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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

Merit Pay Won't Work

by Jamie Beasley

Some people fear change; I have always embraced it. That’s why I was refreshed by the excitement that followed last year’s election of Barack Obama, regardless of whether or not he was first on my list. As a teacher, I saw that he valued public education and I looked forward to the positive change he could bring to it. I was right there with him, until I heard three little words: merit-based pay.

The idea behind merit-based pay holds a world full of good intentions. I know that I work very hard at what I do to be the best teacher I can be and I would love to be rewarded for that work. The problem, thus, does not lie in merit-based pay itself but in the real world application of this idea. There are three ways I have heard merit-based pay could be measured, none of which are feasible in the reality we know today.

Test scores, namely those from the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, are the primary measuring stick I have heard associated with merit-based pay. These will not work because not every class gives an SOL test. Furthermore, if pay were to be based on the SOL tests, teachers would begin to teach to the test even more so than some are doing now. Any educator can tell you that teaching to the test is a real phenomenon that ultimately hurts most everything good in education. Reflect on your own time in school: what had the most impact on you? Chances are you don’t remember that stellar worksheet on World War II your teacher made, but you might remember visiting the Holocaust Museum. As more and more weight is put on the SOL tests, less and less time will be available for students to actually interact with the material, as opposed to simply covering it to put a check next to a school-, county- or state-generated to-do list.

Since SOLs aren’t a part of every classroom, another option is to look at the grades students receive in each teacher’s class as a way to evaluate student performance. The problem with this is obvious: teachers will end up giving higher grades. Especially in today’s economy, any teacher who is faced with the decision between elevating grades or losing pay will find it hard to not cheat the system.
A discouraging commonality between both of these options is that the teacher is being assessed more by what the students do than his or her own performance. By using SOL scores or grades, it is the student’s merit being appraised rather than the teacher’s. How could teacher merit be evaluated? One common idea is that the work of the teacher could be evaluated by means of observation by a superior. This option is far too subjective: to one observer, a good classroom is quiet and controlled; to another, it is active and energetic. Add to that the fact that resources are strained right now for most school systems. In a world where teachers are sometimes asked to buy toner for printers in the classroom, what funds would be available to pay an observer?

This begs another question: who is qualified to assess the work of a teacher? Could anyone outside the classroom really understand the worth of a teacher? Would they be willing to stay after school to see the work the teacher puts in after hours on a lesson? Would they consider the emotional involvement teachers have with their students as they listen to their struggles and try to teach more about life than what is in the textbook? The value of a teacher is bigger than what can be assessed in a 20-minute classroom observation or a bar graph of test scores.

The problem is this: teachers are not assembly workers. There is no cookie-cutter product shot out of the end of a metal belt at the end of our day that can be measured for accuracy. That being said, there is no easy, cookie-cutter way to assess a teacher. And the idea of the government creating some asinine way of assessing a teacher’s merit without taking into consideration every aspect of teaching is frightening.
I have not given up hope for a positive change to come to education soon. But we must be cautious. No one can afford another unfunded, federally mandated, ill-thought-out school scheme: not the counties, not the teachers, and not the students.

Beasley, a member of the Hanover Education Association, teaches English at Lee-Davis High School.



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