Not Much To Like In Obama’s Education Speech

For now I’m only going to mention one part: Merit Pay.

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,”

Sounds great, right? Someone like me – dedicated, hard working, cares about students – ought to really support it, right? Well . . .

First, it’s based on a myth, that schools are full of ancient slobs of teachers made lazy by tenure who do nothing but sleep at their desks while students cry out, desperate for an education. And there probably are teachers like that. I’ve never met one. Every teacher I know works extremely hard at their job. They all spend hours preparing, constantly try new ideas hoping one will work, and care deeply about the success of their students. They all deserve a reward.

Second, I have serious doubts about the definition of “merit.” In my parish, our merit pay depends on our entire school’s performance on the state-wide tests. I don’t know if every other school district would also make individual rewards dependent on group results. I hope not, especially since what I do in 7th grade history has absolutely nothing to do with the test results in 6th grade math. So I see no reason, if the 6th grade students all passed the test, that teacher ought to lose her reward because my students did not. Whether or not other schools made that mistake, though, I do know that no matter how they try to disguise it, nine of ten schools would tie merit pay to student performance on standardized tests.

Those tests are a good idea as a general indicator of what students have learned. As they are now – the end all be all of education – not so much. I really don’t want to make them even more important than they already are.

Third, merit pay is not fair, at least not based on standardized tests. Why? Let me explain.

In my school, the students are grouped by ability in each subject. That means some classes are stronger than others.

At one end of the spectrum is my first hour class. There are 22 students in that class; there’s never less than 20 on any given day. They always have pens, books, and pencils ready. I have no discipline problems from them. When we have parent events, their parents are always present. When I involve current events in class discussions, someone always knows what I’m talking about. These students do all my assignments, take all the notes, study for their tests, and make excellent grades.

At the other end is my seventh hour class. This one also has 22 on the role. Rarely do more than 15 arrive for class. The first five minutes are a chaotic attempt to settle fights, provide pens and paper, and force them to start working. Usually at least one or two will have to leave class due to constant disruptions. If I mention a current event, they look at me like I’m speaking another language. I think I’ve talked to one of their parents. Only about a third regularly do their class work. Ditto taking notes. On average, when I give a test, two or three will make an A, four or five more will pass and the remaining fifteen or so will fail.

Anyone want to guess how the two classes will fair on their state tests next month? And when one group fails and the other succeeds, whose fault is it? They have the same teacher, the same curriculum, the same environment, the same resources. Could it possibly be . . . their own fault!

This discrepancy between students is the major problem with merit pay. Some teachers have nothing but students like those in my first hour class. Some have nothing but students like those in my seventh hour class. When the foreseable happens – the first group doing exceedingly better than the second – it would be grossly unfair to reward the first teacher for that group’s success. The students, not the teacher, are the issue. If anything, the second teacher needs higher pay for having to deal with such a difficult situation.

Maybe Obama has a secret plan to avoid all the problems I’ve mentioned. The speech was just a broad outline. If not, though, I guess I’m one of these greedy, lazy teachers who opposes merit pay.

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