The education pendulum has always been a fluid, moving force that oscillates with the current political tide and the will of ever-debating ideological adversaries . Lately, however, the lever is stuck in a harrowing, dangerous position that threatens to further erode the entire education system for the worse. Within the billions of dollars set aside for education in President Obama’s plan, is an incentive amount of $5 billion to be used to foster “a race to the top” for “innovation and reform” within a select few states. What does this mean? It indicates that the push for merit pay schemes is slowly becoming the darling of some “reformers” who say teachers should be judged using their student’s test scores. This is a highly corrosive and ill-begotten road that educators will face, and our children are in harm’s way.
Primarily doling out the orders for this is Obama’s right hand man, Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In a June 8, 2009 Associated Press article he stated that not linking “student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge sports teams without looking at the box score.” Hardly. For example, isn’t it true that any seasoned basketball sports analyst might look also at defensive breakdowns, three point shooting, steals, turnovers, how tired or sick the players were, injuries, and who was thrown out of the game, etc. to determine the success or failure of a team? There is so much more to be gained by addressing the entire game in all of its aspects. That is what makes sports such a rich and entertaining venue. Teaching in a classroom is a likewise scenario in which a student’s performance needs to be addressed using multiple sources of evidence, such as portfolios, interviews, and presentations. Pay for performance plans, by primarily utilizing high stakes test scores for teacher evaluation, ignore the student’s fundamental right to be judged using the entire body of their human experience in school.
Merit pay plans have been tried in several places, but according to a May 2009 article in The Nation, none have yet to succeed that address the needs of the students. The merit pay premise assumes that if a teacher is paid to raise scores, instructional quality will increase. However, the only way to determine scientifically if the method works is to have the teacher teach a class using their current salary for an entire year and then assess them. Then the teacher needs to take the same class, reteach them a second year, but this time with merit pay attached to the results of their assessment. Then you could compare the scores from each year and see if they improved. Here’s the catch: if there was an increase you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was because of teaching the same curriculum a second time or because of the money enticement. No two class clienteles will ever be the same because of their individual human experiences, and no two sets of teaching methods will repeat exactly. Truly, the performance pay concept is impossible to implement accurately because every contaminating variable must be eliminated except for the teacher’s monetary incentive. However, even if all the variables could be known and excluded precisely, is this trivial concept justifiable in our school system?
A foreseeable problem is the increased abuse of high stakes testing and what it does to kids. The competitive nature of continually forcing test prep down students’ throats to increase one’s pay check is frightening. The Alliance for Childhood, which promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, has reported many instances of students becoming rife with anxiety, sickness, and overall depression because of the insane focus on testing. Also, The Sacramento Bee reported on April 25, 2009 that African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander students at Laguna Creek High School in Sacramento, California were forced to sit in groups by race to ‘pump them up’ for their state test. Each minority group was pushed to raise its test scores to help the school’s subgroup percentages increase, so they wouldn’t be looked at as underperforming. Such blatant racism would become rampant under Duncan’s plan.
Many students have even become so frustrated that they don’t bother to stay in school. In the Rice University report Avoidable Losses: High-Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis it states “disaggregation of student scores by race does not lead to greater equity, but in fact puts our most vulnerable youth, the poor, the English language learners, and African American and Latino children, at risk of being pushed out of their schools so the school ratings can show ‘measurable improvement.’ High-stakes, test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of these students from our schools”. Hence, it has been shown that a significant number of our dropouts have come from the inability to cope with continual pressure from high stakes tests.
Also, while it is widely known that cooperation and collaboration lead to increased lesson quality in the classroom, merit pay will lead to bitter disagreements and isolation between teaching professionals. What teacher would want to share their good instructional ideas with another if that meant that their coworker could use those same techniques, possibly get better results, and thus get a higher salary than themselves? Other countries, like Finland, have their teachers work as intense groups, assess students at the local level, and are simply paid very well for their efforts. Our teachers will be further separated and pushed to do things professionally unethical, like misusing class time for high stakes test preparation. This can lead, as it has in the New York City school system, to artificial increases in test scores, as reported on June 7, 2009 by the Daily News. There is no context with which to truly judge students’ performance. It becomes a numbers machine that ignores all educational justice.
Lastly, merit pay incentives would be enticing enough that the door would be wide open for school districts to manipulate data to make it appear as if test scores had risen, resulting in faulty reporting about student performance, and thus the improper allocation of merit pay would be a major problem. In Duncan’s own former school district, Chicago Public Schools, many schools were reconstituted because of their test score results. This means they were shut down, everyone was fired, and then they were reopened under new management. A report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research showed that test score gains in these locations, which Duncan touted, were inflated because student populations changed when more kids were referred to special education, and so their scores were not included; poor African American enrollment declined, many of whom previously had low scores; and students with limited English skills had their scores not tabulated in because of their language challenges. So, how can teachers be paid equitably in a system so flawed and rife with inequity?
What can be done to challenge the “race to the top” facade that threatens our public schools? Education professionals and coalitions need to press their local and national representatives to say that this merit pay reform path is immoral. A 2008 report from education advocacy group The Common Core stated that time in class could be, “better spent reading and discussing historical controversies, scientific discoveries, and literary works”, not “endless test preparation activities”. We need more people per child in schools to intensely focus and care for them. The state of Georgia has a High School Graduation Coach initiative that starts in the middle schools and heads off students from being lost in a huge crowd, keeps them engaged, and makes them feel important by a supportive net. This program has increased their graduation rate from 35% to 77% over three years, according to a May 2009 Parade magazine article. There is simply no merit in merit pay. The unraveling of decades of true classroom evidence and the erosion of public confidence in teachers by this faulty reform premise is creating unhealthy school environments. The race to the bottom needs to be stopped before it can start.