Merit Based Rewards: Here & Hiding

It seems about time this blog be used for writing and sharing beyond links to recent articles & blog posts related to education reform.  Why now?  This week my attention has been turned towards the idea of merit pay thanks to Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address and a letter to the editor shared on Diane Ravitch’s blog here.  I also happen to be reading Diane’s latest book, Reign of Error for a local book study, and was assigned Chapter 12, “Why Merit Pay fails”, as my assignment for the week.

Of course, as an educator, I find the idea of merit pay insulting, and Ravitch affirms I’m not alone.  Merit pay assumes I don’t already give students 100% of my best effort 100% of the time.  Merit pay takes away from the collaborative environment I know is necessary for school and student success and a majority of the time merit pay relies solely on student test scores as an indicator of student and teacher success.

In her book, Ravitch also reminds us that merit pay is not a new idea and that it’s been tried, unsuccessfully, since the early 1900s.  She warns us that when teachers are offered merit pay, students who are more likely to help those teachers earn their bonus are given the most attention.  Perhaps most importantly of all, Ravitch points out that even if merit pay were to succeed,  it would still fail since the end result would be an education of lesser quality-an education with a narrow curriculum, emphasis on test scores, and attention given to students who will demonstrate the most growth.

It was no surprise then, to see this blog post about a group of A.P. teachers from Lee, Massachusetts on Ravitch’s blog.  In the post, she shares the letter to the Berkshire Eagle that the group of teachers wrote to explain why they chose to return merit pay received for participation in a grant program funded by the Gates Foundation.  Their reasons?

First of all, the teachers from Lee oppose merit pay because,  “the notion of “merit pay” suggests that high achieving students are more worthy of a teacher’s time and effort than average achieving students or those who struggle”.

Secondly, the teachers noted that, “It is faulty logic to assume that the efforts of one A.P. teacher were the only cause of high scores. Earlier teachers, parents, and community members all help contribute to the success of our students.”

In other words, the teachers in Lee believe in the promise of public education for all students and strive to recognize the efforts of all educators, parents, and community members in helping students find success.  These teachers understand that there is more to education than test scores, data, and money.

I was tickled pink to know that there are still some good folk out there and I loved that they found a way to diversify course offerings for students but do right by the grant money so that it could benefit all students.  They has turned lemons into lemonade!

Encouraged by the story, I shared it with my husband, who is also an educator and also participating in the Reign of Error book study.  He immediately gave me one of his sarcastic laughs.  The kind of laugh that left me pausing to wonder what he found so funny about the teachers’ solution.

And then I remembered.

A form of merit pay is alive and well in the very district in which he teaches.  Though I doubt a majority of the staff and nearly none of the community is aware of it, a handful of teachers are poised to receive compensation (albeit small compared to Cuomo’s promise of 20K) based on participation in a grant.

So how would we know?  Last spring my husband declined the offer to teach a new science course at his school, a course that the school was hoping to offer as part of the AP STEM Access Program.  There were a few reasons my husband felt that he wasn’t the right man for the job, but a major reason my husband declined the opportunity was because of the rewards offered to teachers.

Take even a quick look at the description and timeline of the AP STEM Access Program and you’ll note:

“All AP STEM teachers in the participating schools (not just the new AP STEM teachers), who increase diversity in their class, receive a DonorsChoose.org gift card for each student in the course who receives a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP Exam.”

We may be able to argue over semantics (merit pay vs. merit gift cards), but as I read the program description, it became clear to me that teachers will be rewarded based on the diversity and performance of their students.

Of course, like the teachers in Lee, Massachusetts, it’s important to note my husband’s colleagues who agreed to participate in the STEM Access Program are likely to have done so for a variety of reasons, and not simply for the lure of a gift card.  To suggest that teachers would participate in the program simply for a merit based reward would be an insult.  Taking part in the program would diversify course offerings, and I am certain that the participating STEM teachers are outstanding professionals that work hard to meet students’ needs.

I can’t help but wonder if these teachers (fortunate enough to be teaching in a low needs school district) even thought about the message they’d send to their students and colleagues by taking part in the program?  And I don’t just mean their colleagues down the hall or the colleagues that provided the fundamentals upon which their AP studies could be based.  What about their colleagues in the neighboring urban district that could truly use those gift cards to buy the most fundamental supplies for their classrooms?

Maybe these STEM teachers felt that they had to participate in new courses.  Perhaps they were directed to.  As I already stated, I’m certain their intentions were noble and with students’ best interests in mind.  I won’t find fault with with their participation or dedication to their craft.

I will, however, be watching to see what those teachers do with the DonorsChoose.org gift cards they receive this summer for every student that scores a 3, 4, or 5 on the AP Exams. I wonder if they will do what the teachers in Lee, Massachusetts did?

Reject governor Cuomo’s proposal of merit pay.  Sign this petition.  And by all means, keep your eyes and ears open.  Merit based rewards made on the backs of our students has already infiltrated our schools…. no thanks to my husband.

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Merit Based Rewards: Here & Hiding

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