Dirty Money: Teacher Merit Pay

Dirty Money: Teacher Merit Pay

I don’t have a moral high ground here because I got merit pay this summer, was excited about it, and spent it, but I don’t believe that I deserve it more than many other teachers I know.  It’s an unfair system that leaves out entire populations of teachers, and rewards those of us who have left behind the truly challenging classrooms for an easier population of students.

In my county, there are about 400 teachers who received a $2500 bonus in their August 1 paycheck. It was based on our TKES scores for 2014-15, and our student achievement scores for 2013-2014.  Throw in some voodoo math, and they came up with the list.

The first problem is that the student achievement score measurement is completely faulty.  To get this number, they compare 2012-13 scores to 2013-14 scores, and see how much improvement there is.  The scores measured are EOCT scores in whatever subject is taught.  Do you see the problem?  The scores being compared are completely different sets of students.  Any experienced teacher will tell you that each class (as in the entire grade level), has a different set of characteristics.

Here’s a “for instance.”

The freshmen class of 2012-13 had a fantastic experience with ELA.  But their math teacher was out on sick leave and family leave for a lot of the year.  They won’t have the math skills and knowledge of a group who had a fulltime, highly qualified math teacher.  Their math teacher for 2013-14 is starting off lower with that group than she did in previous years.  Her year with those students will be more challenging because she’ll be playing catch up AND teaching current curriculum.  Her scores will likely not be as high, through no fault of her own.  She won’t get merit pay, because it will look like her student achievement has gone down, when in reality, those kids learned a lot, but they started out behind.

And that brings me to problem #2.  I’m lucky.  I teach at a specialty school. My students have to apply to get in, keep their grades up and behavior on point, or they get sent back to their homeschool  We only offer honors academics. Sounds great, right?  It is.  I only had one student fail the EOCT in 13-14.  The year prior to that was at my former school, where I had eight students fail it.  My achievement numbers kicked butt, not so much because I’m awesome at what I do, but because I moved to a higher achieving school.

My former co-workers, who still teach in a regular high school, for the most part, did not get merit pay.  Why?  Because their kids are all the other kids who aren’t in private school or specialty schools.  That’s not to say they didn’t make progress, but the voodoo math used to determine merit pay compares from year to year, not by the student.

And here’s another issue.  I know a teacher who had a 100% pass rate on her student’s EOCTs.  How do you improve from that?  Will they measure the percent of students who score above a certain score?  Or is that teacher doomed to not get merit pay precisely because she had really good scores.

If education policy makers want to make this fair, measure the student at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. The difference between the beginning and the end for each student would be a much truer numerical indicator of a teacher’s success in the classroom.   Comparing the scores of two different sets of students isn’t truly measuring student achievement.  I’ve been railing against this amongst my coworkers for years, but like any teacher can tell you, policy makers have rarely spent much time in a classroom.

There are also whole groups of teachers who are excluded from this system.  Teachers who teach adaptive curriculum for example, the students who are learning to feed themselves and getting to the alphabet in high school, aren’t eligible, because their work doesn’t fit into a strictly numeric model.  Trust me when I say that teachers who teach kids whose adult diapers they have to change deserve more than a “I could never do your job” from their leaders.

Finally, even in a classroom where there is a numeric way to measure student progress, there is so much more to teaching than just the numbers. You can’t monetize mourning the death of a student with his peers, nor can you mathematically extrapolate the impact that death has on tests taken by his peers two weeks after his funeral.  You can’t numerically measure the emotional impact a teacher has on a student struggling with mental illness, hunger, abuse, loneliness, and any other number of issues we handle before we can get to compound sentences. I understand that the TKES model is supposed to take that into consideration.  However, our administrators rarely see all of the social and emotional teaching we do.  If a teacher is lucky, like I am right now, the administrators understand this, and pay attention to the culture and interaction the teacher has in the halls and in the classroom.

If merit pay were based on my suggestion, my peers in regular schools with regular students would actually have a chance at merit pay.  As it stands now, I feel like a complete hypocrite for complaining about a merit pay system that, just last week put new shoes on my feet and dressier work clothes in my closet.

I don’t feel like I’m something special because my students scored well on the test; what I feel is a general unease; I am definitely not as good a teacher as a lot of the people I have worked with who didn’t get merit pay.  I’ve seen them teach, been in their classrooms, and watched their students improve, regardless of their population. I’ve heard students talk about their experiences in other classrooms, and how much they learned from those other teachers.  But the system doesn’t measure actual individual student improvement.  If it did, the merit pay competition would be a completely different contest.