Merit Pay: An Idea With No Merit

By Jane Weinkrantz


    Imagine being a doctor and seeing a patient who is extremely ill. You prescribe drugs, you prescribe treatments, you do your best, yet, in the end, the disease proves fatal and your patients dies. Now imagine that several more of your patients succumb to the same disease. For each one, you try your best, consult with colleagues, read medical journals, try different medications and yet the illness remains deadly. You have some success with your other patients. You lower someone’s blood pressure, catch someone else’s cancer before it spreads, cure a little old lady’s bronchitis before it becomes pneumonia and get another person to stop smoking and lose 20 pounds. Now imagine: at the end of the year, the insurance company decreases their payment on your fees because too many of your patients died. Whose fault is that? After all, you’re not God, and what’s more you’ve got bills to pay. It seems unfair that a trained professional who tried her best and used all the resources available to her should be denied pay because of circumstances beyond her control. Yet, there you have the basic premise of merit pay, a dangerous and divisive idea that is catching on.

    Merit pay works on the notion that a teacher is the only factor in a student’s academic performance. If you do your job, the students will pass the standardized tests. Period. Forget about students facing overwhelming obstacles to achievement: poverty, learning disabilities, speaking a language other than English, poor attendance, child abuse, none of these things matter. Neither do overcrowded classrooms, obsolete equipment, insufficient textbooks or a crumbling physical plant.  If you are a really good teacher, you should be able to transcend all these things and aim your students’ futures straight for Harvard.

    According to a recent article by Michael Janofsky in The New York Times, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has embraced a merit pay program in which three categories of teachers can receive a $5000 merit pay bonus. They are A.P. teachers, science and math teachers and “the top one third of teachers in each school district as measured by classroom improvement.” How would you even measure the  top third of teachers in a school district? You would be comparing kindergarten teachers to high school French teachers to middle school technology teachers to elementary school gym teachers. What one standard of classroom improvement could you assess? For those of you who chose to teach ESL or special education or at-risk children, good luck. You won’t be rewarded for the hard work you do with the students voted, “least likely to ace the standardized tests.” Yet, the A.P. teachers---and, yes, some of my best friends are A.P. teachers--- who arguably have the most motivated and gifted and most teachable students in any high school will be vacationing in Monte Carlo this summer.

    Governor Romney’s agenda is certainly open to speculation. Janofsky writes, “Mr. Romney is widely considered a presidential contender for 2008, playing to a wider audience with everything he does. Education overhaul that features a market approach to setting teachers’ salaries has generally much wider popularity with Republicans.” However, the executive bonus, that corporate carrot at the end of stick is a bad idea in private enterprise, too. After a couple of miraculously shrinking or vanishing bonuses, my husband adheres to the adage, “Whenever possible, get all your money in salary upfront. If you must get a bonus, get the terms and percentage guaranteed.” Even if you thought merit pay was a good idea, it is easy to picture teacher bonuses being the first thing cut next time the budget takes a hit.

    Another obvious defect in the Romney plan is that it seems structured to reward teachers in districts that are already successful. After all, high income school districts are most likely to offer the most A.P. and advanced science and math courses. How will this Republican plan for rewarding those teachers eradicate “the soft bigotry of low expectations?”

    Not everyone in Massachusetts loves the governor’s proposal. According to Janofsky, “The co-chairmen of the education committee in the Democratic-controlled {Massachusetts} Legislature, who are sympathetic to the state’s teachers unions, say Mr. Romney’s goals could be better achieved with a more fundamental approach to education overhaul, like building more classrooms, spending more for texts and raising salaries across the board. 

    It’s more of a political statement,’ said Senator Robert R. Antonioni, ‘It plays to those who feel the teaching profession is inadequate by trying to walk around the rank and file.’”

    The president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, Kathleen Kelly, has pointed out that Romney’s plan was developed without input from anyone in the education community. Presumably, the governor is banking on the idea that teachers will do what they are told---for the promise of $5,000.



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