Merit Pay for Teachers: An Alternative Model

Merit pay for teachers, also commonly called ‘pay for performance’ is a huge part of President Obama’s education reform platform (an extension of NCLB) and is an attempt to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance on standardized state tests. Under this structure, teachers receive merit pay (bonuses) when their students score Proficient or Advanced or in some cases, when teachers take on additional responsibilities like designing curriculum or mentoring new teachers.

My biggest complaint about this structure is that it is ill defined (as are most educational reform efforts). Individual districts get to decide how they measure teachers, who they measure, what amount the bonuses are, how many bonuses they give out, and any other special awards/recognitions teachers get (e.g., the title of Distinguished Teacher). What of teachers who don’t teach tested subjects? What about those who teach students with IEPs? Should they be pitted against teachers with ‘gifted’ students? This model is also limited because it uses students’ test scores as the sole indicator of teacher effectiveness. Anyone who’s ever taught one day in a public school classroom knows this perception is myopic and unfair. There are many indicators of teacher quality far beyond summative test scores. What of pedagogical practices? Classroom climate? And in what world does it make sense to measure effectiveness once per year? Talk about a weighty assessment.

In no other profession is your future employment status determined by meritstandardsomeone else’s performance on a single indicator. Yes, I get that a great teacher should have students with high test scores; however, no matter how great a teacher you are, you can’t control factors like amount of sleep students had the night before the test, student motivation, student effort, the temperature of the testing room, or the fact that the test does not accommodate ELL students or students with unidentified LDs.

In my Education Reform class, the student who chose to lead discussion on merit pay found an alternative model with which I agree. TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement has a 3 pronged approach to evaluating teachers, as well as tiered financial incentives tied to experience and workload. Simply put, teachers are evaluated 50% on 4-6 classroom observations conducted throughout the year by a combination of the principal, master teacher, and mentor teacher—each of whom have been trained to use the TAP rubric. 20% of their evaluation is accounted for by school level performance on summative standardized tests. The remaining 30% is based on the teacher’s classroom performance on standardized tests.

I like this model because the emphasis on a single classroom of students is lessened, pedagogical practices are evaluated by an extremely rigorous rubric (which I can’t share here because it is copyrighted) by multiple qualified entities in the school, and most of all, performance is calculated using a value added growth model. You can see how a value added model is a better measure of teacher effectiveness if you consider the variability in student ability within and between classrooms. If my students begin the year 2.5 grade levels behind in math, it will be much harder for me to get them to Proficient or Advanced than my colleague whose students began the year at grade level. This model recognizes teacher and student achievement growth even if students do not perform at Proficient on a standardized test. In an interview with an elementary school principal whose school uses this, she also added that individual schools set their own growth targets even though TAP has a minimum of 1 year growth and a 2.5 out of 5 in instructional quality to qualify for the bonus.

I also like that there is a predetermined bonus amount for which all teachers qualify so they are not competing against one another for one pot of money (though there is an addendum to this. see below). Finally, I like the encouragement of professional development while remaining a classroom teacher because so often in education, a promotion means leaving the classroom in favor of an office.

And with increased responsibility comes increased financial incentive. At the particular school my class visited last week, classroom teachers could make $2500 extra per year, mentor teachers could make $5000 extra/year and master teachers could make $10,000 extra per year (there is 1 master teacher at this school and 4 or 5 mentor teachers). What is also great is that teachers do not need to achieve targets in all 3 domains to get a bonus. If just my classroom, but not the school makes the growth goal, and I average a 3 out of 5 on my classroom observations I receive 80% of the $2500.

But there are two aspects of this model I dislike. First, let’s say I am one of 10 classroom teachers in my school. Let’s also say that of the 10, only 2 made their classroom test growth goals. The pot of money earmarked for classroom teacher test growth bonus pay is now being divided between the 2 teachers who made their classroom goals which means that even though I have a theoretical max of $750 for my classroom goals (30% of $2500), I could actually get more than that because there is ‘extra’ money in that pot. My issue is that a max should be a max. I don’t think this affects between teacher competition because frankly, 70% of my bonus is still being decided by other factors and 20% of that remaining 70% fosters school-wide collaboration. But still, this rubs me the wrong way.

My second issue with this model is that while I like it for teachers, I don’t like it for administrative and support staff (e.g., principals, counselors, interventionists, literacy coaches, etc). Their model is 50% observation and 50% school performance. So if an entire school fails to make their growth goal, the school counselor’s bonus is now cut in half compared to a classroom teacher who only loses 20% of her bonus despite having more direct influence on students’ learning. I would like this better if all schools (schools choose their model) adopted the 50-20-30 split for everyone where a counselor or interventionist will be evaluated on content knowledge in place of student growth.

My final concern is actually more a concern about reform efforts in general. In my course we talked a lot about scale up and sustainability of reform models. Schools become TAP schools through a grant application process which means that once the grant ends (usually after 4 years), there are no more bonuses, no TAP rubrics to use and no master or mentor teachers funded through TAP (a school can of course have master and mentor teachers but the money to pay them needs to be found elsewhere). Though the principal at the school I visited was confident that the ‘mindset’ of rigorous teaching and learning had been instilled during their 4 years as a TAP school (she said ‘teachers see this rubric and realize, this is just good teaching!’), I remain uneasy about the future of the school’s culture when TAP teachers leave and new teachers enter. I don’t think anyone who becomes a classroom teacher does so because of financial rewards, so I am not worried about the loss of financial incentives. But I am worried about how they will support consistent and strategic good teaching in a cadre of underpaid, overworked new teachers without the very visible carrot outlining how to pull the cart faster and more efficiently regardless of which students are along for the ride.


The Politicization of Pedagogy

This is not make-believe, or as we used to say, for play-play.

I teach real shit to real students in a real classroom. My classroom is a battleground. I talk about issues of stratification, marginalization and subjugation. We read about access and opportunity so students might recognize that the latter cannot exist without the former. We watch documentaries depicting the ‘other’ so that students can use the social as a mirror for the self. I push them to contextualize their experience through the lens of someone else with hopes that tolerance turns to understanding.purpose of education

This is real life.

This is my life. My presence is political.

I am a twenty-something single, childless black woman in a space never meant to be my own. Questions about hiring processes, affirmative action, targeted opportunities and other banal phrases meant to ask ‘what the f*** is she doing here?’ Well I got news for you. Celie said it first: “Dear God, I’m here!” I made it. I played the game. I earned the right to sit at the table.

My journey was political.

I befriended whom I needed and smiled at just the right time. I laughed at lame jokes and cried when no one was looking. I asked for help when I knew I needed it but was certain not to appear unable. I wrote three drafts but told you I freestyled it because you needed to be impressed. I gave you that. And you gave me…

My body is political. And you made that so. My afro, mocha skin, thin frame, thick lips, tall stature, wide nose…I carry all that into the classroom. Proudly.

This is my positionality. I come from NorthEast where I pushed kids off slides, broke glass bottles over heads and pulled knives on uncles. Did I mention this was before age 7? I skipped gifted and talented because it bored me, but I was smart enough to fall in love with Langston Hughes and learn that life is not a crystal stair. I fought for position at school, on the street, in the house.

My knowledge is political. I understand content to the extent I’ve experienced it. I read and write and talk and write and laugh and think…that I will never get a handle on the interrelatedness of life. I cannot choose when to enact the parts of me that best fit the theory currently in question. I cannot ignore that I am a walking contradiction, an oxymoron of educated black or smart woman or eloquent southerner. All I know I live.

This is real to me. I make it real for them.

So yeah, my pedagogy is political.

The Lost Prong of Professorship: Why Isn’t Teaching Peer-Reviewed?

In recent months I’ve joined four Facebook groups for academics each with varying themes (e.g., education, women, professors of color, etc) and have noticed a common trend across the groups (many of which share members): conversations are dominated by discourse on research and mentorship.

I can’t say I am surprised as research is the ticket to tenure and mentorship is vital to success for communities of color in the Academy. As an education professor who considers herself a teacher-scholar equally as much as a scholar-teacher I am always on the lookout for an opportunity to discuss pedagogy. I would like to learn new teaching techniques, see what other people assign for readings in an intro education course, exchange ideas for teaching difficult topics such as class and race to students who’ve never thought critically about social issues. I want opportunities to get feedback on my syllabi, my instructional methods, my assessments, my classroom persona.  I want to feel like the effort I put into teaching hundreds of students a year is as valued as time spent writing a literature review read only by other academics in my field.

I’ve suggested as much at faculty meetings and have been met with warm reception. My colleagues agree that teaching is important—it is the most important thing we do (admittedly we work at a liberal arts college so this sampling of professors is biased). Professors whom I’ve met through social media or at conferences endorse teaching less strongly, but still consider it a primary bullet point in their job description. Yet when pushed, very few of them can explain how they approach writing course objectives, choosing readings or designing assessments. They can easily explain their grading scale and rubric, but have a harder time measuring student learning beyond summative assessments. Most update their syllabi every couple of years while some haven’t changed course texts in over a decade. Words and phrases I consider endemic to teaching (e.g., pedagogy, formative assessment, curriculum) are foreign to many, even those with over 20 years in the classroom.  While these veteran professors are full of wisdom and well tested teaching strategies, I am left thinking: how can we expect our courses to be purposeful when our teaching is incidental?

Most graduate programs provide little if any training to be a teacher. I’ve heard of some programs that require PhD candidates to take a semester long course on teaching which is better than what I received: nothing. Some professors manage to leave graduate school having never been a TA. This is especially true if you are at a Research I institution and/or in a field heavily reliant on external grants. I find it fascinating that we graduate PhDs with the intention of filling tenure track faculty roles (though this is becoming less common in our current economic condition), yet we provide them with no preparation.

Teaching is one of the three prongs of evaluation in tenure and promotion but there is little guidance not only on how to teach, but also on how to improve your teaching. Teaching, like research, requires critical examination of clearly identified variables situated within a theoretical framework. When I say as much to fellow academics, I am met with silence and sometimes scorn. How dare you co-opt research terminology and apply it to the common sense act of teaching!

The silence surrounding this conversation is troublesome to me both as an educator and as an education scholar. What we do in higher education—the research we produce—informs the development and revision of policies across disciplines. The trickle down effect, especially in education, is a powerful weapon we are not wielding well. We’ve seen this with the introduction of online learning; with the prevalence of for-profit institutions; with the replacement of qualified instructors with easy-to-get cheap labor; with the downgrade of professorship as a full-time profession to an ad-hoc side job to help make ends meet. We are not setting a good example for other social institutions and certainly not for our students.

If we as the knowledgeable party in the classroom, the person of political and cognitive authority, do not take seriously our teaching, why should students take seriously their learning? Education is a dialogical process dependent upon equal contribution from teachers and learners. When you don’t know how students learn, what on Earth can you possibly contribute to the learning process?

A [Professional] Love Letter to K-12 Teachers

I don’t know how you do it. When I was 19, I decided to become a middle school Language Arts teacher. My fondest memories of my K-12 schooling are from middle school. I recognize this is an anomaly as most people detested middle school (especially women). But I LOVED it. I was the queen bee. Well, I was the princess bee; my best friend was the queen. But suffice it to say I was at the top of the social hierarchy and that made my experience awesome.

I eventually decided against that career path solely for financial reasons. Even at the age of 19, I knew a teacher’s salary would not be sufficient to pay off my undergraduate loans. So I said to myself: self, how can I teach and make more money?  And it came to me. Be a college professor.

So I did. I am. And through my research in K-12 public schools, I have learned one very important fact: I greatly admire K-12 teachers.

This will probably be easiest to relay numerically. Here is a list of the reasons (in no particular order) why I am constantly in awe of teachers:

1)  K-12 teachers have no control over the curriculum. Public school curriculum is state mandated. Private college curriculum is professor decided. I love that I decide what content is important, what is less important, the order in which we address content, blah blah. It takes a knowledgeable person to make coherent sense of a state designed curriculum binder. I don’t think I’d have the patience.

2) K-12 teachers deal with a lot of student attitude. Students come to class with a lot of attitude. So many students don’t want to be there, but because it’s the law, they have to go to school. And because the state says so, they have to take particular classes. So they sit there, looking disinterested, doing off task things, and generally negatively affect the classroom climate. I find it extremely disrespectful when students sleep in class, are on their computers or cell phones in class, or are obviously inattentive. When any of these things occur, I ask students to leave. But K-12 teachers can’t do that (well, they aren’t encouraged to do that. And if they did, what good would that do?). So they must suffer the hurt and frustration of knowing they are not reaching every student, for reasons far beyond their control.

3) K-12 teachers have no say about who is in their class. It’s the first day. You see who shows up. You hope the students in the class are actually the same students listed on the roster. You pray the students are reading and writing at grade level. Ok, you will take just reading at grade level. On the contrary, private college professors have something called ‘Consent of Instructor’ which basically means, if I want to ensure my students have sufficient background knowledge in this content, I can designate my course COI so I have to give individual permission for every student to enroll. Of course this is after I review their transcript and conduct a brief informal interview. This is how I maintain control over….

4) K-12 teachers have no choice but to differentiate instruction. Because students come to school with highly variable prior educational experiences, their academic abilities are highly variable. K-12 teachers are forced to accommodate so many different ability levels, it boggles my mind. I have to do that when my courses don’t have prerequisites (which I immediately remedy) and it drives me crazy. Much respect to skilled teachers who can teach a class of 30 students functioning at 12 different levels across 6 domains.

5) K-12 teachers differentiate instruction with very little external resources. Any person who has gone through public school has experienced the short supply of well, everything. Not enough textbooks. Outdated textbooks. Not enough desks. Broken desks. The library doesn’t have enough books. There is no library. The computer lab is booked for the next year. There are only 3 computers in the school. The list goes on. Teachers dig in their shallow pockets to fund their career. They pay to copy, print, get materials for a special project. Teachers in low income schools often keep clothing and snacks in their classroom for students in need. Meanwhile, I take for granted that I can design a course around the fact that every student will need to purchase SPSS for their personal computer. And if they don’t, they either can’t enroll in my course or will have to use the very fancy computers found in almost every building on campus. And after you install this pricy software, make sure you start researching your final paper via the College’s extensive access to databases. And if we don’t have the article you want, just fill out an InterLibraryLoan request and you will have it within a few days. How do K-12 teachers teach with no resources? I am truly baffled. And impressed.

6) K-12 teachers can rarely track student growth over time. Students enter their classrooms for a semester or an academic year and then they leave. In good school districts with accurate records, teachers can—in all their spare time—review students’ files. But once they leave for the year, it’s very difficult to track their progress once they enter someone else’s class. I, on the other hand, log into our online platform, access students’ transcripts, and if necessary, email their prior professors to get a ‘sense’ of that student. When a student struggles academically, I can contact advisors, deans, and counselors at the stroke of a key. At my small college, I can follow my students through graduation to stay apprised of their progress. At the end of every course I am slightly saddened to be losing ‘my kids’. I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have a high chance of running into them in the cafeteria, seeing them at campus events, or of having them in class again. Kudos to K-12 teachers for the strength they must have to let go.

7) K-12 teachers have little opportunity to focus on skill development. In the current age of accountability, all teachers have time to do is focus on standardized test scores. There is so much riding on students’ scores (oftentimes teachers’ future employment status), that teachers are forced to shove more and more content down students’ throats—even when they may lack the academic skills necessary to comprehend that content. The bureaucracy affecting teachers’ every move is absurd. How can they do their jobs when their hands and feet are tied?

I could go on forever, but these are the ones that cross my mind almost every day. One of my favorite quotes is from David Berliner where he states: Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building–problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.

I feel this way when comparing what K-12 teachers do and what college professors do. Teachers work under conditions professors find intolerable. They face particular problems and must deal with issues that limit their effectiveness. Teachers are under appreciated, under valued, and under supported. They are the ones who occupy central positions in children’s lives, yet they are treated as peripheral bystanders.

Teachers deserve more autonomy, more trust, more choice, more resources, more respect, and certainly more pay. But most of all, teachers deserve more thanks.

Thank you for all you do.