.

What I, and other good teachers, objected to was the idea that food would be taken out of our family’s collective mouth based on THESE kids’ performance.  As a teacher, I cannot be responsible in one hour a day for all the abdication of responsibility that is happening throughout society:  by the child, by the child’s family, by the school district, by the state that funds it all.  And yet that’s what is being asked of teachers:  that they accept ultimate responsibility for the end performance of a “product” they had very little input into designing.  Put simply, the question is this:   Why am I, as a teacher, the only one responsible for the fact that a student who is truant, abused, impoverished, malnourished, lazy, disabled, and attending classes in a school where the ceiling is coming down in chunks, the heater doesn’t work, social promotion trumps skills mastery, and it’s 3 students to a textbook, is faring poorly on a state exam?   Blaming teachers, solely, for the failure of an entire system is nothing more than scapegoating.

As a teacher, I’m willing to take responsibility for my part; I am not willing to take responsibility for all the parts. A teacher is only one person in this village that is supposed to be raising this child, but the rest of the village isn’t being threatened with being penalized in the pocketbook for not doing its bit. In a perfect world, where every student showed up ready and able to learn and every teacher showed up ready and able to teach, performance pay makes perfect sense. In the real world, it does not.

The argument is that competition and accountability raise the bar of performance, but is that really true? Does the world of business, the paragon forever offered up as the best way to get things done in America, really pay people based on merit, as it claims to? Look around where you work. Don’t you know at least one person who is grossly overpaid for what they contribute? Don’t you know at least one person who is underpaid for what they contribute? How about all of these CEOs who have bailed with hefty golden parachutes from companies they’ve ruined? How does merit enter into their multi-million-dollar bonuses when they have so clearly failed to perform? And how about the pay of the firefighter who saves a house from destruction just in time for it to be foreclosed on because of the (evidently) meritorious actions of the former group?

An NBA Rookie picked 30th in the draft will earn $717,800 his first year in the “company,” before he’s done anything, before he’s performed for them at all. Minimum wage for any other rookie player is a measly $457,588. Contrast that with my first teaching job, wherein I earned $21,600 and couldn’t even get an advance on it to make the move from Nebraska to Minnesota to take the job. Where’s the merit in that? If you value a guy who plays a schoolyard game really well and makes money for other rich guys over a gal who prepares the future of America for life as a competent citizen, well, then, I suppose that scans. Personally, my value system would evaluate the merit of those two workers differently.

The U.S. President, putative leader of the free world and caretaker of the needs and advancement of 307.2 million people in his own country, makes $400K a year, plus a housing allowance and only 4 years job security. Compare that to the salary of one Sean Miller, new coach of the Arizona Wildcats, who will make $2 million a year in salary taking a job no one else wanted to yell at 18 boys in short pants, with a guaranteed 5-year run, and an extra million to sweeten the deal.

Merit? Are you kidding me?

And the thing about these jobs is that, if you stipulate the (faulty) premise that performance pay IS in action, in most jobs, it is your performance that is under consideration. For teachers, you’re being evaluated on other people’s performance. My last two years teaching, I had some 200 students in 6 grades. 200 people’s performance I had to ensure, beyond my own. Where’s the analog elsewhere in business? Who else is being held directly accountable for the individual performances of 200 other people while simultaneously excusing those 200 people from being responsible for their own performance? One can fire an underperforming employee who is making one’s division look bad; a teacher cannot fire a student. You have to work with whomever walks through the door.

It is a truism in American labor that the harder you work, the less you make. If you make things, you’ll never get paid as much as those who make money. The biggest paychecks are brought home by those who never get their hands dirty, those who don’t deal with customers directly, those who are not in the trenches doing actual work. Having worked in public schools, in a private school, and in the private sector, I can attest to this. That alone puts paid to the cherished fantasy of “merit” being the basis of compensation in the “real world.”

But fantasy is all it is. It all sounds good, and sensible; I mean, who doesn’t believe that we should all be rewarded for the effort we put out? Well, our entire culture, actually. The reality we create through our individual and societal choices makes the principle irrelevant and, if not disingenuous, certainly naive. If we take a long, hard look at ourselves and the reality of working America, we have no option but to accept that few of us get what we deserve when it comes to our actual performance, for better and worse, nor is the system prepared to correct that absent an extremely bloody revolution. Expecting teachers to be held to a standard of performance the rest of us are unlikely, and probably unwilling, to meet, is just plain wrong.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

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