|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons|
What could be more appealing than the idea that if you work hard, play by the rules, and generally excel at what you do, you will be rewarded with higher pay, status and power? This, of course, is known as meritocracy and it is something that most Americans believe prevails in this country. And why not, it seems perfectly fair and reasonable? People shouldn’t get ahead by cheating or because they know the right people or because they have the money and power to game the system.
Of course it is easier and more appealing to believe in meritocracy than to accept the reality that wealth begets more wealth and that few people ever transcend the socioeconomic status of their parents. The sad fact is that you can play by the rules, work your butt off, perhaps even kiss up to the boss, and still make little, if any, progress up the ranks in status or income.
Nevertheless, free market education reformers have been crying for years that the educational sky is falling, and that merit pay would encourage the competition necessary to make public education profitable, er successful. Thus, the Obama Administration has been giving away millions of dollars to school districts willing to implement this “reform.”
Los Angeles Unified has won the lion’s share of these grants in the form of a five-year, $49.2 million award from the Teacher Incentive Fund, a Department of Education program, to Daily News reports. The fund doled out a total of $290 million to 35 recipients in all. In addition to LAUSD, there were three L.A. area charter school networks that received federal funds for implementing merit pay schemes: Aspire Public Schools ($27.8 million), Green Dot ($11.7 million), and Alliance College-Ready Public Schools ($8.9 million).
As with meritocracies, in general, Merit Pay for teachers does not result in better societal or educational outcomes, nor does it ensure that the rewards go to the best teachers. For example, a mediocre teacher who happens to work in an affluent school may see large gains in her students’ standardized test scores through no fault of her own, while a superb teacher in a lower income school might work 80 hours per week, make home visits, offer weekend tutoring and still see declines in test scores. Consequently, a teacher could receive a merit bonus even though she did not work any harder or teach any better than her colleagues.
Aside from student test scores, which are nominally objective, teachers are still evaluated by their administrators, which is incredibly subjective and biased. Administrators tend to be poorly trained and lack the time to make sufficient and competent observations and evaluations of their teachers. Furthermore, administrators are often biased in favor of teachers who share their philosophies, experiences, goals and pet projects, which could lead to a more positive evaluation and merit raise for a mediocre teacher simply because he has kissed up to the principal, volunteered on the principal’s favorite committee or agreed to pilot one of her pet reforms.
Since there really is no accurate, consistent or reliable way to quantify teaching quality or to determine who deserves merit pay, teachers’ unions and school districts have, until recently, mutually agreed to contracts that pay teachers according to their years of teaching experience and additional education beyond their teaching credentials. This prevents districts from paying people more based on their gender, ethnicity or willingness to kiss up to their bosses.
In addition to creating an unfair and unaccountable system of rewards, the LAUSD grant will be used to encourage overwork and stress among teachers. Indeed, Superintendent John Deasy said the money will be used, in part, to ". . . develop teacher leaders without teachers having to leave the classroom, and principals can develop new leaders in their schools." In other words, some teachers will get bonuses for working additional hours beyond their normal school day to become “leaders,”—a code word which generally means shock troops for pushing other “reform” efforts.
Though they may get compensated monetarily for the extra work, they will not be compensated with extra time, which is what they will really need if they are to continue providing the best quality teaching for their students. Any extra responsibilities necessarily eat into the time teachers spend designing and preparing new lessons; meeting with parents, students and colleagues; attending meetings; and reading essays, lab reports and projects. Overwork does not necessarily translate into better teachers or students.