Merit Pay: It Doesn't Work!

I've said it before!
Following the wrong example

Houston teacher Laura Taylor examines proposals for merit pay for teachers in light of the experience in her school district.

March 24, 2009

IN HIS recent speech, President Barack Obama spoke about the importance of education in our country and declared that under his administration, "good teachers will be rewarded with more money for student achievement."

Obama gave two examples of school districts already doing this, one being the district that I teach in, Houston Independent School District (HISD). The largest school district in Texas, HISD has been at the forefront of using standardized test scores to determine bonuses.

Given this, you might expect merit pay and standardized testing to be universally effective and accepted within HISD. In reality, they are anything but.

In this economy, it's difficult for any person to turn down extra money. Yet a survey done by HISD right after bonuses were awarded in January found that only 45 percent of teachers and other school employees liked the system.

Every year, it seems, the HISD administration rolls out yet another version of ASPIRE, the program that determines these bonuses. And every year, confusion and frustration reigns among teachers.

Though the district pours in money for professional development to explain the program, the merit pay "awards" still feel arbitrary to many teachers. As Houston Federation for Teachers President Gayle Fallon told the Houston Chronicle, "They're still comparing it to winning the lottery."

Part of what makes the system so controversial is the tremendous amount of bonus money that goes to principals and administrators.

For the most recent round of bonuses, School Superintendant Abelardo Saavedra gave himself the largest, paying himself $77,500 out of a possible $80,000, in addition to his annual salary of $327,010. The next highest paid were executive principals, many earning bonuses of well over $10,000. Teachers who did earn a bonus got nowhere near that amount. And more than 2,100 eligible employees earned nothing.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

EVEN IF the merit pay distribution appeared to be fair to those involved, it would still be a failure.

On the surface, it might appear like a good idea to reward teachers--who are underappreciated and underpaid--with more money. However, this is not the role merit pay plays in the school system. Merit pay is another way to divide teachers, fostering competition between teachers instead of collaboration.

It also goes against what I have experienced as a teacher. Teachers do their best not because they could earn more money if they do, but because they care about their students. Barbara Falcon, a high school teacher who opted out of the system this year, agrees. "I am against ASPIRE because, as an insider, I clearly see that you cannot improve the quality of teachers or teaching unless teacher salaries in total are raised," Falcon told the Houston Chronicle.

On top of the problems inherent within merit pay is the way in which money is divvied up. Merit pay schemes reward not good teachers, but those who are most effective at test preparation.

When merit pay is involved, student achievement becomes simply student scores on standardized tests. Any teacher can tell you that standardized tests are not the best measure of student achievement. Not only are they culturally biased, but they typically represent the lowest levels of thinking, via multiple-choice answers, and leave no room for creative and critical thinking.

Relying on standardized testing removes the trust we have in our teachers to determine student achievement. What is a better measure of student learning--an assessment by the teacher who spends every day with a student or high-stakes, fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests?

Beyond this, because standardized testing has come to determine everything from bonuses to student promotion, teachers are increasingly pressured to "teach to the test." Learning is focused on figuring out the right answer in the mind of test creators, rather than the most creative answer.

In many schools, entire lessons are devoted to teaching young children how to appropriately fill in the bubbles for these standardized tests. Principals and superintendents, who are looking forward to big merit pay bonuses, push teachers to focus on this test preparation rather than genuine learning.

The use of merit pay in HISD is not an example for others to follow, but rather a cautionary tale. Those who seek to improve our public school--teachers, parents, students and community members alike--should oppose merit pay in favor of paying all our teachers a fair wage and fully funding teaching, not test preparation.

Total Pageviews