So now the solution to the problems in public schools is merit pay

By Martha Cheney

So now the solution to the problems in public schools is merit pay. As I read the article in the Aug. 5 Daily Journal I felt a sense of frustration. So many random questions flooded my mind.
Have our leaders carefully studied merit pay plans in other states? This is not a new idea and the last time I really studied the issue states that were implementing merit pay were facing major problems.
Don’t we already have a form of merit pay in our National Board Certification initiative? This is not a perfect system but it does provide open access and operates outside the politics of the system. Participation depends on teacher initiative and the application process itself provides growth opportunities. Would studying and refining this process be beneficial?
How do we measure outstanding teachers? I think I know an outstanding teacher when I see one but I do not think I could devise a system that would be objective enough to differentiate between those who deserve merit pay and those who do not. Effective teachers come in varied forms and use different teaching strategies. Excellent teaching is an art that is not easily defined.
Why don’t we propose merit pay for administrators and elected officials? There are certainly those in both fields who are better than others. Since elected officials and administrators are proposing and commenting on teacher merit pay perhaps teachers should be asked to propose and comment on merit pay for administrators and elected officials. Surely teachers know as much about how to measure excellence as administrators and elected officials. After all, we trust them with our most valued resource, our children – surely we can trust them to develop a system for evaluating administrators and elected officials.
Have we asked teachers how merit pay would impact their school? Faculties, at their best, are cooperative learning communities that use their varied talents to nurture the growth of students. Interjecting merit pay into the culture would inevitably replace this sense of shared responsibility with drive for individual recognition.
What about race? To pretend that we in Mississippi are past the race issue is wrong. We have come a long way but implementation of a merit pay system would provide opportunities for conflict that we simply do not need at this time.
How can politics and personality be eliminated from a merit pay system? I never served on a faculty where the administrators did not have favorites. (As a principal I had the same problem regardless of how much I thought I was being objective.) Usually the favorites are teachers who know how to “play the game” and sometimes they are truly outstanding teachers. Sometimes their teaching style simply matches the administrator’s preferred style. Sometimes there are personal relationships. Regardless, as both a teacher and administrator I never experienced an evaluation system that was truly objective and fair. Since merit pay is just another form of teacher evaluation that carries the added weight of financial reward the pressure on the process would be even greater than it currently is.
Can we trust student test scores as indicators of a teacher’s effectiveness? So many variables that are outside a teacher’s control impact student achievement. What about parental expectations? What about school schedule? What about teaching resources and conditions? What about the assignment of students to specific classes? Placing total responsibility for test results on individual teachers will never be fair. And if we could devise a fair system, would test scores accurately reflect what an outstanding teacher contributes to a student? What about inspiration? What about values? What about a love of learning? What about a positive attitude and sense of humor?
My father, who served as a county superintendent and legislator, repeatedly said that no teacher was fairly paid. “Some are overpaid and some are underpaid.” He never thought that he had a solution to this issue and neither do I. All teachers need adequate pay, but more than that they need to work in an environment that demands excellence. They need to be led by administrators who model hard work, courage, intelligence and dedication. They need support from parents and the community. And if they are not able or willing to perform on an acceptable level, they need to be encouraged to find another occupation.
Our schools face a variety of challenges. Do we really want to create controversy about merit pay when addressing other, more basic issues would produce more lasting benefit? I fear that the answer to this is, “Yes.” We seem to be in a period when we value divisive arguments more than we value making hard decisions. So we are left with the sense of frustration that I mentioned at the beginning of this article and teachers are again being targeted to be “reformed”. And we wonder why the profession does not attract more “bright” students and why our current teachers are tired.
Contact retired educator and consultant Martha Cheney, who lives near Tupelo, at mcheney1@bellsouth.net.