Coinciding with the release of the brilliant new horror flick*/education documentary Waiting for Superman, GreatSchools has proudly sponsored a debate between two teachers about a hugely controversial and deeply relevant topic in education reform:
Should great teachers earn more than mediocre ones?
Susie Siegel, an award-winning kindergarten teacher in San Francisco, and Robert Pondiscio, an education writer and former middle school teacher from the Bronx, each weigh in on the issue, drawing from their personal experiences and philosophical stances.
Ironically, though arguing opposing views, they both portray teachers as more motivated by altruism than materialism. Siegel admits to having enjoyed merit pay, then argues against it, while Pondiscio speculates that most teachers would give up half their paycheck if they could ensure their students' success.
Check out both sides of the debate, mull over your position, and cast your vote at the Waiting for Superman site.
Absolutely. All we need is to accurately define teacher quality and assess it. Neither is easy. Test scores? If we learned nothing else from the recent Los Angeles Times “value-added” controversy, it’s that there are serious problems with judging teachers by test scores alone.
Merit pay assumes mediocre teachers are sitting around saying, “Sure, I can do a better job. Throw me a few more shekels and maybe I will.” The media image of lousy schools staffed by lazy teachers doesn’t match my experience teaching in the South Bronx. Indeed, offer a Faustian pact where every child would achieve but teacher pay would be cut in half, and many teachers would sign up in a nanosecond.
Low-income children are hit the hardest. Find me a parent in Greenwich, Grosse Point, or Newport Beach who evaluates the quality of their child’s teacher based on test scores. For the children of the poor, however, reading at grade level has become the functional definition of what it means to be educated and the de facto standard of teacher quality. The danger cannot be overstated: We can’t set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.
In an ideal world, the teaching profession should be treated like other professions where those who perform better earn more, but until a definition of teacher quality can be created, it remains difficult to know what we’re paying them for.
- If merit pay is based on a teacher's evaluation, there is no unbiased way to measure a teacher's success. If an administrator doesn't like a specific teacher, then the performance review can reflect those biases. Conversely, if an evaluator likes the teacher, then their glowing evaluations may gloss over poor teaching.
- How would you measure all teachers' progress using kids' test scores? A sixth-grade English teacher’s work might arguably be measurable through test scores, but what about the sixth-grade health teacher or librarian? How would we evaluate the job of a kindergarten teacher whose students are not tested?
- Merit pay doesn't factor in how inequitable schools are. One school might have an involved parent population, thereby producing extremely high test scores. Another school might have little parent involvement, thereby producing low scores. Retaining veteran teachers at these schools is already difficult. Merit pay would perpetuate this cycle because teachers would know that if they teach at a “high-performing" school, they will be deemed successful.
Finally, I worry about what merit pay would do to the teaching profession. Would the beautiful idea of "it takes a village" turn into "everyone out for him-/herself?" Most important, would testing become teachers’ focus at the expense of the arts, athletics, and other life lessons so vital to nourishing the whole child?
*This new horror genre targets parents of public school children like Friday the 13th targets people afraid of scary things.